Lin-Manuel Miranda is the big cheese of the pandemic movie musical.
Last summer the composer, lyricist, performer and musical theater goodwill ambassador handed hordes of desperate Disney Plus subscribers an excellent live-on-Broadway edition of his smash hit, "Hamilton."
A year later, the adaptation of Miranda's first full-length musical, "In the Heights," another Tony Award winner, is opening after a year's delay.
"My hope is that everyone will go see this on the biggest screen [if] possible when they feel safe, and then go home and watch the movie again on HBO Max," Miranda said on Zoom.
Fifteen months ago, "In the Heights," based on Miranda's memories of growing up in New York City's fast-gentrifying Washington Heights neighborhood, was readying a summer 2020 release.
"Next summer felt like forever away, and I was, like, 'But it's good! And the world needs it!' But I'm grateful that cooler heads than mine kicked the movie down the field a year," Miranda said.
Director Jon Chu's ebullient musical was made to be seen with a crowd. It's a salsa-, hip-hop- and Broadway-fueled panorama of a place and its people, centered on bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos). The young man dreams of pulling together enough money to recapture his Dominican Republic childhood and trade one island for another.
Many story lines converge over a period of three summer days and nights before a blackout.
The tentative romance of Usnavi and ambitious fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera); the sacrifices and doubts of heavily leveraged taxi company owner (Jimmy Smits) and his Stanford University daughter Nina (Leslie Grace); Nina's relationship with Usnavi's friend, the striving entrepreneur Benny (Corey Hawkins). These and more get their share of the narrative, while everyone awaits news of who in the neighborhood bought the winning $96,000 lottery ticket.
"Everyone on this block has a story to tell, and their dreams and hopes are bigger than the walls of their apartments," said Chu via Zoom.
Miranda, 41, had worked on "In the Heights" for half his life.
"I started to write it as a sophomore at Wesleyan University, because I loved the art form and didn't see any roles for me in it, besides Bernardo in 'West Side Story' and Paul in 'A Chorus Line.' And you and I both know I don't dance well enough to play either of those roles. And that's it for Puerto Rican dudes," he said.
So he wrote a musical. "I'd already been writing it with Tommy Kail [who later won a Tony for directing 'Hamilton'] for a couple of years. But it really got good when Quiara [Alegria Hudes] came on board for the libretto."
"Hamilton" took years to develop, but it was nothing compared with "In the Heights."
"So much harder than 'Hamilton,' " Miranda said, "because the one thing anyone from Oscar Hammerstein on down will tell you is: Do not start your career with an original musical. They're much harder. It's easier to adapt an existing story, because you can create a spine and see where the songs go. With 'In the Heights,' every song we wrote changed the spine, which changed the shape. Which changed the show."
The off-Broadway premiere, starring Miranda as Usnavi, came in 2007; the 2008 Broadway transfer sparked Hollywood studio interest in making a movie out of it.
"It was about as cliché as a Hollywood process could be," Miranda said. "We win the Tony, and the studios say 'We'll do anything to make this movie.' And then we encountered the self-perpetuating cycle of: 'Well, there are no Latino movie stars, so we can't make it.' And I'm thinking, well, if you don't make the movie, there won't be any Latino stars!"
He smiled, but the memory clearly rankles.
Years later, after interest in "In the Heights" had bounced around a while, Miranda hooked up with producer Scott Sanders, who got Chu and Warner Bros. on board. "It was post-'Hamilton,' and they were, like, 'What else ya got?'," Miranda said.
"I've gotten the best of both worlds: I got a great movie adaptation of my first show, and [last summer, with 'Hamilton'] I got a great movie of that show," Miranda said.
Here's hoping the pandemic is more or less gone next summer, so Miranda doesn't have to come to the rescue a third time.