When you started In the Heights as a 19-year-old, what was your biggest dream for the show?
Oh, that the kids at my school would like it! Honestly, I wanted to write something full-length. I was living at the time in a house called La Casa, which was the Latino community leader programme house, a really nice house on Washington Street. You had to write an essay to get in. It was my first time living with other kids like me, who were grown-up first-generation – with parents who grew up speaking Spanish, and then they grew up speaking a mix of English and Spanish. I think that that really informed me bringing more of myself to my work. I had written one-act musicals. They all sounded like Jonathan Larson knockoffs, because I worshiped Jonathan Larson. This was the first time I really tried to bring the Latin music I loved, the hip hop music I loved into the stuff I was writing. And I think that impulse is really the thing – more than any particular note or character storyline – is what survives into the movie version. You see this impulse that we can bring all of ourselves into our work.
Why Jon M Chu to direct it?
Jon Chu, because he was the director we met who felt the most like us when we were first making the thing. Jon’s first-generation, just like Quiara [Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for the musical] and I. He grew up in a small business, while his dad was making his restaurant. And his dad had to make miracles happen so that Jon could go and say, “I want to make movies with a camera.” I mean, that’s like saying, “I want to go to Mars,” when your parents came here from somewhere else and had to learn the language. So he understood Nina struggling at a molecular level. He understood that struggle – of what is our responsibility as the inheritors of sacrifice and legacy going forward. He just understood that immigrant experience on several levels, because it was a lived experience for him.
You and Quiara Alegría Hudes had the task of basically breaking your baby up and then rebuilding it.
I have to give Quiara a lion’s share of the credit. She broke the baby first. It’s her screenplay. She made a lot of tough but smart decisions that lose none of the issues or themes that we talked about in the show, but updated them smartly. Like the fact that one of our characters is struggling with his immigration status, I think is so smart… and so smart for the conversation that’s happening around that right now. Because to now have a character struggling with that – you can’t leave this movie and be like “They’re the other.” Now, you know someone. And you know someone you love in our movie who is struggling with those issues. I think this is a very musical theatre answer, but we were aiming for a Cabaret-level translation, right? It’s so different from the stage show, but it’s in concentrated form, the film version of the spirit of that show. I love [the characters of] Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider. I love going to see them every time I see the stage version of Cabaret. They’re not in the movie. That’s okay. But we didn’t eliminate them from the world. I go see them when I go see a live show. And that’s how I feel about the changes to In the Heights. The show exists. It’s going to get done in every high school forever, God willing. You could always revisit it. But this was our attempt at making the best movie possible, and that required a lot of changes.
This is your neighborhood. You filmed a show about your neighborhood in this neighborhood. What did that feel like?
It’s hard to talk about without crying, to be honest, because even when you’re doing the stage show, you’re just hoping to represent your show in a way that makes your neighborhood proud. I think of the night that the Tonys were [being watched] at Coogan’s Restaurant on 168th street, because In the Heights was up for Best Music. I didn’t cry until I saw my friend, who was at Coogan’s, filming everyone watching and seeing how they got behind the show. Then, to actually go film in the neighborhood… “Well, this is the song I wrote when [my wife] Vanessa and I started dating, and we walked through J Hood Wright Park together on that second or third date. And now, here’s Benny and Nina, walking through J Hood Wright Park as they sing this song.” I’ll never forget bringing Vanessa to the rehearsals for the film. We live a few blocks away, and I was like, “Honey, I know you’re working, but you have to get over here.” And she came and saw where [Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace as Benny and Nina] were dancing and she said, “That’s my grandmother’s building. My grandmother’s building is going to be in the movie?” So, it’s this whole other level to actually film those numbers in the places where we’ve lived all our lives and so many layers of our lives are.
It must be a living memory book for you. Like hearing Doreen Montalvo, who sings Para Siempre, Abuela Claudia’s favorite song. [NOTE: Montalvo passed away a few months after filming wrapped.]
Doreen, of course, was unintentionally poignant, and I’m so grateful we put her in. We just couldn’t picture anyone else singing that part. Doreen was the first actor who auditioned for that first production of In the Heights in the basement of the drama bookshop – a casting announcement from Backhouse Productions in [trade publication] Backstage. And her voice knocked us out. She was in every version of In the Heights from there on out, including the movie. I don’t know if I want to spoil some of the Easter eggs. There’s a framed picture of Priscilla Lopez [who played Nina’s mother on Broadway] in the apartment, during Nina’s song Breathe. And then of course, my parents [who also appear during Breathe]. Anthony Ramos’ mother is in the movie more than I am! His sister is dancing in that opening crew. It was like a family affair. The neighborhood went above and beyond in terms of accommodating us. We cast locally, we ate locally. We tried to be good neighbors while we were making this movie. I think that shows in the final film.
I know that filming Carnaval del Barrio was an amazing accomplishment. Can you talk a little about that?
Listen, it was all in one day, because we had to fight for that song’s existence. If you are a bean counter, it doesn’t make sense to film that number. There’s no big action that happens in that number. It is a check-in with the cast but, in a way, it’s what the whole musical is about: do we despair, or do we rally when faced with hardship? So we had a day to film it from sun-up to sundown. My character was mercifully placed on a fire escape, so I did not have to learn the complicated choreography that the rest of the cast did. And I got to sit and witness it from this incredible perch. I’ll tell you another detail, which was so crazy. We were going as fast as we could. We never actually recorded Anthony’s side of the harmonies. So as we were filming it, I am singing my part as the piragua guy now, on the other side of time. And Anthony is lip-syncing to 28-year-old me, because that’s the vocal that was in the playback. We didn’t get his vocal until we recorded it live later. So I’m literally duetting with Anthony, who’s playing my old part, but I’m duetting with an 11 years’ younger version of myself. Just the layers of surreal… And then, when we got it, kind of no one stopped dancing, no one stopped singing, because we actually did it. Everyone had their flags in their hands, and they looked up at me and started chanting [Lin! Lin!]. I’m a mess. And I see Quiara is a mess by the monitors. It was that feeling of, “We did it and it will exist forever,” which is not a feeling you get onstage all the time. It’s a different thing. So I will never watch that number without thinking of that day.
The film represents a cap to an absolutely unbelievable journey for you. How does that feel?
So surreal. Again, hard to talk about without crying. In the Heights is older than my kids. It’s older than my marriage. If it were a person, it could drink, legally, in the United States. I lived through so many iterations. In many ways, I learned how to write while writing it. It was my graduate theatre programme, working with Quiara and taking this thing that I made in college that was not very good and making it into the show that ultimately opened on Broadway. And the fact that the journey is still happening. The fact that right now, Anthony Ramos is doing interviews about this, and Leslie Grace gets her movie debut with this. The inadvertent side effect of just trying to create a lane for myself is that the lane is wide enough for a lot of other incredibly talented people to find community, to find roles to sink their teeth into, in the show and now in the movie.
How do you hope that this will change the story of representation, for the next filmmaker who comes along and pitches a film for the Latinx community by the Latinx community?
It’s that thing of “You can’t see it if it doesn’t exist,” right? I remember the original reviews of In the Heights when it opened on Broadway. They were positive reviews. They were certainly good enough to keep us running for a while, but there was so little positive representation of Latinos in mainstream media. The fact that we were portraying stories without crime or drugs at the centre got us labelled with, “Well, it’s airbrushed. Well, it’s Sesame Street.” I’m quoting Times and Post reviews here. It betrays the bias of, if you only ever see us on the 11 o’clock news, how on Earth..? Of course, that’s how you feel. But, when you have two Latino writers writing about their community with love, that’s what happens. We centred joy, we centred love and we centred the feeling of the block on a hot summer day. I think that resonates with a lot of people. And it’s doubly poignant now, because we haven’t been able to gather in-person for a year-and-a-half. You’re watching this pre-pandemic film, people hugging and kissing in the streets, swimming in a pool together… just the everyday things that have been taken from us. So that joy is only more concentrated, because it represents a normal that we hope to get back to someday soon.
What one food or smell zaps you back to your childhood with your family?
It’s pretty simply rice and beans. Arroz con gandules. The most texts I get from Latino people who have seen early screenings are “How dare you with that dinner?” Because the food porn on display, when you see the steam coming off of Abuela’s ropa vieja… I mean, it’s just… That’s where Jon really brought the Crazy Rich Asians style, like “here is some food porn for you.” It looks so good in the movie.