If interviews are any good example, playwright-composer Quiara Alegría Hudes is as warm and smart offstage, as she is onstage. You only need consider Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue, her 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning Water by the Spoonful, her recent Off-Broadway collaboration with jazz-folkie Erin McKeown, Miss You Like Hell, and the musical that Hudes penned with lyricist-songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights, as the best examples of her intelligent, emotive designs on family and tradition. “When it comes to family, I was the listener, the observer, so I captured all that was said, and all the traditions of both sides of my family,” says Hudes, the West Philadelphia-born Puerto Rican/Jewish writer, who currently resides in New York.
It is the last item – In the Heights, its spirited tale of the glories of Washington Heights, New York and its passionate Latino continuum’s soundtrack – that is of deep interest at present, as it is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a first-ever release as a 3-LP vinyl set. And, after much negotiation (e.g. wrangling from the vile hands of Harvey Weinstein who once owned the property for filming rights), the cinematic version of In the Heights has a new studio (Warners) and a director (Jon M. Chu who just dropped Crazy Rich Asians) behind it.
Quiara Alegría Hudes talks 10 years of In the Heights
Though Hudes is currently finishing the Ghostlight label recording of Miss You Like Hell for October release (“Erin thinks more sneakily than I, more mischievously and in metaphors,” she says of her collaborator) and starting her memoirs, she can never put aside the four years that she spent with Hamilton man Miranda, working on In the Heights.
Miranda’s Washington Heights and Hudes’ West and North Philadelphia (“that’s where my abuela lived, and where most of my family still resides,” she says), were not so different at time the playwriting pair met. Her writings in the exploration of the Puerto Rican community – in particular, the bawdy and darkly comic coming-of-age story “The Adventures of Barrio Girl” – caught the attention of producers behind Miranda’s then-next work. “Every time, they gave Lin script notes, he just wrote more songs, and his piece about his Puerto Rican community was turning into an opera…. rather than a traditional book musical.” That is, until Miranda and Hudes met.
“Our family stories had so many crossovers in terms of archetypes and family structure and dynamics. It was exciting. We went to his Washington Heights – I had only been living in NYC for barely two months at that point – and I found how different things were from my North Philly. There was more foot traffic in the Heights. It was more like New York City, an extension. North Philly then, it felt so isolated from the rest of the city when I was kid. That’s what I wrote about, the loneliness such isolation caused.” Miranda added his own sense of jubilation and elevation. “He is a joy genius,” says Hudes of her pal Miranda with whom she is working on the film adaptation of In the Heights, and the animated monkey musical, Vivo. “Lin wakes up happy, and his good moods are infectious.”
The great similarity between her North Philly and his Washington Heights was the music. Traveling down each city’s central strip, music of all sorts – cumbia, jazz, opera, bachata, reggaeton – played from storefronts, houses and speeding cars. It is that “open windows, volume-to-11 culture of 20 different musics,” that Hudes and Miranda set out to capture within The Heights and its good times. “As we live in such toxic times where issues of immigration are so prevalent, those moving soundtracks are a great reminder of happier moments.”
Ten years after the opening success of In the Heights, Hudes recalls how each writer was in each other’s business, and teasingly “cannibalized” from the others work (“he would take my book idea and put it into a song, I would take a lyric of his and make a new scene of it”), as a mark of “the wonderful thrill of collaboration.” And as for hearing In the Heights in re-release form, and seeing the newly-released vinyl box, Hudes says “it is like unwrapping a present, a gorgeous box with something special inside.”
That In the Heights continues to give and unravel in its upcoming film version “with new songs, moments and such that we can’t discuss, as yet,” just makes that now-ten-year-old musical a living breathing document. “I think we made a distant place in some people’s minds, into a real place where all people of all ethnicities can identify, a place with awnings and automobiles and Country Club soda in the fridge,” says Hudes. “We make the Heights live.”