Lin-Manuel Miranda stood onstage at the United Palace theater a few blocks from his home and, as usual, put on a good show. Microphone in hand, he invited the room to go wild: “Oh, what’s up, ‘In the Heights’ opening night!” Puerto Rican flags flew from ebullient locals across the room.
It was the first day of the Tribeca Festival, and the historic theater blocks away from where he grew up and wrote his breakthrough, the Tony-award winning musical “In the Heights,” was about to screen for a boisterous crowd a day ahead of its national release. The movie had been delayed for a year due to the pandemic, but Miranda had been trying to get it made much longer than that.
As the crowd cheered on, Miranda put a positive spin on the experience. “You’re 19 years old and you write a love letter to your neighborhood and you get to a film made of it in that fucking neighborhood,” he said. “Are you kidding me?”
Buried in that enthusiasm was some measure of a relief. “In the Heights” launched Miranda’s career straight out of Wesleyan and turned him into a Broadway wunderkind before “Hamilton” cemented his seismic role in popular culture. Yet even as his name continued to look good on paper, Miranda failed to turn “Heights” into a big-screen phenomena for more than a decade.
Maybe it was because the story of overzealous bodega owner Usnavi (originally Miranda onstage, Anthony Ramos in the movie) along with his friends and neighbors didn’t have the kind of flashy “It” factor that turned Miranda’s revisionist “Hamilton” into a global ear worm. Or that Hollywood didn’t see any path to making Latino stories profitable. Or that they did, but felt — as Miranda has revealed in recent times — that studio executives wanted costly, unobtainable pop stars like Jennifer Lopez, because the more local Latino performers Miranda had in mind apparently didn’t “travel internationally.”
But even that commercial fixation on A-listers at odds with Miranda’s vision doesn’t fully encapsulate why the movie hit so many roadblocks as its budget ballooned from $15 million to $55 million and only director Jon M. Chu, who signed on prior to the global hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” finally figured out a way to pitch “In the Heights” that Miranda couldn’t crack. The story of Chu’s success where Miranda failed says much about the challenge of breaking representational boundaries in Hollywood, where only the savviest strategists know how to track down the elusive green light.
“That’s the funny thing about Hollywood,” Miranda said on Zoom a few weeks ago, recalling his first round of meetings at studios in the wake of the “Heights” success on Broadway. “There are layers of machinations inside studios that I’ll never understand. Every meeting was a little less enthusiasm, a little more, ‘we don’t know.’”
However, to understand Miranda’s labyrinthine journey, you really have to start with “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
In the ninth season of the show, Miranda was one year into the runaway success of “Hamilton” and playing a caricature of himself on the HBO comedy, holding all the power in the room during a Hollywood meeting with Larry David. As David attempts to pitch Miranda on an ill-fated musical called “Fatwa!”, Miranda kicks his feet onto a desk and takes charge of the room as David kowtows to the singer-songwriter impresario’s every demand. David’s agent, Jeff Garlin, yanks him out to the hallway. “It’s the power of the desk!” David confides. “He’s in the boss chair!”
The irony was that, at the time, the boss chair had eluded Miranda for a decade, and he was eager to mock the system that kept frustrating him even as he star power rose. “The character on ‘Curb’ had power,” Miranda said. “I didn’t have any back then.” He laughed. “Yes, I was a guy who had written ‘Hamilton’ and had a little bit of clout. But I was in the ‘Please make my movie’ mode.”
Until he met Chu, no amount of agents and producers could demystify the disconnect between his Broadway success and the obstructions he found in the studio system. “I didn’t know how much I didn’t know,” said Miranda, who was originally angling to study film in college before “Heights” took hold. “I still don’t understand how we went from being the Tony-winning show that everyone couldn’t wait to adapt to international telling everyone, ‘We can’t make the movie at this number, you don’t have a star, and unless you get this international recording artist to basically lose money by doing this movie because they’re all on world tours, you can’t make this movie!’”
By 2010, Miranda was juggling constant interview questions about the “Heights” movie, including rumors about Lopez. “The truth is, if Jennifer Lopez went to a restaurant, people would report that she was buying the restaurant,” he told Ryan Seacrest in 2010, holding a smile that barely contained the frustration within.
But one aspect of the “Heights” saga that could have held it back goes back to the euphoria around its original success. Miranda’s big selling point for “In the Heights” was that it provided a whole range of Latino audiences the opportunity to see their own stories come to life. The narrative is steeped in the melting pot of the “Heights” community — the idea that immigrants from Dominican Republic can mesh with Puerto Ricans and mishmashes like “Chile Dominican Ricans” to forge a unique bond. But in the commercial realm of Hollywood, the idea of giving people something they’ve never seen before doesn’t necessarily resonate as strongly as giving them something they have. Formula wins the day.
That mentality was part of what kept Hollywood from truly diversifying until the past decade, and one reason that Miranda said motivated him to effect change from the start. “I wanted a life in this business and literally didn’t see any career path forward,” he said. “In a lot of ways, ‘In the Heights’ was an attempt to write what was missing.” He described the concept as “Fiddler on the Roof” for the Latino set. “If everyone came from Anatevka to our neighborhood, what would they pass onto their kids? How do you define it for them? How do you hold on to your traditions in a world that’s getting more expensive and asking you to change?”
OK, so it’s “Fiddler 2”? Again: Try bankrolling that. Miranda noted that while he adores “West Side Story,” the success of the original movie established the wrong expectations for generations of projects with Latino leads. “In the Heights” had no gangs or murderous revenge plots, just big dreams. “They can’t imagine us writing about ourselves with love and joy,” he said. “And I didn’t have any star power to offer. All I had was this show that people liked.”
Enter Chu, who cracked the challenge as soon as he’d signed on. With everything from “Step Up 3D” to “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” behind him, Chu was ready to tackle projects that had greater cultural resonance while working with Hollywood on its own terms. “I’d done enough movies around town that I knew the system,” Chu said. “I knew how to manipulate it. I’d made enough money for them that I probably had one, maybe two projects that I could pull through. That’s when I went looking for something that no one else could make.”
One of those projects was “Crazy Rich Asians,” went on to gross $238.5 million worldwide. The other was “In the Heights,” and Chu took the lead on pitching it around town. “If there’s one reputation I hope I have, it’s that I make things,” he said. “I don’t develop them for years and years.”
Chu put the pitch in tangible terms a studio could parse: “Heights” wasn’t a story nobody had seen before; it was a distinctive on spin on one they had. He put together a presentation in Keynote (“I’m an old Mac guy”) with a multitude of visual aids.
“I had images of movies from ‘Do the Right Thing’ and ‘Annie Hall,’” he said. “‘Annie Hall’ wasn’t a musical but it used cinematic effects and tools to express how it felt to be in a relationship or break up. We wanted to extend the power of the musical, not to just break out in song and dance but draw in the sky if we wanted to. Each person had their own language of expression. Ultimately we’re not taking our characters away to another place when they dream. We’re building the dreams into Washington Heights.”
He drew on the visceral music-video language that made his “Step Up” movies into such energizing big-screen spectacles. “When our characters dream about not being there, we’re almost like an art installation in the streets or the bodega,” he said. “It would grow from that because when you dream, you only dream with the things you know. Maybe it’s an advertisement or a painting on a wall that looks like a beach. To me, that was our language of what we wanted to create and what I put in that presentation.”
With executives hooked, Miranda pounced. “Now we were more in a ‘Curb’ situation,” he said with a grin. “The things we fought for were that we wanted to shoot on location and it can’t all be recording stars. It has to be people who look like they belong on 175th Street because that’s where we’re going to be.”
Still, “Heights” bounced around, from Universal to The Weinstein Company to Warner Bros., where it finds itself at once welcoming summer moviegoers back to theaters and also available to them on the considerably less attractive small screen option of HBO Max.
Nevertheless, the story has managed to meet its moment more than Miranda could have expected. In the movie’s vibrant pool scene rendition of hit song “96,000,” Sonny (breakout Gregory Diaz IV) raps a line that resonates far more than it did when Miranda dreamed it up 20-odd years ago. “When Sonny says, ‘racism in this nation has gone from latent to blatant,’ you want to say, ‘Oh, Sonny, you sweet summer child, you have no idea how blatant it’s about to fucking get.”
Now, Miranda is basking in the glow of “Heights” as the first step toward a more stable relationship to Hollywood: Later this year, Netflix will release his promising directorial debut, an adaptation of “Tick, Tick…Boom!” starring Andrew Garfield; the streamer also has “Vivo,” the animated musical saga written by Miranda’s writing partner, Quiara Alegría Hudes. The Broadway outsider has found his way in.
“It’s a good time to have a big movie reminder that we, Latinos, are the fastest-growing population in the United States,” Miranda said. “We’re not going anywhere. We are what a good chunk of America looks like in a big way and will be going forward. We want to make our lives better for our kids, too. We’ll do the jobs no one is willing to do so our kids can be doctors and lawyers.” He grinned. “And filmmakers.”
“In the Heights” is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max now.
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