In 2008, long before audiences had ever even imagined the hip-hop refrains of Hamilton, a musical named In the Heights premiered on New York’s Broadway.
The cast was diverse, their stories universal and the music instantly catchy — a winning trifecta that earned In the Heights four Tony Awards and put Lin-Manuel Miranda firmly on the map. Now, the beloved Broadway show is set to be one of the biggest releases of 2021 (after being delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
In the Heights is both culturally iconic and, in typically Miranda style, socially prescient. What makes the playwright and performer’s work so refreshing — and popular — is that he doesn’t embrace diversity to simply check a box, he does so because it is genuinely the way of his world. Miranda is not on a mission to “normalise” diverse stories nor is their relevance up for debate, rather, they simply are the norm and his work is a statement that supports that irrefutable fact.
Even so, it’s been a long 13 years to take the story of bodega owner Usnavi (played by Anthony Ramos) and his community of dreamers in Washington Heights from the stage to the screen. Perhaps though, the scheduled July 11 premiere date is the perfect time as the world catches up to what Miranda has known all along: that Latinx stories deserve to be told and that the people who inhabit them deserve to be fully fleshed out characters instead of relegated to being portrayed as drug dealers and dropouts.
Miranda recalls that one of the roadblocks he faced in getting the film greenlit was an initial insistence from studios that a “bankable” Latinx celebrity — such as Jennifer Lopez or Shakira — star in it.
“It very quickly became if you don’t have X, you’re not getting the money to make the movie,” Miranda told Variety.
“The sentence that rings in my ears from that era is ‘There’s not a lot of Latino stars who test international.’ ‘Test international’ means ‘We’re not taking a chance on an expensive movie with Latino stars.’”
As frustrating as the pushback was, it did convince Miranda that he needed a vacation, and to take a certain Ron Chernow written biography about a certain US Secretary of the Treasury, so there was at least one silver lining to the situation. Naturally, the global success of Hamilton had the knock-on effect of inciting renewed interest in In the Heights but the obstacles were far from over.
The Weinstein Company were originally attached to produce the film, but after Harvey Weinstein was accused (and later convicted) of multiple counts of sexual assault and misconduct the filmmakers regained control of the project and began shopping it around elsewhere, finally striking a deal with Warner Bros.
Given that so much time had passed since the original show was written, the next task was to discern which lines had not aged well and replaced them with ones more pertinent to the current times. Miranda and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes decided to add references to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that was threatened under Donald Trump’s administration and remove a rap reference to the former president himself.
“When I wrote it,” Miranda told Variety, “He (Trump) was an avatar for the Monopoly man. He was just, like, a famous rich person. Then when time moves on and he becomes the stain on American democracy, you change the lyric. Time made a fool of that lyric, and so we changed it.”
Directed by Crazy Rich Asians helmer John Chu, In the Heights was finally about to see the light of day when the world’s theatres went dark.
Of course, it was disappointing — both for Miranda and for the legions of fans who had been anxiously waiting to see the film — but perhaps it was quite fitting for a story that almost never saw the light of day, to begin with.
Looking back on his struggles to get the original In the Heights production mounted, Miranda recounted the difficulty of getting producers to see the relatability of Nina (played by Leslie Grace in the film) who drops out of Stanford College due to the financial pressures of attending.
“I would get pitches from producers who only had West Side Story in their cultural memory,” he told the publication.
“Like, ‘Why isn’t she pregnant? Why isn’t she in a gang? Why isn’t she coming out of an abusive relationship at Stanford?’ Those are all actual things I was pitched.”
Miranda was adamant that Nina’s motivation for leaving was valid and realistic— after all, the musical was inspired by his own upbringing in New York City’s Washington Heights. Thankfully, he stood his ground proving then, just as he is about to prove once more, that good things are worth waiting for.
In the Heights will be in cinemas from June 24.