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In the Heights
Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes on sharing the long and winding road of her and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical sensation.
By David Somerset
Though the most famous name associated with successful stage musical In the Heights might be tunesmith and performance sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegría Hudes is as important to the creation of this show than the man who would go on to pen Hamilton, songs for Disney movies and his recognition as a pop-culture phenomenon. Hudes has been forging her own career on stage for years and won the Pulitzer for drama in 2012 with her play Water by the Spoonful, about an Iraq war vet struggling to find his place back home. In the Heights is the first of her efforts to arrive in cinemas, created in collaboration with Miranda and Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu.
In the Heights is set during a sizzling summer in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, where dreams are dreamed and stories spun. As a slew of plotlines converge, bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) plans to reopen his late father’s bar in the Dominican Republic while quietly harboring a crush on local hair salon worker and aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). Then there’s Nina (Leslie Grace), the educational superstar of the community, freshly returned from her first year at Stanford with a secret of her own. She’s greeted with delight by old flame Benny (Corey Hawkins) and dad Kevin (Jimmy Smits). Around them is an ensemble of salon workers, cousins, friends, and knitting the whole lot together is Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who reprises the role from the stage version. Claudia has effectively, if unofficially, adopted everyone and doesn’t hesitate to offer wisdom and wonderful food whenever the opportunity arises. The cast is a diverse gathering of Latinx talent, the film itself a vibrant clutch of musical numbers and emotional storylines, including a blackout that plunges the neighborhood into darkness both literally and figuratively.
Miranda originated the musical’s earliest incarnation while still a student at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University in 1999, and it slowly evolved from a rap-inflected one-act to its full Broadway version, with Hudes joining a team that included fellow Wesleyan attendee and future Hamilton director Thomas Kail in 2004. Hudes’ main task was to refine the book, crafting a story that could properly support Miranda’s music. The result won a Grammy and four awards from a whopping 13 Tony nominations in 2008. Studios showed interest as early as 2011, with Universal snapping up the rights and Kenny Ortega (High School Musical) hired to direct, with Hudes writing the screenplay. And yet it languished in development until Universal canceled the film, popping back up in 2016 when the Weinstein Company took on the rights, spotting an opportunity after Miranda’s massive Hamilton success. It was at this point Jon M. Chu was brought on to direct, and Hudes and Miranda campaigned to get the rights back in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. In the end, Warner Bros. won a bidding war to produce the film in 2018. For Hudes, the chance to revisit the story she loved once again was a golden opportunity to make some changes, update themes and trim concepts and characters. She also embraced the inherent differences in writing for the stage and the screen. “We were in a very big Broadway house, and the distance between the front row and the back row is maybe 100 feet,” she recalls of her stage stint. “You don’t want one audience member to have a great experience and the other not, so you create a piece that speaks to a midrange of focus. What a movie lets us do is zoom in super close, so the level of quiet you can attain is really different to what can be attained on stage. It also lets us zoom way out, so we see a much bigger picture.”
Though the movie had been through various drafts with other writers in its long journey to the screen, Hudes started fresh around the time of the Weinstein acquisition. She adapted some of her methods from creating for the stage, including her attitude toward outlines, which toggles between strict and chaotic. “I outline every day,” she laughs. “Then one thing changes and the whole domino run changes—and so the outline evolves all the time. At one point, I had all my index cards all spread out over my rug in my studio. That was helpful because it was easy to replace them and change the order, which I had to do a lot. But Lin’s wife, Vanessa [Nadal], saw that and said, ‘Why is your outline all over the floor?’ ‘Where else is it gonna be?’ A huge package arrived a week later and she had bought me a giant pinboard—and now the outlines happen on the pinboard. It takes up an entire wall of my space, but that was very nice! It had the added benefit of when a breeze blows in my studio, my outline doesn’t get blown to hell!”
Hudes also commonly uses a playlist while writing, a technique that takes on a whole new meaning when working on a musical, especially one that’s been in development for years. “For Heights, it was the soundtrack, the cast recording, so it was different. The movie’s playlist is also then being composed as I’m writing. A lot of the changes in the screenplay required Lin to reexamine certain lyrics, and we changed the order of some things in the opening number. At a certain point, the playlist becomes confusing because it’s outdated. But as Lin would fill in some of the lyric changes, I would listen to his demo version and that would become the new playlist.” Crafting a screenplay gave her a chance at the freedom Miranda had when he started crafting the show in the first place. “He had this time when he got to be this lone visionary in the room, and I basically said, ‘Lin, can you do me a favor? I’m doing the screenplay, and can you give me some alone time, and then we can get together and we’ll read my rough draft?’ He was, like, ‘Yes, thank you!’ Because he was super busy, he had Hamilton and these acting gigs, so I took some big swings. I cut some characters and removed some songs, which we knew we would need to do, but I made some first steps about which those would be and added some new elements that felt more urgent to me since we had written the Broadway play. Once I did the first draft, I read it and was [pleased but almost] shocked by all the changes, and then he was back in the room with Jon Chu and we were all making the thing together.”
You just read the first half of the article! Remaining details include: More about Hudes’ creative habit, what changed from stage to screen and going behind some of the film’s most dramatic scenes!
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