He talked about the evolution of the project, filming in Washington Heights and how Bossip writes the best headlines on the internet.
Check out the interview below.
BOSSIP’s Sr. Content Director Janeé Bolden asked Lin-Manuel Miranda about making emotionally driven projects that evoke both laughter and tears for audiences across the globe. After asking how it feels to be responsible for the joy and tears of so many people, here’s what he said:
The joy is the goal of course,” Miranda told BOSSIP. “It’s so interesting. I had the idea for this when I was 19-years-old. This idea is old enough to drink. I really started writing it because I was in college. I wanted a life in musical theater. I didn’t dance well enough to play Bernardo or the Puerto Rican guy in ‘Chorus Line’ and that’s all we get in the canon. That’s all that exists. So I really had this moment of ‘No one is going to write your dream show.’ Like you have to just start writing it. I was so lucky to find Quiara [ co-writer Quiara Alegría Hudes] in 2004. She started writing it with me and it’s amazing to see time kind of catch up with our show. When we opened in 2008 Latino representation was so nonexistent. There just weren’t narratives with Latinos at the center that didn’t also have crime and drugs. Even in the good reviews of our play opening on Broadway there was like, ‘Well it’s an airbrushed version of Washington Heights,’ or ‘Well it’s a Sesame Street version of Washington Heights.’ That’s white critics telling Latino people who live in the neighborhood. They were just so unaccustomed to seeing us write about ourselves with joy. I think we’ve had lots of conversations about that in the culture in the many years since and I think that people are ready for us to portray ourselves with joy. And put ourselves at the center of the narrative.”
Miranda also spoke about how producing ‘In The Heights’ pre-pandemic has made the experience all the more striking.
“And also it’s made double for me by the fact that this was filmed in 2019. So it’s like ‘Oh sh*t! Remember playing Dominoes in the street? Remember hugging your friends? Remember singing and kissing? All of that stuff is more poignant now because it’s been taking away from us with this Thanos snap we’ve had for the past year and a half.”
Miranda spoke about the evolution of “In The Heights,” from Broadway play to motion picture — noting that in some ways turning the show into a film was easier.
“There’s challenges that are made easier by doing it on film. When you’re making a Broadway show we have to figure out what is the set that evokes this entire neighborhood. We created this George Washington Bridge landscape that is not everyone’s view but it’s a beautiful metaphor for the characters, and figured out what are the businesses that are on this block, and on film we can just go there. One of the things that was so important to Jon [Chu] our director and us was that you have to film this on location. You can not build the way these pre-war buildings wrap around a mountain, because we’re at the highest point in Manhattan. The buildings are curved in a way they aren’t anywhere else in New York because of the landscape and you can’t build that sh*t in Vancouver. Step 1 was committing to filming on location. Step 2 was being a good neighbor once we got here. Casting extras locally, getting costume elements and catering locally. Bringing business to the neighborhood while we were there. I remember I went to the first open call for casting and it was at a church on 178th street and I went with Quiara and I said, ‘We’re going to f*** up your parking for a month and I’m so sorry but if we do this right your block lives forever!’ I’m really aware of that too because the West Side of ‘West Side Story’ doesn’t exist anymore. The East Village of Jonathan Larson’s ‘Rent’ doesn’ exist anymore. So the fact that we can actually get this and get the essence of the neighborhood itself is so important.”
‘In The Heights’ is a film that tells the story of a neighborhood and several of its residents. Miranda and his writing partner Quiara Alegría Hudes include plot points that touch on important social issues like gentrification and immigration. Miranda said he never thinks about his art as being political but pointed out that life makes it impossible to avoid finding ourselves on one side or the other when it comes to certain issues.
“I never think of it as inherently political but life is political if you are a person living inside a system. In the stage version, gentrification was this thing that was happening for real, for real in the neighborhood and one of the things we were determined to do was not make the mustache twirling villain who was like, ‘I’ll turn all of your small businesses into a CVS!’ Some people go along. At the end of the show, Kevin has sacrificed his business so his daughter can go to school. The salon ladies have moved to the Bronx because that’s the way the business can survive, so Usnavi says ‘F*** it. I’m staying. This neighborhood is going to be different if I don’t stay and tell the stories of this neighborhood.’ Quiara in her very brilliant update of her own story there’s already like the rich dry cleaner on the street. They’re a step further into gentrification. There’s a place where they’ll hand wash your clothes but it’s $9 a napkin. Another thing Quiara did was have one of our major characters struggling with their undocumented immigration status. Again, that’s the front page conversation for Latinos in the United States right now and the discourse around it has gotten so much more toxic since 2008. To have this character struggle with this, you can’t “other-ize” it. It’s like ‘OH, that person is dealing with it.’ You can’t think of it like ‘these other people’ or ‘this issue’. That’s what art can do. When you walk a mile in someone’s shoes and you’ve felt that struggle you can’t look at it the same way anymore.”
Some of the most touching parts of ‘In The Heights’ are when the characters talk about and pursue their goals and dreams. We asked Manuel which of his dreams have been realized and what goals he hopes to achieve in the future.
“When you grow up and Jonathan Larson is your hero — Jonathan Larson was the writer of “Rent” and he passed away tragically before the first preview of “Rent” on Broadway, and that story got to me so hard I spent my whole 20’s like ‘Please don’t let me die before this thing hits the stage,” Manuel confessed. “Like truly I was so superstitious. I would make these gallows humor jokes like, ‘if I get to opening night!’ The urgency of this enormous show, that only exists in a few people’s heads, and getting it on the stage, that was the dream forever. That was the dream for most of my twenties. There’s YouTube footage of opening night of “In The Heights” where at one point I just scream, ‘Ay Mama, what do you do when your dreams come true?’ Which is how I felt in that moment. ‘Well now what happens?’”
Manuel also spoke about how “In The Heights” has created opportunities for Latinos on the stage and large and small screens. He revealed that in 2009 movie execs told him they couldn’t make his projects because there were no Latino movie stars. That’s certainly no longer the case.
One thing I didn’t anticipate was that “In The Heights” would create this lane for other LatinX performers. It’s helped so many LatinX performers get their equity card. Those tours, those first class productions and those school productions and the sense of community it creates every time it’s performed is really overwhelming to me. Because I felt like a Nina growing up. I was really closer to a Nina than Usnavi growing up. I was someone who was codeswitching in between communities and was like, ‘What is the community I can call my own?’ In writing “In The Heights” I was able to create that. The only bucket list thing I was able to accomplish with this movie is hopefully creating a world in which Leslie Grace opens a movie and Anthony Ramos stars in a new ‘Transformers’ movie. It’s creating a lane of Latino stars so I’m never told again, ‘Well we can’t make your movie because there are no Latino movie stars,’ which is what happened in 2009, is I always wanted to write a song for Marc Anthony and I got to do that on the closing credits of this. He’s our Sinatra. That is THE VOICE, if you’re a Puerto Rican kid of any age. So the fact that I got to write a hook for him to sing was like, ‘I think my bucket list is done.’
Manuel is a Grammy, Emmy and Tony winner so we had to ask if he has his eyes on the final EGOT prize — the Oscar. But he’s keeping surprisingly cool about it for now.
“The moment you chase it, it’s gone,” Manuel said.
‘In The Heights’ is in theaters and on HBO Max now!