In the Heights writer Quiara Alegría Hudes 'didn't want it to come off like a corny musical'

In the Heights writer Quiara Alegría Hudes 'didn't want it to come off like a corny musical'
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In 2004, when playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes was first paired with Lin-Manuel Miranda to develop the musical In the Heights, they talked of how they both had parents who came from Puerto Rico and built a community on the mainland, through political advocacy and quite literally (Hudes' father is a contractor). But, she tells EW, "Lin and I didn't have any of those skills. So it's like, Well, what are we building? And our answer was we're building stories. We had that in common. So it's like, all right, let's build, baby!"

The result was a story that sheds the idea of Latinos as "the nation's brown boogeyman," as Hudes puts it, and highlights "Latino resilience and joy and values and cariño." Their own kind of political act.

Hudes acknowledges that with both the original Broadway show and the Warner Bros. film adaptation (now playing in theaters and on HBO Max), "We couldn't possibly represent the phenomenally diverse thing that is Latinidad." But as she lays out below, she strived to adapt the film version in a way that was modern, inclusive, and hopefully not corny.

Warner Bros. Pictures Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hdes on the set of 'In the Heights'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In writing the screenplay, was there anything new that you immediately wanted to include, or any changes you wanted to make?

QUIARA ALEGRÍA HUDES: I just didn't want it to come off like a corny musical. I feel kind of bad saying that, but I think we all know what that means. A corny musical is [where] it's awkward when it goes from scene to song and it's like, "All right, well, that's cute but it's not for me." So I added a whole totally new element, which is that Usnavi [played by Anthony Ramos] is telling his story to some kids. And so we know when you tell a story to kids, you embellish, you kind of paint a picture with your voice. Therefore it doesn't seem like it's how we're trying to portray reality. It's how Usnavi is trying to portray reality, and he paints with bright colors.

It's more of a cinematic storytelling device.

Absolutely. And it's also, I gave him a line, I think it's on page one of the screenplay, which he says to the kids, "Once upon a time there's Washington Heights, and the streets were made of music." So we know that was his experience. That's how he lived on the block.

Did you get to develop the characters with the actors at all in the way a playwright would?

Yeah, that's why I wanted to come on board as a producer too. I was really nervous that I would write these roles with a lot of specificity and intention in my mind, and then things would happen to change that, and I would have no say over that. So becoming a producer was really important for me so that I could be part of the earliest casting conversations, the earliest design conversations. For instance, one of the things that was really important to me is when we're casting dancers, I knew we were going to cast a very large dance ensemble, and so when I was talking to Chris Scott, our choreographer, about what dance looks like and means in the culture, I was like, "If we don't have elderly dancers front and center, along with the youngins, then it's B.S. It's not what dance is to us."

They're the ones who start the party.

Exactly. And they school us. They're like, "No, that's not how it's done." And so that's just one little example, but I was on set every day. So even after the casting was all complete, some of the actors would come up to me before a scene and they would ask me, "Can we adjust this line?" Or "I had a question about this," or "How do you think she would feel about this?" So yeah, I got to have those conversations as we rehearsed the scenes, and that was really wonderful.

Warner Bros. Pictures Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia with the rest of the cast of 'In the Heights'

Were Nina [Leslie Grace] and Sonny [Gregory Diaz IV] always the characters you gravitated toward? Because those characters seem the most impacted by the changes and the modernization of the story the film is telling.

I love both of those characters so much. With Nina, there's a lot I relate to in her because in my house, I was the first generation to go to college. It just wasn't realistic. My mom is an avid reader and lifelong self-educator, and my pop is one of the smartest people I've ever met in my life. But [they] had to get to work. So I was on a different path than them and I ended up at an elite school [like] Nina. After we opened on Broadway, a lot of the elite, very expensive private tuition schools changed their financial aid packages so that there was less focus on loans and more focus on scholarship. There was still a tremendous uphill battle for families to be able to afford expensive schools like Stanford, but it gave me this opportunity to dig deeper and go farther into what are the other challenges Nina faces while she's at school. I rewrote her specifically to be Afro-Latina. And what she experiences when she gets there is not just financial hardship, but also these microaggressions - that at times, whether she's welcomed in that space comes into question. And so when she comes home and Dad's about to sell the business, she's like, "I'm not sure this is worth it. We're giving up everything you've worked for for this? I don't know about that." So I think it makes her decisions a little bit more spiritual and emotional. It's not just pragmatic.

With Sonny, I added this scene where Sonny is giving Usnavi a hard time for always being nostalgic about the island. Sonny's like, "You're so corny with talking about the island," this, that, and the other. And he's like, "I don't want to go to [the Dominican Republic] with you. I want to stay here. New York is my island. This is my spot. I have none of this nostalgia that you have." In [the song] "96,000," Sonny then talks about if he won the lottery, he wouldn't spend it on himself. He would improve infrastructure in the neighborhood, he would get a better Wi-Fi signal. These things where he's talking about he'd invest in the community. So really what I'm creating is this character who in some ways is the most American. He feels most passionate, like, "This is my home. I'm not torn." We come to find that the rest of the nation might not feel that way. And whether or not they allow him to actually become a citizen here is left an open question. All we know is that his lawyer says, "The odds are against you." And I left that as an open question. I think it's up to us, the audience, to decide how Sonny's journey ends.

Latinos get so few opportunities to have this big a movie, and you can't be everything to everybody, but I was wondering if the undocumented plot was a way to broaden the experience to even more Latinos? As someone who is both Puerto Rican and Cuban, two identities well represented in the film, I don't necessarily have my citizenship put into question. It's not necessarily an issue that gets applied as much to a lot of Latinos, specifically in New York City.

Well, the demographic reality of Washington Heights is that it is predominantly Dominican. So it is really present as an urgent issue in the community. And I do think that us Puerto Ricans, spiritually, emotionally, culture-wise, and linguistically, we are immigrants. We are not immigrants in terms of legality. And so in some ways I think it almost puts the responsibility more on us to step up to the plate for our brothers and sisters in the community who face challenges in that regard.

Definitely. Again, writing this screenplay is an act of condensing as much as expanding. What were the hardest parts of the stage musical to condense or cut from the screenplay?

Oh, it was hard to choose at all because I really love the stage musical. And you grow very attached to the things that not only you create, but then you watch [with] audiences. It stops being yours and it becomes the audience's. And so I watched other people love and root for [Nina's mother] Camila. I watched other people have really emotional experiences during [Nina's] song, "Everything I Know." So to cut those things, it's not easy. But things hit differently on a screen than they do on a stage. In the case of "Everything I Know," I tried to get it into the screenplay, but honestly it kept feeling a little boring, and [why have] a song that's about her change of heart when you can have a close-up on her face and see it in her eyes? It's like, I get it. The close-up makes the song not do the work the song does on stage anymore.

With Camila, I just wanted to be able to focus on Nina's story a little bit more. So if she was in conflict with her dad [Kevin, played by Jimmy Smits], it helped focus that story. When we lost Camila, I therefore had to balance it out and really do work to elevate Abuela Claudia [Olga Merediz] and Daniela [Daphne Rubin-Vega] to even more powerful matriarchal positions on the block.

Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Leslie Grace as Nina Rosario and Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia in 'In the Heights'

Speaking of Daniela, was her and Carla's coupling always meant to be more of a wink, or was there more initially intended for them as queer representation in the film?

It may sound counterintuitive, but actually it's like marriage representation because when I cut the character of Camila, I just didn't want any critic anywhere to be able to say they all come from broken homes. So I was like, I need a married couple because I don't want anyone to try to spin that on me. And so I was like, oh, Daniela and Carla. They're the married business owners, and they've invested their relationship and their marriage in building this business together. And so that just felt very easy.

How has it been seeing an early glowing critical response to the film? Is it akin to the reaction the stage musical received after opening on Broadway, or something bigger?

Because Hollywood has a wider reach, honestly, there are more film critics of color, there's more Latino film critics, and it's been really gratifying to see some of their takes on it. I'm not saying that's the only kind of critics that can write with authority and specificity about the film at all. But I read a review by a Latina critic and she talked about Nina's hair, Leslie's hair. How when she first comes back from Stanford, her hair is ironed flat, and as she spends a little bit of time back at home on the block, she returns to her natural hair, which is curly. And I was like, okay, she really picked up on that. We spent so much - we storyboarded Nina's hair throughout the movie. That's the level of perception and detail. It was really gratifying when I read that. So yeah, that's been wonderful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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