The full title of this article by Rebecca Rubin (Variety) is “‘In the Heights’: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu on the Hard Fight to Turn the Groundbreaking Musical into a Movie.” The musical is becoming a major summer film directed by Jon M. Chu. It will come out, both in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max, on June 11, 2021.
When Lin-Manuel Miranda was pitching his musical “In the Heights” nearly two decades ago, Broadway heavyweights stumbled over what he was selling. They wanted the young female protagonist Nina, who drops out of Stanford, to have a more dramatic reason for leaving school than the pressures of being the first in her family to go to college.
“I would get pitches from producers who only had ‘West Side Story’ in their cultural memory,” Miranda recalls. “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.” He pauses for a moment, not to entertain those queries but to consider their absurdity. “Because the pressure of leaving your neighborhood to go to school is fucking enough. I promise. And if it’s not dramatic enough, that’s on us to show you the fucking stakes.”
Miranda stood his ground. The show that he wanted to create emerged from his memories of growing up in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood and from the painful realization that Broadway roles for Latinos were limited. So he used hip-hop and salsa to pay homage to a close-knit community of immigrants and strivers, bodegas and block parties, friends who feel like family and families that deal with the tensions of trying to make it in the greatest city in the world. “In the Heights” would eventually open on Broadway in 2008, winning four Tonys and launching Miranda’s career.
Now, that musical is becoming a major summer film directed by Jon M. Chu. The Warner Bros. movie is finally coming out, both in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max, on June 11. Even after a year’s delay due to the pandemic, the timing couldn’t be better.
And that’s not just because Miranda no longer has to fight to reflect the experiences that have since resonated with countless college students who have felt like Nina. “Because of the specificity of that struggle, I can’t tell you how many people have made it their business to tell me how much it means to them,” Miranda says.
After a hellish year in which audiences have been stuck at home and unable to hug loved ones, “In the Heights” serves as a joyous snapshot of the life we lost and have been longing to resume. It’s a music-infused love letter to a unique corner of New York City, as well as an unabashed celebration of community and what it means to dream outside the lines. The characters have an uninhibited zest for life, dancing in the streets, across fire escapes and through city parks.
“This is a vaccine for your soul,” says Chu.
But getting to this point wasn’t easy. “In the Heights,” a movie that Miranda had been trying to make since Obama was elected president, overcame many hurdles and headaches, and was nearly left for dead while its creator struggled to find the right partners to help him realize his vision.
As a studio movie, “In the Heights” feels revolutionary precisely because its characters aren’t. The story centers on Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner who’s working to save enough money to return home to the Dominican Republic. He’s orbited by an ensemble of vibrant personalities: his childhood friend Nina (Leslie Grace), who “made it out” but fears she will let down her immigrant father as she struggles at school. There’s Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher employed by the car service owned by Nina’s dad, and one of the only non-Latino characters. And Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Usnavi’s long-time crush, who dreams of becoming a fashion designer and moving downtown. As in the stage version, their conflicts are grounded in reality and don’t rely on Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayals of Latinos as gang members or drug dealers.
In that respect, the arrival of “In the Heights” is even more significant. In another era, it might have been marketed as a niche movie rather than a four-quadrant blockbuster. But in the 13 years that it’s taken for the film to get made, Hollywood has undergone a racial reckoning, one that’s challenged long-held ideas about who deserves to be at the center of the frame. It’s a conversation that Miranda and Chu have helped spur — Miranda with his other hit show “Hamilton,” a once-in-a-generation musical sensation that reimagines the Founding Fathers as a multiracial quartet of freestyling revolutionaries, and Chu with “Crazy Rich Asians,” a romantic comedy that explodes old prejudices about viewers’ willingness to see a meet-cute with Asian stars. [. . .]
[Photographs by Frank Ockenfels 3.]