‘In the Heights’: Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes on Trump, DACA and Putting a Fresh Spin on the Beloved Musical

When Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing the music and lyrics for “In the Heights” in the mid 2000s, he tended to address story notes from producers in the only way he knew how: by adding more songs.

It sounds great, in theory, but stage productions can only fit so many numbers in a two-act show before it starts to feel overstuffed. So Miranda and the musical’s director, Thomas Kail, who later worked on “Hamilton,” set out to find playwrights to help structure the upbeat story about a lively neighborhood in Manhattan.

Eventually, they found their secret weapon in Quiara Alegría Hudes, who, like Miranda, is Puerto Rican and shares a passion for community, music, storytelling — and coquito.

Four years after Hudes joined the creative team, “In the Heights” opened on Broadway in 2008 to rave reviews. One of the show’s 14 Tony Award nominations went to her book of the musical, which was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

She remained close friends with Miranda, with whom she worked for over a decade to bring the musical to the screen. The film, directed by Jon M. Chu, is finally coming out both in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max on June 11.

“I believe this is medicine for a lot of us right now,” Hudes says. “I miss my family so much, I miss being outside in New York so much and remembering what it’s like to be in a community.”

In writing the screenplay, Hudes relished in the opportunity to revisit the habitants of the vibrant, mostly Latino neighborhood of New York’s Washington Heights that provides the beating heart of the show and subsequent film. That includes Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the owner of the local bodega; Nina (Leslie Grace), Usnavi’s childhood friend who returns home after her first year at Stanford; Benny, who works at the car service owned by Nina’s dad; and Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the community’s beloved matriarch.

For Variety’s cover story on “In the Heights,” Hudes sat down to discuss working with Miranda and Chu, as well as bringing the hit musical to new audiences.

What’s the key to adapting a musical for the screen?

For me, creatively, it was important to capture the heart and spirit of the piece — that celebration of Latino joy. Not only did it connect with Latino communities, but with international communities of all stripes and all walks of life. We had to keep that in tact, it’s really special. But I had spent so much of my life with “In the Heights” at that point. For my own selfish purposes, I didn’t want the script to be the same. And I didn’t want to spit the play onto the screen. I thought that would be boring and predictable. You want them to be two different experiences, so that fans of one can experience the other.

Was it exciting to expand the story beyond the confines of the stage?

In the movie, you can go anywhere. These characters have migration stories. They have immigration stories. They’re a street corner in Washington Heights, but they’re smelling the salt air of the beach down the street in the Dominican Republic. So why not go there? I really wanted to show the places these characters consider home, not just the two storefronts in Washington Heights.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of “In The Heights” performing at the Tony Awards in 2008.
AP

How would you describe Jon as a director?

I don’t know how he has the energy, but he lives fully and wholly within his own vision. By the same token, he’s absolutely able to enable everyone there to bring their [own] vision. He doesn’t seem like a control freak, but you realize at the end of the shoot, the thing he described to me a year before we shot was exactly what we got. And yet, he just says “yes” to costume designers, actors, me. It was an incredible master class, really, on leadership. I’ve never met a leader like him in my life.

As someone who has known Lin for years, was it hard for him to relinquish control of his first show?

No, Lin is good at that too. When you are working with him, he gets you to rise to your best self. He expects that and lifts you up. Lin was thrilled to pass off that creative world to someone else. He had been living with it for so damn long. He was like, “Breathe new life into this. Elevate it.”

How did you decide which characters and songs to cut?

It was a hard decision because all of the characters are beloved. One of the things I found watching it on Broadway over the years is everyone has their own favorite character. You could ask 10 different people who “In the Heights” is about, and they would say different things. I made the decision to cut Nina’s mom, not because I don’t like the character, but we really wanted to push the idea of Usnavi and Nina as they grew up together, they come up together and they’re taking different paths. Her path is to leave the community, and his path is to stay in the community. What does that mean to them and the community? I thought, if Nina is being raised by a parent alone, the stakes of her decisions [to leave Stanford] become higher. The stakes of the fight get clearer and more distilled.

How else did the character of Nina evolve in the movie?

I tried to take it even deeper. I was a first-generation college student. College is a new experience for everyone, but I really didn’t know what to expect. Culturally, it was really different than anything I had ever experienced. Socio-economically, I had never been to such a rich place in my life. It was shocking to me. There is so much in Nina that comes from my own experience. But I wanted to take that even further. I spoke to a lot of first generation Latina college students, who talked about colorism in those institutions and their experiences being singled out. I’m a light-skinned Latina, so I was never singled out visually. I want to tell that story about what it’s like to be called the wait-staff at a Stanford event when you’re a student. A lot of people denied that could be true from the Broadway show. People said, “Those places are very inclusive” — which, no, no. I think people have become more hip to what a microaggression is and how it can be tremendously isolating when they add up. A lot of people said, “Nobody has financial trouble. These intuitions give all the financial aid needed.” No. Trust me, I know from my experience, which has been confirmed by other responses, the financial struggle is severe for so many of those kids. That was a plot line I was really passionate about digging in deeper.

Was it important to also update the script with timely references to DACA?

I felt like, why try to make “In the Heights” stuck in 2008, when it opened on Broadway? Why shouldn’t it be set in the present? When I was writing, it was extremely painful to see things like family separation happening. These matters affect our community in political, emotional and spiritual ways. I was like, I’m going there.

What was the hardest song to ax?

“Hundreds of Stories,” which Abuela Claudia and Usnavi sing. It’s a beautiful song. That one hurt to cut, but it didn’t make sense anymore with some of the story alterations.

It just meant you had to give the explanation behind Usnavi’s name elsewhere.

Exactly. That line was high pressure. It’s such a funny joke in the lyrics. (Editor’s note: In the song, Abuela Claudia tells Usnavi, “Remember the story of your name… it was engraved on a passing ship on the day your family came. Your father said ‘Usnavi,’ that’s what we’ll name the baby.” Usnavi reminds her: “It really said ‘U.S. Navy,’ but hey… I worked with what they gave me, OK.”) Every night on Broadway, that line played and 2,000 people laughed. I was like, “Now I have to put this in my script, and I feel so exposed and nervous as a writer.” It was the last rewrite I did. I had nowhere to put it. I was very nervous because there was no way I could write dialogue that funny. We were getting ready to go to the beach with the kids and I was like, oh duh, he tells the kids! It seemed so obvious when I had the idea.

Some of the lyrics were changed as well. One instance was in “96,000,” in which the character Benny name-checks Tiger Woods instead of the show’s original reference to Donald Trump.

When that lyric was written, it was in a teasing way because of what Donald Trump represented in that time. It got to a point where teasing didn’t quite cover it. There was so much harm and damage done to the communities that we were trying to uplift in this movie. In the spirit of the movie, his name doesn’t have a place in a teasing way.

What does it mean to see “In the Heights” made into a big summer blockbuster?

I’m so glad that Jon Chu directed this movie. What he did for it cinematically is exhilarating. I find it utterly thrilling. Even someone like Lin, with one of the most impressive imaginations on planet Earth — our imaginations are sometimes limited by what we’ve seen. And what we’ve seen is that Latino movies are indie movies. Jon is a visual thinker. He has a wildly creative palette. He told us: “Break that habit y’all. This is big time. I have the vision for it.” That really is a testament to what we see creates habits of what we think. I hope this movie is part of breaking habits.

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Anthony Ramos is Unsavi in “In the Heights.”
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett C

What does Anthony Ramos bring to the role of Usnavi?

It’s different than what Lin did, which is exciting. Lin is so happy and he has such a lightness to him. Ramos is a heavier actor. He’s funny, but he’s more dramatic. The idea of taking Usnavi and giving him someone who wasn’t going to mimic Lin’s energy but bring his own was really exciting. Ramos nailed it.

Do you have a favorite memory from set?

The opening number, Lin is the piraguero and Anthony is Usnavi, and the piraguero goes by and sings “ice-cold piragua.” Lin ran to the producer tent and said, “Watch what I do.” He runs back to do the next take, and off-script and unrehearsed, he touched Anthony’s face and said “I’m proud of you.” That’s the take we used in the movie. It caught Anthony off guard, and you got that moment of real honest surprise.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

I want the audience to feel joy. I want the audience to be reminded of how much your physical community matters. I want the audience to remember how multigenerational communities and families are the backbone of this nation. I want people to remember their own path to get here — the stories that came before them, and the scarifies that were made.

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