October 17, 2021

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Quiara Alegría Hudes on the Responsibility of Taking “In the Heights” from Stage to Screen

Writer-producer Quiara Alegría Hudes is a big believer in weaving in parts of her Latino heritage and culture into her storylines for a greater sense of reality. So when she was asked to join director Jon M. Chu and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda in the painstaking process of adapting the musical “In the Heights,” she decided to also produce in order to ensure the onscreen iteration was a genuinely diverse and realistic portrayal. She wanted the film version of “In the Heights” to reflect the Latino community she knew intimately as a resident of Washington Heights.

Hudes also penned the libretto for the original stage version of “In the Heights,” which was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical. She has nurtured that play, alongside Miranda, since 2004.

A Pulitzer Prize-winner for her play “Water By the Spoonful,” Hudes’ other productions include “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue,” “Daphne’s Dive,” and “Miss You Like Hell.” She also founded and curates Emancipated Stories, a project that sees incarcerated individuals writing about their lives, and is the author of a new memoir, “My Broken Language.”

Women and Hollywood spoke with Hudes about her motion picture debut as both a screenwriter and producer, gender equality on stage and screen, and why representation is essential to her work.

“In the Heights” hits theaters June 11 and will be available on HBO Max for 31 days upon its release.

This interview has been edited.

W&H: Do you feel responsible for telling stories about underrepresented people on stage and in film, including women?

QAH: I get nervous about the word “responsibility.” Before I knew that a woman or a Puerto Rican was underrepresented in any space, that’s just who I was and who I was surrounded by. There was a natural fit there for me. I come from a very matriarchal family. That responsibility exists because the rest of the world has done a crappy job reflecting the reality of this nation, which is half-women. We have a very diverse country, but you don’t see that in many elite spaces — I will say that as an actual book geek. After graduating from school, having never been assigned a single Latino author and only a handful of authors of color, I felt a sense of urgency. The stories that came from my abuela’s living room were the best novel I ever read. So, I suppose I felt an urgency to stake a claim.

W&H: Why is the story of “In the Heights” important to you, and how does it feel to have a major motion picture come out on a project you have nurtured for over 10 years?

QAH: I can speak personally to that. A few people have asked me about the political updates that were not present in the stage play. Like it or not, I think that the decision Lin[-Manuel Miranda] and I made early on to create a piece that centered Latino joy, celebration, love, affection, all those things, was a political choice. It might seem like happy, happy, fun, fun, but, no, we know the sacrifices that our communities continue to make to stay strong, to remain cohesive, to survive in the case of coronavirus. So that joy is political. We also know how we have been portrayed on the stage, film, and TV where it is not joy. We’re thugs, murderers, maids. There is not a richer picture than that. Again, the choice to show that we are everyday people, living ordinary lives, having real struggles, and doing so with a tremendous joie de vivre, is political.

W&H: You also brought the critical issue of DACA into this film, and I know that “Miss You Like Hell” dealt with undocumented immigrants. Do you feel like there is not only a demand for these types of stories, but also a necessity?

QAH: For me, I always smile a little bit when I hear the word “diversity” because, to me, it’s a particular word we have to use in a world that is not diverse. All I want is reality, which is what this city is made up of. If that needs a particular word called diversity, then it’s my reality, and I’m sharing it with the world. I think it speaks to people who share my specific truth.

W&H: How did you get started on this project?

QAH: Lin had worked on the stage version of “In the Heights” for so many years that by the time we got to the film version, there was a tremendous amount of trust built up. When we started collaborating in 2004, he had been working on [the stage play of] “In the Heights” for a couple of years. He had this head start on me.

I asked him for a favor when we started working on the movie. I said, “Can I have a head start on you this time and just go and write the screenplay by myself, and we can take it from there?” He said, “Yes, please.” By then, he was working on “Hamilton” and filming different movies as an actor.

W&H: What was the process like in terms of creating a faithful narrative for the motion picture?

QAH: I took some swings on which characters and songs we would cut. These swings were not a comment on those things. I just had reservations about how they would transfer to the screen. I also added new things, like the married business owners, Daniela and Carla, on the block. I incorporated new elements about Nina’s story and what her struggle at Stanford was like. I added the character that identifies as most American yet has a real challenge because he is undocumented.

I took swings. Then Lin and I started collaborating, and he fell in line with my vision. After that point, it became us again working through the details.

Jon M. Chu, the director, kept storyboarding and kept reminding us what’s it about. At a certain point, I stopped being the screenwriter, became the producer, and started making production decisions. I talked to Chris Scott, our choreographer, about how we cast dancers for this particular movie. I spoke to our set and props people about what a menu in the Rosario home looks like.

W&H: Jon M. Chu has called you a secret weapon. In an interview, he said, “Quiara balances both worlds. He trusts her so much that he allowed us to rip this show apart, put it back together and rip it apart.” What was it like working with him?

QAH: I did allow Jon to rip it apart and put it back together because I didn’t feel precious about trying to get everything from the stage show onto the screen. I wanted to create something that stood on its own as a movie so people could enjoy two versions of “In the Heights.” Both the play and the film retain the same spirit. If I am a secret weapon, hopefully I’m a secret weapon of peace and joy.

W&H: Can you briefly discuss the process of going from stage to screen?

QAH: The challenge of doing the screenplay versus the stage play is that we have more control over contrast and dynamism on screen. In a stage play, the person sitting in the front row and the person sitting in the back row have a comparable experience. That’s hard to pull off, and you end up creating this middle-field perspective for a large Broadway house.

The quiet and intimacy that you can accomplish are greater onscreen. The spectacle you can achieve is more remarkable. We had fun getting five hundred people in a swimming pool in Hybridge Park, which is where my kids swim in the summer, for a huge dance scene. We also enjoyed getting a close-up of Abuela Claudia’s hands as she describes her mother’s first fine purchase as an immigrant in the United States. That purchase was a pair of velvet gloves to hide that her hands were cracked from the cleaning fluids she used as a cleaning woman. That was the fun — how huge we could get and how small we could get and how we could embrace a tremendous Hollywood vision and still stay on the human level.

W&H: Let’s talk about the female characters in this film: Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), Nina (Leslie Grade), Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and the salon women (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, and Dascha Polanco). They are strong women who are devoted and passionate about their culture. Were these characters based on women you know?

QAH: Here’s my “Da Vinci Code” secret behind the script, which never made it into the screenplay and was something I kept in mind while structuring the screenplay. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is telling the story to a bunch of kids, in particular to a little girl. I think he cares about this girl’s future. He tells her a story about all of the strong Latina women on his block he knew who have made his life what it is. I even put a scene where he gives them a pop quiz on famous Latina women in history.

I think he is telling this girl that there is no one model for being a strong woman. There are different paths. His Abuela was strong through humility. Vanessa was influential as an artist. Nina was an intellectual and an advocate. Daniella was a historian. He is subtly telling the next generation that you have to find your path, and there are many models.

W&H: Did you work closely with the cast?

QAH: I got so close to the cast. We would share personal stories. We talked about the costumes a lot. You and I could have a whole separate conversation about the salon. That was the part I was most concerned would become a bastardized version of reality. In some ways, that is why I insisted on becoming a producer. I thought if I write this script, and then I see the salon ladies in skin-tight mini dresses and stiletto heels, I will scream and pull my hair out.

W&H: It sounds like it was integral for you to maintain a sense of reality in the screenplay.

QAH: Yes, it was. This was not just a salon is in Washington Heights. These are working women on their feet for eight hours a day, wearing comfortable clothes and tennis shoes. They have a lot of pride in their appearance, but it’s a much more grounded and exciting vision of female beauty. I knew that the setting and costumes had to be accurate.

I also wanted to see all body types and all ages in that salon. It couldn’t be all gorgeous women in their 30s. I wanted to see older women also looking fierce. I wanted to see a queer, friendly space. I grew up in Philadelphia in the Latino community, and a lot of times, the only friendly queer spaces were female spaces. I wanted to have that in the salon, too. I wanted to have children in the salon because there often is no childcare, and women bring their kids while getting their hair done.

W&H: I want to spend a moment talking about your memoir, “My Broken Language.”

QAH: It’s wild that “My Broken Language” and “In the Heights” are both happening at the same time. In some ways, they are very different stories. “My Broken Language” is the story of how I became an artist before I became an artist. “In the Heights” is the result of that journey.

The book is about growing up with a gifted mother. My mother’s gift was a spiritual one. She was a shaman, a natural healer, a spirit medium. I did not have that gift, but I was curious, fascinated and quite impressed by the things I saw her do.

I became an artist, and I couldn’t have done that without my spiritual journey. What they have in common, which I am only starting to realize now, is that they are both visions of communal characterization. I didn’t even put my finger on it until recently when an interviewer asked me why I wasn’t the lead character in my memoir. Why was I writing about so many other people when it was supposed to be my memoir? I said it was because I have this realization at one point later in the book where I say that my cousins are that of God within me. My story doesn’t exist without them. It’s not this lone protagonist, literary vibe. It’s a vibe that we are who we are what is inside us.

I dare you to tell the story of “In the Heights” just through just one character. It’s how the characters struggle and survive together.

W&H: What is something that you think can improve gender equality for women in theater, television, and film? It sounds like you nailed it, taking a producer role on “In the Heights” to get your story told the way you wanted it to be said.

QAH: I don’t always want to do the labor. I am an artist first. I think about the notion of a seat at the table. I have earned the right to say I want to be a producer. I want to have my voice in the room. Thank God for our other producers and Jon, who told me to join the conversation.

When I started working on “In the Heights” in 2004, I was a different age. I was in my 20s, and I was still asking for permission to take up space. I am ready to stop doing that.

W&H: Back to the theater, your first love. How do you see the industry’s future, and how will it change after the past year during COVID?

QAH: There’s a pragmatic question that is being asked right now about theater’s finances and deficits. I am more interested in what kind of theater we want to come back to. I think this nation has very uneasy and unbalanced relations between institutions and individual artists. Institutions have an overbalanced and overweighted role, and individual artists are perpetually in this begging space.

In the 1980s, the National Endowment for the Arts defunded individual artists. There was a robust competition between theater artists and theater institutions that was very healthy. That competition doesn’t exist to the detriment of innovation in the field. It’s become a professionalized field where people with salaries and artists are scraping by funding the art form. I want to return to a theater that somehow returns to that sort of competition between artists and institutions so that institutions must stay on their toes.