Before there was Hamilton, there was In the Heights.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s exploration of the American dream started in his own hometown of Manhattan — which holds the first chapter in many American stories, he says. Specifically, Miranda’s first Tony-winning musical takes place in the immigrant neighborhood of Washington Heights.
“I think there’s lots of metaphors for the fact that this has always been an immigrant neighborhood,” Miranda says. “We live on a mountain in a city.”
Both Miranda and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes are children of Puerto Rican migrants. They translated their personal relationships with home and identity to the characters in In the Heights.
Finishing college or even leaving the United States behind, everyone in In the Heights has big aspirations. When main character Usnavi de la Vega, played by Anthony Ramos, readies his bodega for service in the morning, he ushers his neighbors into yet another day of working toward their dreams in America.
It’s a story about deciding whether to hang on or move on, and what it means to belong to a community while striving for more.
In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, the duo discussed the power of place, responsibility of storytelling and what this movie means as one of the first to open in theaters coming out of the pandemic.
In the Heights released in U.S. theaters and on HBO Max on June 11.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ailsa Chang: So many of the stories tucked into this work are about striving to have more — to be more, to also move beyond the neighborhood.
But the neighborhood at the same time pulls people back, it gives them identity and community, and I was wondering if you can talk about portraying that tension: when a community is part of your identity, but it also pushes you to want more.
Like Quiara, I know you grew up in West Philly and Lin, you grew up in Inwood, in Manhattan. Was there a similar push/pull for either of you growing up?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: One of the things that I related to a lot with Lin when I first met him was our parents came from Puerto Rico, and they didn’t get to just drop and plug and play in a community. They had to build the community. So when you inherit that, it’s like, well, how am I going to build?
And I think they knew earlier on than I did that part of the way I was going to build was by telling. Telling the story. You know, they were honestly too busy doing the work to tell about the work. And so my mom and pop kind of saw this in me from early on and were pushing me.
But part of that building work, actually — I had to leave the community. I had to go get educated in other ways and I had to learn other spaces. And there’s a line in the movie, which is “We’re people on the move.” That really comes from my personal experience from my heart, where it’s like, you know, it’s not that just that we’re from Arecibo, Puerto Rico. No, actually, we’re from Lares. We had to leave Lares for political reasons — go to Arecibo. Then we had to go to the Bronx. Then when my mom’s apartment got robbed, they moved quick down to Philly. Then I left and went to college, you know, and the journey continues and the relationship with home gets more robust, more complicated, and I think more rich.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: It’s so funny. You know, something happens when you stay in a neighborhood. I live walking distance from where I grew up. I can walk to where I took piano lessons as a little boy from the apartment [from which] I’m talking to you now. And I can then walk 15 blocks north and find the exact spot in the Cloisters where I was writing my angstiest teen poetry, staring at the Hudson: “No one has ever felt as deeply as I feel right now.”
And that’s part of my morning run now. And I’m the father of two kids and they live in this neighborhood. And that’s not the George Washington Bridge. That’s their bridge.
One of the most memorable lines from this story [is], “We had to assert our dignity in small ways.” It’s something that Abuela Claudia says. “Little details that tell the world we are not invisible.”… Quiara, what does that line mean to you?
Alegría Hudes: That line for me is evocative of my own childhood, of every tiny little lesson that Abuela would give me, that Titi Jenny would give me, that Tia Moncha, Tia Rosa.
I think about how my abuela taught me how to cook rice and she giggled and laughed at me! Like, “Oh, poor Qui Qui,” when I asked her, like, “Okay, well, where’s the measuring cup?” She’s like, “No… no, bendita, we put it in your hand.”
These are the little things. And she took pride in telling me that. And that is part of our dignity, passing on our little bits of wisdom, you know, not in some grand scale, but just in eye contact and close contact from generation to generation.
And Lin, I mean, you went from playing Usnavi, the lead in the original Broadway production more than a decade ago, to now playing the Piragua Guy.
Miranda: The way I sort of went about playing it actually became a way of honoring my grandfather. My dad’s dad, Abuelo Güisin, passed away the week after In the Heights opened on Broadway. He didn’t get to see any of the success of Heights.
And so when I, you know, got cast in the role, I just said, “I’m going to make this a love letter to Abuelo Güisin.” So I’m wearing his glasses around my neck. I’ve got his cowboy novels. The opening shot is me reading one of my grandfather’s, like, dime store cowboy novels. I’m wearing my socks way too high.
I wish you could have been there when my family in Puerto Rico saw the movie for the first time because [of] the screams of me being in abuelo cosplay, basically.
I want to finally ask about the timing of this movie because it’s going to be among the first wave of summer films to open in theaters as the pandemic is slowly winding down. How do you think that timing might shape how people take in this story?
Miranda: I think it’s enormously poignant. We filmed this in the summer of 2019 before the pandemic hit. And I know when I see a picture of two people standing close together, I’ve been marked by this — “Are they OK? Are they vaxxed? Is this all right?”
And this movie is such a love letter to the power of being in community with each other, of being out on the curb, of hugging, of dancing together. It is such a reminder of the power of that. I’m really hopeful that it’s giving folks a reminder of how we used to be and how we can hopefully one day be again.