¡Alabanza! Lin-Manuel Miranda, cast behind ‘In the Heights’ talk movie adaptation

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After 16 years on the stage, 12 since its Tony win for Best Musical and one since its previously scheduled release date as a movie adaptation by director Jon M. Chu, “In The Heights” has aged like fine wine, proving itself to be even more relevant today than it was during its Broadway run. Preceding a roundtable interview with the rest of the cast, writers Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes explained their practice of “Paciencia y Fe” (patience and faith) to The Daily Californian.

“We got pushed because of the pandemic … We were nervous,” Hudes said about whether the movie’s focus on the unique struggles of intergenerational families would still be timely a year later. “(But) I was like, OK, history shows that this is not going to get less relevant.”

“There are lyrics I wrote in 2005 that sadly are more true now than they were back then,” Miranda added. “Specifically Sonny’s rap in ‘96,000.’ He says, ‘What about immigration, politicians be hatin’, racism in this nation has gone from latent to blatant.’ You almost wanna say ‘Oh, 2008 Sonny, you have no idea how much worse it’s going to get.’ ”

Even though the theme of making it in America is timeless, Hudes took extra measures while updating their script to ensure a resonance with the film’s audience — especially the younger generation.

“I added the Dreamers plotline and the immigration plotline and that’s why that’s a late reveal in the movie … because our neighbors, our family members who are undocumented, we might not even know,” Hudes said.

To 16-year-old actor Gregory Diaz IV, playing Sonny, the neighborhood’s hard working kid who attends a Dreamers rally at one point in the film, came with responsibility.

“You don’t want it to take over his life. It’s kind of on the sidelines because ultimately Sonny wants to just grow up and do big things,” he said of his character’s Dreamer status. “Sonny kind of sees things around him differently than others may. But at the end of the day, he’s still this lovable character.”

While Diaz’s character finds some of his support from cousin Usnavi, played by Anthony Ramos, the Heights’ main source of strength comes from the women who run it, especially the quintessential matriarch Abuela Claudia (played by Olga Merediz). 

“I patterned it after my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, my friends’ mothers,” she said on channeling authentic Latinx maternity. “I tried to make Abuela Claudia the mother we all wanted to be or wanted to have.”

On the other hand, the younger female trio of Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) cared for their community in a different, but no less essential way than Abuela Claudia: hairdressing.

“In our culture, not everyone touches your hair,” Rubin-Vega explained. “It’s a sacred thing to have your hair touched…to deal with your emotional and spiritual well-being, and spill some tea while you’re at it.”

While Rubin-Vega’s character lives her dream through owning her own salon, fellow supporting character Benny’s “sueñito” is to continue working for someone else’s small business.

“Benny’s dream is to run the car dispatch, he wants to take that to its highest level and pour (that) into his community,” said Corey Hawkins, who plays one of the only non-Latinx characters in the movie. “And there’s nothing wrong with that! It’s beautiful to see that, to see somebody who feels like home is right here, in the Heights, (and that’s) where his greatest dreams are.”

“From a woman in the salon to the bodega owner to the person that sells the little ICEEs in the corner, these are all (risk-takers),” Polanco added. “If you take a risk, take it because it’s for your own benefit and the benefit of the next generation.”

This depiction of ambition in a tight-knit Latinx community hit home for actress Melissa Barrera (Vanessa) when she first saw “In The Heights” during its Broadway run. 

“It was the first time that I sobbed in a theatre out of pride,” she recalled. “Because I’d seen people that looked like me on a Broadway stage, singing songs with rhythms that felt like they were a part of my blood.

According to Leslie Grace, the singer-songwriter who plays Nina Rosario, audiences will likely react the same.

“You don’t realize how much you miss the feeling of being understood or your story being told until you actually feel it,” Grace avowed. “And you’re like, wow, I wasn’t crazy. I did miss this!”

“After being locked down for so long, (‘In the Heights’) is like a little bit of joy that we all need through the delivery system of a musical,” elaborated Jimmy Smits, who plays Grace’s father in the film. “(The music) hits you right at the heart.”

The pride of the cast was evident when Polanco summarized: “It’s beyond just ‘In the Heights.’ We’re reaching new heights.”

“In the Heights” premieres in theaters June 11.

Contact Nurcan Sumbul at [email protected].