Lin-Manuel Miranda was 19 when he first wrote what he called “a very bad musical” that only saw five notes make it the final version of “In the Heights”, which won four Tony Awards after its Broadway- premiered in 2008.
After a long journey to get the right studio to produce the film adaptation, the highly anticipated film premieres Thursday. Like the stage version, it breaks ground because it centers on Latino characters that have long been missed in regular movies, TV shows, and theater productions.
“In the Heights” tells the stories of generations of residents and business owners in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of New York City̵
Miranda and his co-author, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, had to fight for filmmakers and producers who wanted to rely on worn-out troopers who had disproportionately portrayed Latinos as helpers, criminals, or people living only traumatized lives.
“Quiara and I held on to our weapons and held on to what we felt was important in the storytelling of the show,” as having Nina, one of the main characters, embodies the internal conflicts that a first-generation college student told Miranda to NBC News. Making the central female character a smart, Stanford University student was one of the many deliberately created roles that resonated with Latino audiences when the musical came out.
Achieving non-stereotypical depictions of Latinos required “a lot of gut control” during the revision process to ensure it remained true to “what are your non-negotiables,” Miranda said.
He remembered a time when a producer he admired made him doubt his own ability to compose music for “In the Heights.”
“The people who are on the margins of other people’s stories so much of the time in mainstream Hollywood or mainstream Broadway, they get the spotlight.” – Lin-Manuel Miranda
“And then my gut made me sick to my stomach,” Miranda said. “And I said, ‘If I do not know how to write the songs for this neighborhood, then no one knows how to write the songs for this neighborhood. That’s the only thing I know I can actually do.'”
The film’s overload of Latino visibility, from the lead role to extras, brought an opportunity for talented Latino commercials to highlight the dynamics, humanity, and struggles of a society that often feels unnoticed.
“That summer of 2019, the movie of the movie was so magical, but it hardly felt right,” Miranda said of the movie in her own neighborhood in upstate Manhattan.
Hudes, who wrote the book for the musical version of “In the Heights” and the script for the film adaptation, said that part of this magic comes from the film’s inherent “healing spirit”.
“Part of that healing happens through effervescent music and dance. Another part of this healing happens through the individual stories, and although everyone has a different path in this film, they are associated with similar issues – especially as immigrants, as immigrants. Is at home? Is here at home? Is there only one home, or can we carry many homes within us? Said Hudes. “What about when we love this home, but we have dreams of going beyond it? Does it betray this home? ”
Creating new stars
Just as “Black Panther” did for black actors and “Crazy Rich Asians” for Asian actors, “In the Heights” stands out for showcasing Latino talent, including faces and voices not yet known names.
In an analysis, the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only 4.9 percent of the speaking roles in 2019’s top films went to Latinos, even though they represent nearly 19 percent of the country’s population. Forty-four of the 100 best films that year had absolutely no Latino characters with speaking roles, a speed that did not differ much from 2018 (47 films) or 2015 (40 films).
“We compensate for lost time,” Miranda said.
In an attempt to curb this trend, Hudes said she was intentional when writing.
“As a playwright, I create jobs as a screenwriter. I get created roles for actors. And then I think very carefully about what would be a good job to create, ”she said.
With the help of film director Jon M. Chu, the filmmakers cast an effective mix of new, upcoming talent and well-known veteran actors like Jimmy Smits and Olga Merediz, who repeats his beloved role as Abuela Claudia (Grandma Claudia) from the original Broadway version. The formula for established and new actors proved to be a success in Chus 2018 series “Crazy Rich Asians.”
“He wanted to create stars” and “invite a new generation of talent who really has not had the opportunities yet on this great platform,” Hudes said of Chu’s vision.
The leading generation of Latino actors in the Hollywood movie is Anthony Ramos, who plays the role of Usnavi, a bodega owner who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic.
Growing up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, another predominantly Latino neighborhood in New York City, and playing Usnavi for three weeks at a Kennedy Center production in 2018, Ramos provided the right amount of personal and professional experience to nail his biggest role since performing. in Oscar-winning film “A Star Is Born” and starring John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Miranda’s award-winning, massive Broadway hit “Hamilton”.
Ramos, 29, had a motto on stage: “This is for the mother family —— culture. Let’s go, ”he would say in true hype men’s fashion.
Ramos said the thought of “this movie is about something so much bigger than you” helped him through many hours of rehearsals and footage, no matter how tired he felt. At the same time, he said his inner child would remind him how much he wanted a movie like “In the Heights” when he was growing up.
Invisible no more
Merediz, 65, said she remembers filming in Washington Heights and watching “the real people who live there walk down the streets and I will go, ‘Look, there’s Abuela, there’s Daniela,'” referring to some of the main characters from movies.
“They were the real people from the neighborhood we portrayed” in the film, Merediz said. “And I like playing characters that are not normally seen – shining a light on the little old lady that we ignore, it’s invisible.”
In “In the Heights”, Abuela Claudia is the most important matriarch. She left Cuba in 1943 and settled in the neighborhood and eventually became the surrogate grandmother of all the young people there.
Merediz, the film’s most likely Oscar nominee, said she took inspiration from some of the mother figures in her life, including her aunt and mother.
“I would make her the person everyone went to for advice or for a nice, cooked meal,” Merediz said. “She has lived so much that she has so much to offer. But I would give her the extra kindness that we all need. ”
Abuela Claudia’s kind heart is fully shown during Merediz’s masterful performance of what Miranda considered “a six minute aria” called “Paciencia y Fe” (“Patience and Faith”). In it, viewers get a glimpse of how this older woman strives to preserve her dignity by holding on to a collection of details and memories that remind her of her humanity despite the difficulties.
“For me, those are some of the things that make this special,” Miranda said. “The people who are on the margins of other people’s stories so much of the time in mainstream Hollywood or mainstream Broadway, they get the spotlight.”
When asked if “In the Heights” marks a crucial time for Latino representation in Hollywood, Miranda replied, “I hope so.” His cautious optimism stems from his previous experience of bringing “In the Heights” to Broadway and seeing how the show managed to increase audience diversity and attendance over its three-year run – “and then goodbye,” Miranda said.
“What do people write? What do you produce? What do you put your money behind the scenes? Said Miranda. “If you do not build it, they will not come, and if you do not support Latino talent behind the scenes.”
But Merediz feels more optimistic about this moment.
“I think it’s a turning point. Finally after trying so much. Is it our time? “I think it’s our time,” she said.
Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.