Quiara Alegría Hudes Explains What Needed to Change in ‘In the Heights’

The writer of the beloved musical and its film tells us how they decided what to change.

Melissa Barrera as Vanessa and Anthony Ramos as Usnavi in In the Heights. Macall Polay

Before Hamilton took the world by storm, Lin-Manuel Miranda teamed up with playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes to make In the Heights, a musical love letter to the Latinx community and to the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights. That musical was a breath of fresh air that gave the spotlight to a community that wasn’t well represented on the stage: a fully Latino show made by Latinos. It is not a surprise, then, that the musical would get a blockbuster film adaptation.

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Just like she concocted the story that would surround the catchy songs in the stage play, Hudes takes up the task of adapting her own script to the big screen, taking the story about a day in the life of a community on the verge of change. The result is a much stronger narrative than the original musical, as it expands on characters, plot threads and themes to make a poignant, timely and also timeless story of dreams, community and Latinidad packed inside the movie event of the summer.

Speaking over Zoom during a busy press day, Hudes told Observer about adapting her own screenplay to the big screen, working with director Jon M. Chu to create the visuals of the story, and expanding on the characters and themes of the original stage play.

Observer: When you came on board to write the screenplay and started adapting the original play, what was the first thing you wanted to try out now that you had a much bigger space to play in compared to the stage? 

Quiara Alegría Hudes: It was three things that really were like my biggest questions as I began. One was about how do we go from scene into song and have it not feel corny or awkward, but to make it feel like a natural and exciting progression. So I created a new element, which is that Usnavi is now telling his story to a new generation that’s younger than Sonny. And the reason that is, it might seem like it’s supposed to be its whole own plot, and I ended up making it that way, but the actual reason that exists is because then we know it’s from his point of view, so he’s our narrator. So when he tells us “the streets were made of music,” we know he’s embellishing, that’s the world as he experienced it. So the audience hopefully understands those transitions a little bit more.

The other two things in terms of adapting from stage to screen are the opportunity to get huge, and the opportunity to get tiny, with close-ups.

(L-R) Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, writer/producer Quiara Alegría Hudes and Daphne Rubin-Vega on set. Macall Polay

So with the huge stuff, it’s like: How big can we make things? And Jon Chu, our director, is a brilliant visual thinker. He thinks about dance, about spectacle, about scale. So he was like the answer to how big can we make things huge, as long as we always stay connected to the community. He’s the reason we use huge spaces in the movie, like the Highbridge Pool, to make a dance number like you’ve never seen in a summer movie, where people are swimming underwater and dancing. So we found places in the neighborhood, in the community, that lent themselves to that big thinking. And the geography here, the geology even, is pretty sweeping and magnificent, so you’ll be on the swing set at J. Hood Wright Park and you do see the huge bridge in the background. That’s not CGI, that’s what it actually is like when you’re hanging out in the hood. You go to take the subway and you’re actually on a nearly mile-long tunnel underground that becomes where Abuela Claudia sees her life flash before her eyes.

In this movie Abuela Claudia is Cuban, while my abuela was Boriqua. I wanted to see what kind of olives she puts in her ropa vieja.

And then with the last one, the opportunity to get in close and tiny, a lot of that was in the screenplay. I remembered being a kid being upstairs at our abuela’s house in Philly, because her room has the only one with air conditioning. There was this special ringing sound when she lifted the lid from the pot to see if the rice was done, which we would run downstairs as soon as we heard it go ask if we could eat. So with the film, I wanted to see Abuela lift the lid from the pot, I wanted to see the steam escape, I wanted to see the ropa vieja — because in this movie Abuela Claudia is Cuban, while my abuela was Boriqua. I wanted to see what kind of olives she puts in her ropa vieja. So that was wonderful to get up close and detailed in a way that the stage does not allow you to do.

On the part about getting huge, how closely did you work with the director in terms of breaking the story to a visual level?

A lot of that stuff was scripted, but a lot of the big visuals came directly from Jon. For instance, I always knew that “Paciencia Y Fe!” was going to be a subway song. When you ride the subway in New York city, you see elders going up and down those steps because the elevators are out of service half the time. It’s hard to get from point S to point B and I wanted to see Abuela take just an everyday trip like that. I had written it to be the one in 181st and Fort Washington because that’s what Usnavi raps about at the beginning, because that one has a really steep escalator. But then on location scout, we found the tunnel and we shifted the vision to there.

But then there were things that I never put in the script that Jon just came up with. What he did with the “No Me Diga” at Daniela’s salon is the utter joy that there are manicured nails tapping and clicking to the music, I love it so much! And one of the funny visuals in it is that there’s the heads, the wig heads are laughing. And the reason I love that — I never put that in the script— but the reason I love that is because if you walk around Washington Heights, any time but January and February when it’s too cold, all of the clothing stores, it’s like a mannequin scene. You see like the mannequins out wearing the jeans and other stuff, so I loved seeing even the mannequins represented. It’s such a flavor of the neighborhood.

What strikes me is that when I started writing the stage play ‘In the Heights,’ I was still asking ¿bendición?, I was still asking my elders for the blessing. Now I’m the one giving the blessing.

Then you also mention the going tiny and specific. It’s an indescribable joy that comes with hearing someone say ¿bendición? in the movie. How much of those hyper-specific details did you want to put in the script without it sort of overtaking the rest of the movie or becoming too distracting?

The thing that’s nice about film is if it’s too much, you can cut it. So you can actually discover those fine lines in the editing process. But what strikes me is that when I started writing the stage play In the Heights, I was still asking ¿bendición?, I was still asking my elders for the blessing. Now I’m the one giving the blessing. I’ve really grown up with In the Heights in some ways, so I can see those little details from two sides now. I married my high school sweetheart. We met when we were 17 in Philadelphia, so to me I was Benny and Nina. That was my story, but it’s not my story anymore. Now, my story is Kevin’s story because I’m trying to balance my dreams for my children, and the freedom I want them to feel, also with a sense of groundedness and values. So, you know, I’ve grown with those details.

(L-R) Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes on set. Warner Bros. Pictures

Speaking on Nina, I found it fascinating what you did in expanding that character’s story on the screen, same thing with Sonny. Was that something that excited you about taking the story to a bigger stage?

You know, one thing that was interesting about the reception to when we brought In the Heights to Broadway was I heard a lot of people say they really didn’t believe that Nina would have those sorts of challenges getting to Stanford as a first-generation college student, which: I’m raising my hand. That’s my case too. She goes to an elite college, also raising my hand. That is what I did. And it’s the whitest space she’s ever lived in. And it’s the wealthiest space she’s ever lived in. People really didn’t believe that she would have those struggles and I’m like, “Trust me,” because I was part of a Boriqua and then a Latino community also at Yale. And I know. I know, because we shared the stories.

So with the film, I wanted to dig even deeper. I actually took that criticism as a challenge and I go, “Oh, it’s real. So I’m actually gonna spend more time on it and I’m going to go deeper.” In this case, to the financial disorientation and the financial pressure of an elite college tuition, I added this whole experience she has with microaggressions and the sense like sometimes she has to justify her presence in some of those rooms at Stanford. Meanwhile, her father is going to sell the business that she was raised in to finish paying for tuition, and she’s like, “I honestly don’t know if it’s worth it, Pa, you’re going to give up so much and sacrifice so much for this place that sometimes makes it kind of explicitly clear they don’t want me around,” so they have to come to terms with those contradictions in the movie.

I also wanted to add and dig a little deeper into the story of immigration. I’m not interested in it from a political point of view. And I have to say, I think politics has failed the human issues in so many ways. I’m interested in it from a human point of view because as our Latino communities are well aware, these are not waves. These are our brothers, our mothers, our neighbors and I wanted to really tell a human story there. I wanted to tell that story through Sonny, the one character without a sense of nostalgia about any other place other than New York. Other characters see to the horizon. Usnavi especially, he thinks home is the Dominican Republic, but Sonny goes “no, I’m a New Yorker. If I won $96,000, I would invest it in the community. This is my home.” And what we find out by the end is that he actually is the one with the biggest impediment to fully integrate into society, not by his choosing.

A central idea in the film is that of sueñitos, or little dreams. And you actually interrogate that idea through several characters and the dreams they don’t fully know if they should be chasing. Why was that something important to explore in the film?

I think the notion of dreams can become oversimplified when you get to the point where they might come true, or they do come true. It’s a part of life and life is messy and life is complicated, so the film really looks that that fact. Usnavi is at a moment he’s always dreamed of, that of returning to the Dominican Republic and reopening his father’s bar, and he’s at a moment where he has an opportunity to make that happen. It’s huge. His dream is at his fingertips. The problem is that in order to fulfill that dream, he has to leave behind people he loves, which is something he never really thought through, and it’s becoming real.

Similarly, Nina’s had her dream come true. She was a straight-A student. She’s an intellectual, and she is going to a place where her intellect is going to be challenged. She got there and discovered, “This dream is way more complicated than I thought, and does it mean that I’m betraying and abandoning the stuff that actually made me, me?” So it’s what we do when our dreams kind of crash up against how complicated life is, that is the crux of the movie.

I wanted to finish by asking about Abuela Claudia and her number, “Paciencia y Fe,” because it’s both a beautiful sequence but it also comes in at a very different moment than in the stage play. How did you decide to make that change?

Getting Olga Merediz to return as Abuela Claudia felt both like winning the lottery, but also totally natural and organic. It felt like we were just continuing the process we had begun in I think 2005 when she started working on the stage production. So when we met we went right back into having the same conversations we had over 10 years ago like no time had passed. When it came to “Paciencia y Fe,” we did it as an overnight shoot, and she was extraordinary. She holds the camera and she holds center like a Redwood tree or a Ceiba. She’s super grounded and rooted, majestic and strong.

And then Jon built this incredible cinematic world around her, this incredible dance number around her. When we did that overnight shoot, we’re in this subway tunnel and it’s a hundred degrees outside. The walls are literally sweating. You could wipe the sweat off of the walls. And I’m looking at this and I’m thinking, Her life is flashing before her eyes. That’s what this tunnel is. This is the tunnel they talk about.

At that point, the number was still in its original spot from the play, but as we were filming it, I started realizing we were filming something different than what we thought we were. In the stage show and as it was in the original screenplay, “Paciencia y Fe” was about a woman looking at her life story. But when we filmed it in that location, it was a woman’s life flashing before her eyes. And so that told us it had to go in a different place in the movie.

In the Heights is in theaters and on HBO Max June 10.

Quiara Alegría Hudes Explains What Needed to Change in ‘In the Heights’