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Why 'In the Heights' is so personal for Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu

ABC 7 San Francisco logo ABC 7 San Francisco 6/11/2021 KGO
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The musical "In the Heights" is now in theaters, and expectations are high. Not because of the stars in front of the camera, but the stars behind it.

Written and produced by "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and directed by "Crazy Rich Asians" director Jon M. Chu, the film is a stage-to-screen adaptation of a story that Miranda crafted using strands from his own life. It's about neighbors in a Latino neighborhood of New York City called Washington Heights, supporting each other as they forge their versions of the American Dream.

For Miranda and Chu, both sons of immigrants, this was a deeply personal project. So personal, Miranda spent 20 years bringing it to the screen. So personal, Chu made "Heights" his son's middle name. Miranda and Chu recently talked about their "In the Heights" journey with ABC7 News anchor Kristen Sze.

"Look at you, you're in an honest to God newsroom. It's so exciting! Seeing people around other people, it's really exciting," those were Lin-Manuel Miranda's first words in his interview with ABC7 News. It's clear he is excited about people returning to normal life and returning to theaters, right as "In the Heights" is coming out.

VIDEO: 'Crazy Rich Asians' director Jon M. Chu talks 'In the Heights' journey'

The release was delayed one year due to the pandemic. But its journey to the big screen took longer than that. Most people know Lin-Manuel Miranda from "Hamilton," but without "In the Heights," there never would have been a "Hamilton."

Miranda began working on this story of Latino immigrants as a college student, "I started writing it when I was 19 years old, I'm 41... I learned how to write musicals writing 'In the Heights.' There's 5 musicals called 'In the Heights,' and only one made it to Broadway."

When it did in 2008, it was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and and won four, including Best Musical.

Despite the accolades, Miranda found it a hard sell to Hollywood studios, "We quickly hit the wall of, 'Well, there are no Latino movie stars that test international.' And you kinda raise you hand and go, 'Well if you don't make movies with Latinos in them, there never will be.'"

But something changed in the past few years.

There was "Hamilton," Miranda's 2015 hugely successful rap-infused musical. And there was "Crazy Rich Asians," Jon M. Chu's 2018 hit romantic comedy that proved an all-minority cast could be a box office hit. Miranda credited Chu for paving the way for movies like "In the Heights."

"The way he created a lane with 'Crazy Rich Asians,' he made this big sumptuous Hollywood movie and he said, 'Here are some movie stars you know, and here are some that you don't, but they're all movie stars,'" Miranda said.

VIDEO: 'Crazy Rich Asians' is more than a rom-com, it's a ground-breaker for Asian-Americans

Names like Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, soon to be household names and actors who can open movies, like Henry Golding and Awkwafina after "Crazy Rich Asians."

"Until Crazy Rich Asians," Chu's father was better known in the Bay Area than his now A-list director. Lawrence Chu has owned and operated the popular Chef Chu's restaurant in Los Altos since 1970. At a pre-launch party for "Crazy Rich Asians," Chu told Sze he felt a degree of pressure needing the film to be a box office success because that would hasten the greenlighting of more projects told by and starring people of color.

Chu says he has learned since then that it's not just one movie or one person.

"It's all these other communities that are needing to tell their stories," he said. '"This is the moment where we flood our gates with our stories, the more the better."

VIDEO: 'Crazy Rich Asians' director grew up around dad's world-famous Bay Area Chinese restaurant

One movie can make a difference for actors and make lanes, but real sustained change occurs when the whole community changes with it, the whole country changes with it, and that's where we are at right now."

That vision of inclusivity and celebration is evident throughout "In the Heights," including its grandest number, 96,000, set in a massive New York City public pool. It was a tribute to the classic aqua musicals, but as you might expect from Chu and Miranda, with a modern twist. "We've gotta show you can do a buzz-worthy number with all these different shapes and sizes. This is old Hollywood but done Washington Heights style. And they're gonna be just as beautiful, just as big, just as inspirational. We did it. It was nuts."

For Miranda and Chu, "In the Heights" is America's story. One that Americans can now see on the big screen. Because that's where their stories belong.

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