Movie from local Tony winner opens nationally June 11

by Len Lear
Posted 6/10/21

Quiara Alegria Hudes, a former Germantown resident, may not be a household name, but she co-wrote “In the Heights” with Lin Manuel Miranda, of “Hamilton” fame. Now their much-honored musical has been made into a Hollywood movie

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Movie from local Tony winner opens nationally June 11

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Quiara Alegria Hudes, 44, a former Germantown resident, may not be a household name, but she co-wrote “In the Heights” with Lin Manuel Miranda, of “Hamilton” fame, which garnered 13 Tony nominations after it opened on Broadway in March of 2008, winning four Tonys. And now their much-honored musical has been made into a Hollywood movie that will be released locally and nationally on June 11 in both movie theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously.

Hudes, who was a student and aspiring musician/ composer at Central High School more than 25 years ago, was raised in Philadelphia by a Jewish father and Puerto Rican mother. In addition to writing the “book” for “In the Heights,” Hudes won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “Water by the Spoonful.” Another play of hers, “Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2007. (In 2009 she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist again for “In the Heights.”)

The story of “In the Heights” is set over the course of three days, involving an ensemble cast of characters in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. The  Tony Awards it won were for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.
Hudes was also inducted into the Central High School Hall of Fame in 2015, only the second woman to receive this honor since the school’s founding in 1836. She is on the board of Philadelphia Young Playwrights, which is a kind of payback since they produced her first play when she was just a 10th grade student at Central.

Another of Hudes’ plays, “Lulu’s Golden Shoes,” was staged in 2015 by Flashpoint Theatre at the University of the Arts in center city. One critic called it a “terrifying and titillating sexual awakening story of one young Latina, the battle of good and evil that rages in her heart and the trashy, resplendent women whose legacies she will change forever.”

“I always wrote when I was a kid,” Hudes said recently. “I wrote poems, little magazines and stories, even made my own magazine. I was always surrounded by amazing stories of the people around me, who came from all walks of life. When I got older and people close to me were passing away, I felt a call to arms. I felt a mission to tell their stories to all the people who do not know these stories…”

Although she was constantly writing as a child, Hudes did not start out to be a playwright. She studied piano at the Mary Louise Curtis Branch of Settlement Music School. She studied music composition at Yale University, where she earned her B.A., and then playwriting at Brown University, earning an M.F.A.

“My goal was to be a musician and composer,” she explained. “I had an aunt who composed for something called The Big Apple Circus. I’d sit on the bandstand with her. She gave me piano and music lessons. She’d take me to shows in New York. She snuck me in to see a reggae band when I was 8. She took me to the ballet and classical music recitals. I saw Baryshnikov dance for an hour. I was captivated.”

But Quiara still planned to be a composer, which is why she studied composition at Yale. After college she worked as a professional musician for several months, “but for the first time in my life I felt bored. My mom said, ‘Why don’t you take the writing seriously?’ so I went back to school (at Brown University) to learn writing.”

She obviously learned her lessons well. Hudes' first play, “Yemaya's Belly,” received the 2003 Clauder Competition for New England Playwriting, the Paula Vogel Award in Playwriting and the Kennedy Center/ACTF Latina Playwriting Award and had productions at the Portland Stage Company (2005), the Signature Theatre (Arlington, Virginia, 2005) and Miracle Theatre.

But how on earth did Hudes get to collaborate with the now-world-renowned Miranda on “In the Heights?”

“I am a big believer in writing as much as possible and getting your work out there as much as possible. I was doing a reading of one of my plays, and someone from New York happened to be there; I don;'t even know why. My play was about a Puerto Rican block in North Philly. Afterwards the man told me he knew a guy who was writing a similar play in New York about a Puerto Rican neighborhood. He said we would really hit it off.

“So he gave me the guy's number, and it was Lin Manuel Miranda. So I called him, and we started trading family stories. He was like my long-lost cousin. We had so much in common, so we decided to work together. He wrote the music and lyrics, and I wrote the 'book.' We constantly argued over things, like siblings. We would have six-hour sessions and order Chinese takeout and play video games.

“We would try out the material again and again with friends and others. If none of them liked a joke, we would get rid of it. It took us four years to write 'In the Heights.' Then it ran off-Broadway for six months, and then it went to Broadway and got good reviews. The rest is history. I feel like I won the lottery. We got really lucky, but we also worked really, really hard.”

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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