'In the Heights' hopes to be the biggest summer blockbuster in the US

Jon M. Chu gives spotlight to the Latino community after his 'Crazy Rich Asians' fame

Still from 'In the Heights'

What does home mean? We woke up early last May 22 to join the CAAMFEST 2021 (Center for Asian American Media) in their conversation with the cast and crew of In the Heights.

Showing on June 11, the pandemic has made the Warner Bros. Pictures distribute the musical film adaptation in a non-traditional way, releasing it in US theaters and, at the same time, streaming it on HBO Max.

The Tony Award-winning musical by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda from a screenplay by the musical’s original book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes is directed by Jon M. Chu.

'In the Heights' cast and production team

The Broadway hit musical chronicles the colorful Latino community of NYC’s Washington Heights where both Lin-Manuel and Quiara grew up.

Quiara explains the differences between the theater and film productions. “The camera can go in a way that the stage can’t,” she says. “This gave me an opportunity to go deeper into their dreams.”

They don’t know where home is. They have multiple homes so we can go to their places,” added the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama for her play Water by the Spoonful. “It was a beautiful big playground to go have fun in.

Jon saw the Broadway musical years ago. “It reminded me of my own upbringing even though I am not from Washington Heights, which is completely the other side of the country, a Chinese family in a Chinese restaurant,” muses the son of a famous chef in California. “I recognized all the aunties and the uncles who raised you and say ‘I love you’ by their food.”

Shot in the summer of 2018 when COVID-19 virus was unheard of, the film involved 500 extras and dancers on the set. “I love that this story they created has no villain,” exclaims Jon, who filmed Crazy Rich Asians. “Everyone’s internal struggle is the path they want to make.”

Home is not a destination but the people around the journey. “Jon dreamed bigger than any of us in terms of the size and scope of this,” recalls Lin-Manuel. In his Latino mindset, making a “small” movie is quite satisfactory. “And Jon, every step of the way was, ‘No, this is a big movie. You guys have big dream, we are allowed to go to that dream,’” exclaims the actor who plays Mr. Piragüero in the film.

'In the Heights' poster

Anthony Ramos plays the lead, Usnavi de la Vega, who lives with the motto, “sueñitos,” meaning little dreams. “I think we all have small dreams,” reveals the 29-year-old Hamilton actor, whose roots are from Puerto Rico and New York City. “This community, how all the characters persevered, all of them make a way for themselves. I get emotional when I think about this movie and what it means to me. It baffles my mind that some little Latino kid somewhere in the world is going to see this movie.”

Also in the cast is Jimmy Smits, famous for the 1980s legal drama LA Law. He plays a respected businessman and father of Nina, the film’s female lead. “This notion of home, wanting your next generation children to do better than you, is a concurrent theme in this country,” reflects the Emmy and Golden Globe winner. “I remember Anthony always chanting, ‘For the culture, we’re doing this!’”

Olga Merediz who plays Abuela Claudia in the Broadway reprises her role in the film as a matriarch. She sings “Paciencia y Fe” (Patience and Faith) as her mantra. “It’s basically a prayer,” shares the 65-year-old American actress. “Her mother passed it on to her and she’s passing it to the beautiful community she loves and that’s what matriarchs do.” Not only is Abuela’s character caring, she also passes her wisdom to the young generation.

Lin-Manuel compliments the Orange is the New Black supporting actress. “As soon as Olga sang it for the first time in 2004-05, there was no one else ever going to sing it. That is her song from Broadway all the way to the movie,” he says.

“During this pandemic, the song ‘Paciencia y Fe,’ which Lin-Manuel beautifully wrote, has been present in my mind because there wasn’t much to hold on to,” replies Olga. “It’s almost like we are going to get through the day, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be OK,” she smiles.

For the Step Up sequels director, the pandemic year has been hard for everybody. “The only people we can turn to was each other,” Jon reminisces. “I was so lucky to be invited into what Quiara and Lin created so many years ago. It’s our family and it’s what you felt on the streets of Washington Heights every day before the pandemic.”

In the Heights is a love letter to a neighborhood, a place where “first chapters” of many American stories originated. To leave or stay in a community is what makes it universal. Everyone finds their own way and finds what home means to them.