“It turned out that we had so much in common,” says Jon M. Chu, recalling his first meeting with Lin-Manuel Miranda who had written In the Heights 20 years ago, while at university.
“But I couldn’t sleep the night before, I was so nervous, meeting LMM Squared! What am I going to do? I’m going to show a presentation to the person who actually wrote this show whose every inch of it comes from him. I almost threw up!” laughs Chu who, at the time of his initial meeting with Miranda – five years ago – had the Step Up movies and a bunch of Justin Bieber videos to his credit.
His massive global success with Crazy Rich Asians was still a glimmer in the future.
“But Lin couldn’t have been more kind or more warm. I think his opening line was, ‘Me and my wife saw Step Up 2 opening weekend,’ and we just connected. I think we’re similar ages and have a lot of similar references and we’re talking about our families and his father reminds me of my father a lot. I can’t wait for them to meet,” says Chu.
“We are the same age!” laughs Miranda, joining in, pointing out how both men are 41 years old.
Certainly, Miranda’s age ruled him out from playing In the Heights’ lead role of Usnavi, which he had portrayed in many earlier iterations, instead opting for the minor role of “Piragua Guy” while Anthony Ramos (A Star is Born) takes the lead.
“I remember getting very quickly that Jon understood the story on a cellular level,” explains Miranda whose original musical has been adapted for the screen by Quiara Alegria Hudes.
“My dad came to New York from Puerto Rico, aged 18, speaking no English to attend NYU. He always meant to go back to Puerto Rico, but he met my mom and so we stayed in New York and that’s where we grew up. And Jon told me the story of his father establishing a restaurant in California and being the first in his family to come here. We both were raised by whole-ass families in the way that immigrant and migrant kids grow up and our parents worked hard and made miracles happen so that we could go to school to study theatre and film respectively.
“In a lot of ways, that’s what Heights is about; it’s about whichever family, whether it’s your mother or your grandmother or your great-grandmother who came here from somewhere else and did the jobs that no one else wanted to do so you could have a better life. And I knew he understood that on a gut DNA level and I was already a fan of Jon’s films and the way he uses dance, so I knew he would be able to tell the story,” says Miranda whose early version of In the Heights became a multi Tony-winning Broadway show; a forerunner to his massive Broadway hit, Hamilton.
“I wrote In the Heights in my sophomore year at Wesleyan University, where it was performed as part of the school’s Second Stage as an 80-minute one-act play which ran for just three days,” he adds.
One of the show’s popular songs is ‘96,000’, a musical number about who might win the local lottery and all the different ways that US$96,000 might change their lives. If nobody Miranda ever knew had won the lottery, then he does confess how he was raised by a compulsive gambler whom he affectionally refers to as his ‘Abuela”, Spanish for grandmother.
“She lived with us, and I considered her to be my third grandmother. She was a compulsive gambler. Literally my first memory was going with her to the local bodega on our corner and I would eat candies and pull the arm for her while she played the illegal slot-machine in the back closet so, the story line for Abeula and her playing the lottery was ‘What if my Abeula actually won? What would she do?’ She grew up in Puerto Rico and she raised my father in Puerto Rico and then she helped raise me and my sister when I was born, so ‘Does she go back home? She has a life here’. The initial impulse of Paciencia Y Fe, her big aria was: ‘If I gave her that winning ticket, what would she do?’ So that’s where the personal interest comes from,” he recalls.
While Miranda concedes that US$96,000 isn’t exactly a life changing sum, then number is symbolic to him: “I ask myself that a lot, because even in 2008 that was not enough money to give you a mansion, but it was enough to let you breathe easier. It’s enough money for a slightly better life and maybe enough to pay off some debts. It’s $40,000 after taxes! “But I think why I chose the number as 96 was because I grew up on 200th street and I went to a school on 94th Street and, in my head, 96th Street was always the dividing line between rich and poor. I went to the richest zip code in the country for elementary and high school and I remember a two-cheeseburger meal from McDonald’s was $2.99 on 100th Street where people looked more like me and $3.49 on 86th Street. So, I think, subconsciously, the 96,000 was the difference between just having a little more versus not.”
Miranda was thrilled that his buddy Ramos would be filling his shoes. “I was so excited that Anthony would be playing Usnavi. I remember when he auditioned for Hamilton, I was like, ‘Oh, a movie star just walked in. We’ll be lucky to have him for as long as we have him… before some studio grabs him and we never see him again’.”
Certainly, Miranda could not be more delighted at Chu’s big screen translation of his debut stage play which had such humble origins, frequently tearing up as he talks about it. His favourite screen adaptations of musicals, he says, aren’t necessarily one-to-one adaptations of the original.
“One of my favourite movie musicals is Cabaret. Bob Fosse took enormous liberties in adapting the stage piece to the screen and what emerges on screen is almost a more concentrated version of the themes in it, and I think in this endeavour, a lot of the credit in our adaptation really goes to Quiara who took a head start in writing this incredible screenplay and adapting a two-act show into a three-act structure, pretty brilliantly and was incredibly courageous in the moves she made.
“Not a lot of good stage shows successfully translate to film and sometimes they’re so different, you’re like, ‘Was this ever even a fucking musical?’ Or sometimes they’re so beholden to the stage musical that it feels like it’s the play on stage.”
He knew he had found his perfect director when Chu insisted on filming In the Heights in the actual Washington Heights neighborhood where Miranda was raised and still lives to this day with wife Vanessa Nadal – who grew up just a few streets away – and their two sons.
“I can’t tell you how gratifying it is as a songwriter,” he says. “Every song in the show is a love letter to this part of Manhattan where we grew up.”
In the Heights advance sneaks this weekend. In cinemas everywhere June 24
Check out the first 8 minutes of In the Heights.