It wasn’t Lin-Manuel Miranda’s idea to appear on screen in “In the Heights,” the jubilant newadaptation of his 2008 Tony Award-winning musical — the Broadway hit that paved the way for “Hamilton.” He says he would have been happy sitting in his writer’s chair and cheering on the cast filming in his own neighborhood. But he was persuaded to take on the small role of Piragüero, who pushes a cart selling shaved ice with fruit-flavored syrups, thanks to the film’s screenplay writer, Quiara Alegría Hudes.
“Quiara talked me into it,” Miranda told CBS News. “‘If you’re in it, it’s the surest way the song doesn’t get cut,'” he recalled her suggesting during a pre-production meeting with director Jon M. Chu. The character’s song, “Piragua,” isn’t essential to the plot, which is why he worried it could face the chopping block. But Miranda sees it as key to what the movie, a love letter to his Washington Heights community set during a very hot summer, is all about.
“It’s a metaphor for the entire neighborhood: Life is hard. Prices are going up, but we keep scraping by,” explained Miranda.
When “In the Heights” first premiered at the Richard Rodgers Theatre — the same stage where “Hamilton” will reopen after an 18-month pandemic shutdown on September 14 — Miranda, an unknown rising talent full of energy, made his Broadway debut on two fronts. He not only wrote the music and lyrics alongside Hudes, who wrote the book; he also starred as Usnavi, the young bodega owner seeking a better life. It earned him his first two Tony nominations and a win for Best Original Score.
The role of Usnavi, which Miranda, now 41, aged out of, is played in the film by Anthony Ramos, the actor who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in the original cast of “Hamilton” on Broadway.
Miranda said one of the most joyous days on set for him was filming a duet with Ramos of the song “Carnival.” They “weirdly” hadn’t gotten Ramos’ pre-recorded tracks yet, so they had to lip-sync to the original Broadway cast album featuring Miranda’s own voice as Usnavi. “So I was dueting with the voice of myself while staring into my ‘Hamilton’ son’s eyes. I mean, I will be unpacking this for years,” he said of the memorable scene — which ended with him “crying my eyes out” when Chu said “cut.”
Ramos previously played Usnavi in a production of “In the Heights” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
“He’s a better Usnavi than I could ever be, honestly,” Miranda admitted. “He has an incredible skill set that seems to have no ceiling.”
Miranda is being modest, as his talents seem to have no ceiling either. He is co-author of a new book, “In The Heights: Finding Home,” about the making of the musical and film. The book is set to be released on June 15, just a few days after the movie opens in theaters nationwide on Thursday, June 10, while simultaneously streaming on HBO Max.
It also coincides with the reopening of the 104-year-old independent Drama Book Shop, which Miranda bought in 2019 with Tommy Kail, the director of “Heights” and “Hamilton” on Broadway, to rescue from likely demise. Miranda has said he wrote many of the “Heights” songs in the shop’s basement. The store, now at a new location near Times Square, opens to the public on June 10.
“In the Heights” has had a special place in Miranda’s heart since he started working on it in college. In 1999, as a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Miranda drafted the first pages of the musical. This early version was not for course credit, he told Entertainment Tonight at the “Heights” 10th anniversary reunion celebration in 2018.
“I just really needed to write it,” he said of putting a story about his neighborhood to paper and wanting to see his Latino heritage portrayed on stage.
“This [story] was manifested from Lin, when he first decided that he didn’t have roles for himself. So he wrote it for himself. He wrote it for his community,” said Chu, who also directed the 2018 box office hit “Crazy Rich Asians.”
“In the Heights” premiered in 2005 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, followed by a 2007 off-Broadway run. The musical opened on Broadway on March 9, 2008. A year later, plans for the silver screen were announced, with Miranda tapped to reprise his role as Usnavi at the time.
But it took a decade of setbacks and delays before production finally began.
Updates, new moments … and that line about Donald Trump
There have been several updates to the film’s screenplay, and “lots of new moments” added.
“I’ve known these characters so long that when you write for Usnavi and Vanessa and they’re having a new moment, it’s more like taking dictation from your characters than having to think of what they’ll say,” Miranda said. “It was a joy to revisit them again.”
At first, he said he “didn’t have the courage” to look at the story differently, but Quiara did. “She said, ‘You started this whole thing. Let me take a stab at it. I think I’ll be braver in terms of adapting this thing that we have co-parented for our entire 20s,'” Miranda recalled of getting to work on an updated script.
One line in particular that was cut almost immediately was a reference to former President Donald Trump in the song “96,000,” which originally went:
I’ll be a businessman, richer than Nina’s daddy
Donald Trump and I on the links, and he’s my caddy.
“When I wrote that lyric in 2005, he was a reality TV host,” not a politician, Miranda said. “He was just sort of like the human version of the Monopoly man when I was growing up.”
The line has been changed in the film to say Tiger Woods instead of Donald Trump.
Since the Trump presidency began in 2016, Miranda said many theater companies putting on the show asked for permission to rework that line.
“When his name came to be associated with some of the most divisive, hateful rhetoric at Latino people that I think we’ve had from an administration, you know, obviously, the connotation just changes, it just had no business being in that song,” he said.
Another lyric about immigration, sung by the character Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), still deeply resonates with Miranda:
What about immigration?
Politicians be hatin’
Racism in this nation’s gone from latent to blatant.
“How much more true is that, sadly, in 2021 than it was in 2008? Obviously the immigration debate has been with us for decades but I do believe it’s coarsened and the discourse around it has gotten so toxic,” he said.
The struggles, joys and sorrows of Latino immigrants in the U.S. are at the forefront of cinema this year. Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of— a take on Romeo and Juliet — is scheduled to December 10. Both movies filmed within blocks of each other during the summer of 2019. (The sets were so close, in fact, a “West Side Story” catering cart was accidentally in one of Chu’s “Heights” shots.)
“I was proud that all these Latinx dancers and performers were getting opportunities to show off who they were,” said Chu.
Miranda, whose passion for musical theater was inspired by classics like “West Side Story,” hopes that “In the Heights,” which showcases his culture and his neighborhood, resonates with audiences nationwide.
“I’m just very proud that this is a musical about Latino immigrants that is written by Latinos with joy and love,” he said.
“We are the next chapter of the American dream.”