Lin-Manuel Miranda is the big cheese of the pandemic movie musical.
How's this for a one-two? Last year the composer, lyricist, performer and contemporary musical theatre's goodwill ambassador handed hordes of desperate Disney+ subscribers an excellent live-on-Broadway edition of Hamilton. So basically, in the realm of popular commercial entertainment amid COVID-19, he saved us from whatever else we were watching.
Now it's a year later. June 10 saw the release of the full-on Warner Bros. $55 million adaptation of Miranda's first full-length musical, another Tony Award winner: In the Heights, starring Anthony Ramos and directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians, Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D).
"Here's my hope," Miranda told me the other day via Zoom.
"My hope is that everyone will go see this on the biggest screen possible when they feel safe, and then go home and watch the movie again on HBO Max. (In the Heights streams for a month in the US, in tandem with the theatrical release.)
"The only movie theatre I've gone to in the past year was a drive-in upstate. That's the only way I felt safe, until very recently."
Fifteen months ago In the Heights, based on Miranda's memories of growing up in a rich plurality of Latino cultures amid New York City's fast-gentrifying Washington Heights neighborhood, was readying a summer 2020 release. Then: Covid.
"I felt like I was back in my 20s - 'No, please, let's put on the show!' Next summer felt like forever away, and I was, like, 'But it's good! And the world needs it!' But I'm grateful that cooler heads than mine kicked the movie down the field a year." And now, Miranda says, "I think we're coinciding with a time when people feel safe going to the movies again."
I haven't seen it yet with a crowd, but director Chu's ebullient musical was made for one. It's a salsa-, hip-hop- and Broadway-fuelled panorama of a place and its people, centred on bodega owner Usnavi (Ramos, currently in Montreal where Transformers 7 is shooting). The young man dreams of pulling together enough money to recapture his Dominican Republic childhood and trade one island for another.
Many storylines converge over a period of three summer days and nights prior to a blackout. The tentative romance of Usnavi and ambitious fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera); the sacrifices and doubts of heavily leveraged taxi company owner (Jimmy Smits) and his Stanford University daughter Nina (Leslie Grace); Nina's relationship with Usnavi's friend, the striving entrepreneur Benny (Corey Hawkins). These and more get their share of the narrative, while everyone awaits news of who in the neighbourhood bought the winning $96,000 lottery ticket.
Gentrification may affect every character's daily life in In the Heights, including salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega, of the original Rent ensemble). Her move from Washington Heights to the Bronx, where it's cheaper, is just one story of relocation going on.
But gentrification doesn't automatically sing. Chu's job, in his words, was to ensure "we had the moments in between songs) that can make a movie. This is a musical without a villain. Everyone on this block has a story to tell, and their dreams and hopes are bigger than the walls of their apartments."
There are two sides to this job, Chu explains, via Zoom. "There's the logical side of making a musical, and there's the storytelling and emotional side. Very different sides.
"You have to be on high alert all the time, because one can overrun the other very quickly. It's similar to an action movie" - Chu made G.I. Joe: Retaliation - where "every department wants to deliver their biggest and their best. But biggest and best isn't always the answer. In fact, it's mostly not the answer."
Still, this is a big-heart-on-big-sleeve movie musical out to please, with the numbers to prove it. In the film, the song 96,000, driven by the neighborhood's collective dreams of winning the lottery, turns into an aquatic extravaganza, filmed in and around the vast Highbridge Pool and Recreation Center at Amsterdam and West 173rd.
"I can't even tell you how many background extras were involved in that number," says Ramos by Zoom.
"Plus, almost 100 dancers, and it was raining. And cold. The water was freezing."
Filming that number, he says, made him realise Chu was "completely in control. Then he went in the pool. Shirt off, the water was cold, there he is, with his iPad, mapping out the next shot".
And then, "he'd go home at night and cut full musical numbers and then come back to set the next morning and be like, 'Yo, check this out.' His (rough) cut was never what the number ended up being, but he cut it almost so he could let himself know: This works. This goes into that, into that."
Back to the beginning for a minute. "I've been working on In the Heights half my life," Miranda says. He's now 41.
"I started to write it as a sophomore at Wesleyan University, because I loved the art form and didn't see any roles for me in it, besides Bernardo in West Side Story and Paul in A Chorus Line. And you and I both know I don't dance well enough to play either of those roles. And that's it for Puerto Rican dudes."
So he wrote a musical, preceded by some short musicals Miranda describes as Larsonesque, i.e., in the vein of Rent and Tick, Tick ... BOOM! by the late Jonathan Larson.
"I'd already been writing it with Tommy Kail [who later won a Tony for directing Hamilton] for a couple of years. But it really got good when Quiara [Alegria Hudes] came on board for the libretto."
Hamilton took years to develop, but it was nothing compared to In the Heights.
"So much harder than Hamilton," Miranda says, "because the one thing anyone from Oscar Hammerstein on down will tell you is: do not start your career with an original musical. They're much harder. It's easier to adapt an existing story, because you can create a spine and see where the songs go.
"With In the Heights, every song we wrote changed the spine, which changed the shape. Which changed the show."
The off-Broadway premiere, starring Miranda as Usnavi, came in 2007; the 2008 Broadway transfer sparked Hollywood studio interest in making a movie out of it.
"It was about as cliche as a Hollywood process could be," Miranda says.
"We win the Tony, and the studios say we'll do anything to make this movie. And then we encountered the self-perpetuating cycle of: 'Well, there are no Latino movie stars, so we can't make it.' And I'm thinking, well, if you don't make the movie, there won't be any Latino stars! 'They don't test well internationally.' Well, they won't test internationally, because you don't make movies with Latino stars and release them internationally!" He smiles, but the memory clearly rankles.
Years later, after interest in In the Heights had bounced around awhile, Miranda hooked up with producer Scott Sanders, who got Chu and Warner Bros. on board. Needless to say, Miranda says, "this was post-Hamilton, and they were, like, 'What else ya got?'"
Chu signed on for In the Heights around the same time he was pursuing the Crazy Rich Asians film adaptation of the bestseller. Like Miranda, Chu had heard his share of patronising/blinkered/racism-couched-as-financial-responsibility comments in meetings with studios.
For years, across many different movies, the director whose future projects include the screen version of Wicked, says he wondered: "Am I part of the solution, or am I part of the problem?
"I've been in rooms where they say you can't cast this person because they don't sell internationally, or where they say you can't have a romantic lead who looks like that. I was part of that. I was literally accepting that; I was young, they were telling me how Hollywood works, and I accepted it."
Then he started pushing back a little. By the time the Crazy Rich Asians project emerged, he figured, "I'd made enough money for these studios that I'd probably get one shot like that." He got it. Crazy Rich Asians, which felt like a musical without numbers, made an enormous profit worldwide. "And then," Chu recalls, "I thought, maybe I can get another one."
And now, 2021 has turned into the latest Year of the Movie Musical Revival. No fewer than nine titles are competing on the same calendar.
Among the stage adaptations: Dear Evan Hansen, Tick, Tick ... BOOM! (Miranda's feature directorial debut, funded by Netflix), and the new West Side Story, postponed more than a year just as In the Heights was, directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by Tony Kushner.
Both In the Heights and West Side Story are West Side stories full of fire escapes and yearning.
"My favourite memory," Miranda says of his childhood, "is walking through my neighborhood and looking up at the fire escapes."
When Chu and Miranda were filming on location in 2019, so was Spielberg, a few blocks away. "There were days," Miranda says, "when we'd be wrapping on 175th Street and they were preparing a night shoot over on 177th. I know, because I snuck over! I took a photo with Tony Kushner!"
Here's what Miranda, who takes the supporting role of the Piragua Guy in In the Heights, learned from it all.
"This is a really musical theatre answer, but the experience of making our movie taught me that we're a Cabaret-type adaptation. [Like Bob Fosse's 1972 film] we take significant departures from the stage version. What's on stage did not necessarily make for the best movie, and Jon and Quiara did an amazing job focusing and reprioritising the most important things to get the essence of the musical on screen."
Result? "I've gotten the best of both worlds: I got a great movie adaptation of my first show, and (last summer, with Hamilton) I got a great movie of that show."
Here's hoping the pandemic is more or less gone next summer, so Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn't have to come to the rescue a third time.
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