‘In the Heights’ finally arrives in technicolor multiculturalism

The cast of the film version of "In the Heights," the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical that is finally arriving in theaters.
Caption
The cast of the film version of "In the Heights," the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical that is finally arriving in theaters.

Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda talks about the journey of the film from its stage origin.

Lin-Manuel Miranda loves words.

Writing them, rapping them, singing them, rhyming them.

The millions who have witnessed his genius manipulation of vocabulary in “Hamilton” — whether on Broadway, in numerous touring productions (the show returns to Atlanta Aug. 22) or last summer’s pandemic-friendly drop on Disney+ — recognize his gift.

On June 10, Miranda’s musical “In the Heights” arrives after a breathless journey that included an off-Broadway tryout; a 2008-11 Tony-winning Broadway run; discussions about a film beginning in 2008; changes in distribution rights; filming in 2019; planned release for August 2020; and, following that COVID-19-related delay, a simultaneous release this week in theaters and on HBO Max, where it will stream for one month.

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Set in the primarily Dominican neighborhood of Miranda’s native Washington Heights in New York City, the film — like the stage production — is a fizzy celebration of culture, a heartfelt love letter to families both born into and chosen, and, at its root, a story about dreams.

Lin-Manuel Miranda as the "Piragua Guy" in "In the Heights."
Caption
Lin-Manuel Miranda as the "Piragua Guy" in "In the Heights."

Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

In the original production, Miranda portrayed lead character Usnavi de la Vega, a young bodega owner in Washington Heights. But given the numerous delays to shuttle the production from stage to screen, Miranda aged out of the role, now inhabited by the soulful Anthony Ramos (of the original Broadway “Hamilton” cast).

The instantly recognizable Miranda might not be part of splashy musical numbers such as “96,000” and “Carnaval del Barrio,” but he was talked into an appearance as the Piragua Guy, pushing his cart full of the shaved-ice treats native to Puerto Rico (keep an eye out for a cute cameo by Christopher Jackson, another “In the Heights” stage alum).

Miranda produced the film, along with Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the book of the musical with Miranda. Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) directed a multi-cultural cast that includes Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz (who stars as Abuela Claudia in the role she originated on Broadway), Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Stephanie Beatriz, Jimmy Smits, Dascha Polanco and, in a small but pivotal role, Puerto Rican superstar Marc Anthony.

ExploreAJC Podcast: Lin-Manuel Miranda talks about ‘In the Heights’
The cast of the musical "In the Heights," which opens in theaters and arrives on HBO Max June 10, 2021.
Caption
The cast of the musical "In the Heights," which opens in theaters and arrives on HBO Max June 10, 2021.

Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

In conversation, Miranda, 41, is as garrulous as his work in a thoughtful, friendly way. On this day, he’s clad in a simple black T-shirt, earbuds in place to converse via the Zoom calls that have become a necessary byproduct of out-of-town interviews. The room is empty except for a copy of the “In the Heights: Finding Home” book (out June 15) strategically angled on a table behind him.

And, in excited tones that convey the relentless passion he possesses for work, Miranda had this to say about …

…The journey of the film:

“I think I feel the same way I feel about the movie as I do about my neighborhood because I still live in my neighborhood. I live 20 blocks from where I grew up. I live even closer to where my wife grew up. When you live in the place where you grew up, there’s layers to every block. I walk by the place when I was 7 years old and took piano lessons on my way to the train station. I can walk 15 blocks north and find the rock next to The Cloisters where I used to write terrible adolescent poetry about how no one feels the way I feel (laughs). When I watch the movie, it’s with a double vision … It’s like my feelings about the neighborhood and my feelings about this show I’ve spent so long on, on top of each other.

Director Jon M. Chu (left) and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda on the set of "In the Heights."
Caption
Director Jon M. Chu (left) and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda on the set of "In the Heights."

Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

…Being in the film:

“I almost wasn’t almost in it. I really felt pretty strongly like this is Jon’s thing and this is the company Jon created and they deserve to have their own experience. But Quiara and Jon were the ones who were like, no, you have to be in it. Quiara tricked me, kind of. She said, ‘I think the studio might want to cut the ‘Piragua’ (song), but I have one idea how we could keep in the movie.’ And I said, ‘What’s tha…ohhhh!’ I didn’t really have a way into (the role) except for the fact that my grandfather died the week after ‘In the Heights’ opened on Broadway. It was the heartbreaking counterweight to this very surreal year of my life and I was so grateful he saw a very early preview. He was my closest friend in my family and I just made the Piragua Guy a love letter to my grandfather. I’m wearing his glasses around my neck. I got his weird, dime-store cowboy novels that I’m reading (at the start of the scene). I’m wearing my socks too high like he always did. And it was really fun and emotional to show the movie to my family in Puerto Rico. First, they all died laughing because I’m basically cosplaying as my grandfather in this major Hollywood movie — and now he’s in it forever.”

…Casting Marc Anthony in the film (as Mr. de la Vega):

“It was a bucket list dream of mine to write anything for Marc Anthony to sing, full stop. He is our Sinatra. To write a song for him is to have made it. If you’re Puerto Rican, forget it. Like Sinatra, Marc is also an incredible actor. He was so good in ‘Bringing Out the Dead.’ He walks off with ‘Big Night’ even though he doesn’t say a word. He’s amazing in ‘El Cantante.’ I thought this would be an amazing way to also see him in a new light. Quiara very smartly updated this movie to include the very present immigration debate in a very real way. One of our characters is undocumented and struggling with that and to put Marc Anthony in the middle of that and to humanize it, I think, is the best thing we could do for the debate at this moment. I’m really grateful he said yes and then he sings on the closing credits (‘Home All Summer’), so I got my bucket list wish that I wrote my thing and Marc Anthony sang it.”

MOVIE PREVIEW

“In the Heights”

Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins and Jimmy Smits. Directed by Jon M. Chu.

Rated PG-13 for suggestive references, some language. One hour, 23 minutes.

Opens June 10 at metro theaters and streams on HBO Max (for one month).

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