Seven minutes and 17 seconds is not a lot of time. But in the movie-junket landscape, seven minutes and 17 seconds talking with a bona fide phenomenon like Lin-Manuel Miranda is considered an eternity. Even better: Miranda is one of those rare Hollywood denizens who approaches each and every media interview as if they were his own personal speed-talking challenges. He is a mile-a-minute pontificator who crams 20 minutes of conversation into half that duration.
To mark the release of the new film In the Heights – based on Miranda’s hit 2008 Broadway musical focusing on the gentrifying New York neighbourhood – The Globe and Mail spoke with the erstwhile Alexander Hamilton about creating two theatrical sensations, the art of adaptation and anything else we could fit into approximately 437 exhilarating seconds.
In the Heights has been in development for almost two decades before director Jon M. Chu was brought on board. How did the process of adaptation change over time?
The decision-making was all about space and time. [Screenwriter and author of the musical’s original book Quiara Alegria Hudes] and I are better at our two jobs now than we were in our 20s. She took the first crack at it without me, because she wanted to try some new stuff and said, “I don’t know if I’d have the courage to do so with you there.” She brilliantly streamlined the musical without losing its essence.
There certainly are characters who didn’t survive. And it’s been amazing watching fans of the musical realize that while watching the film and then them screaming at me in real time. But I went through it, too! Although I had several years to process it. But what that kind of thing does is free up other storytelling real estate to develop other themes.
I’ve always consoled myself by remembering that Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider are the two characters I love most in the stage version of Cabaret … yet they’re not in the movie at all. And that film is still a masterpiece!
So even with the film being a lengthy 2½ hours, how did you ensure that you got as much of what’s essential to the musical into the new reworking?
That tension is real: You have this much money to make the movie and this much time, and also you have 29 songs in the musical. So something has got to give. But I have to give Jon credit because that tension led to some smart creative decisions. We realized, for instance, that I’m not going to be writing any new songs for this, so we need to spend our time fighting for the songs that are there.
The Carnaval del Barrio number is one that, on paper, if you’re a studio you’re going to cut it because plot-wise nothing happens. But it’s about a community that rallies up and represents their homelands in a way that’s galvanizing. It’s what the entire movie is about. But we had one day to film it. The magic you see there is because we knew we had just one day, and it was important to get in and get it right.
I’m also playing the [local vendor character] Piragua Man because Quiara called me and said she thought they were going to cut him. But she had an idea as to how to keep it. Smash cut to me pushing the piragua cart and [original In the Heights and Hamilton co-star] Christopher Jackson playing Mister Softee. That becomes a love letter or Easter Egg to the stage version.
So the push-pull can work both ways.
And not for nothing, the whole original Broadway score is in the movie. Just some of it is orchestral. It’s just not always sung or represented the same way.
This is the second film version of your work, but of course Hamilton was a very different sort of cinematic adaptation. How do you think audiences who know you only from Hamilton will react to this?
I do believe that the heart of In the Heights is intact. Quiara’s updates are brilliant and I look forward to people discovering the original Broadway cast album. I see it as an additive experience. Hamilton, that film was a bucket-list thing for me. We spent six years making the Broadway show and then [director Thomas Kail] figured out how to adapt that into a cinematic version while we performed it as a stage production. I feel like I’ve had complimentary experiences.
In the Heights is available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes and the Cineplex Store, starting June 10, the same day it opens in Canadian theatres, dependent on public-health restrictions.
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