The following story contains spoilers from the movie “In the Heights.”
It took endless amounts of patience and faith to pull off “Paciencia y Fe,” the most ambitious, expensive and deeply moving musical moment of “In the Heights.” With Olga Merediz reprising her Tony-nominated performance, Abuela Claudia tells the story of her life: her warm childhood in Cuba, her harsh arrival in America and her unmatched joy at cultivating a close-knit community in Washington Heights.
The standout sequence — an intricate, emotional salute to the immigrant journey — almost got derailed, misplaced and left on the cutting-room floor. The Times spoke to the numerous collaborators who brought it to life:
‘A beautiful anguish’
Lin-Manuel Miranda (composer-lyricist): I grew up with a live-in nanny [named Edmunda Claudio] who helped take care of my father in Puerto Rico and my sister and I in New York. My earliest memories were being in the bodega on our corner of 200th Street. She played the numbers every day while I ate Now & Laters. And so it was, “What if she won?”
In 2004, I got a job with a summer school arts program. My co-teacher was Dominique Morisseau, it was her and I playing theater games with fourth graders. You’re an L.A. paper, so I will tell you: From 212th Street where I lived, that’s the A train to the E train all the way out to the end of Queens to the J/Z train into Woodhaven. It can be a two-hour commute. I’d break it up at the Drama Bookshop and chip away at this song for an hour before the second leg of the trip. It took me all summer to write.
Alex Lacamoire (show’s arrangements and orchestrations): Lin’s first draft of the song was like nine pages long. He wrote down her entire life. And it wasn’t sheet music. I was reading basically a lyric sheet with chord symbols. So there we were in a rehearsal room in Manhattan — it was between shows at “Wicked,” where I was working at the time, so I only had an hour or so to lay down a demo for the actor to sing the song at a workshop. We hit “record,” he started singing, I started playing. Bits of mambo, Latin jazz, counter harmonies that Lin responded to as he sang. Most of what I improvised that day is still in the song today, which hasn’t happened to me often.
Olga Merediz (actor): I was playing a different character in the workshop, and they couldn’t find an elderly actress who could do this part, and they asked me to give it a try. I was a bit younger then, and I thought, “I’ll audition for you, but you’re gonna know it’s a mistake.”
Lacamoire: Olga sang that song with such power. Her voice has a beautiful anguish to it — you hear the perseverance, the tenacity, the pain of leaving behind a homeland and the struggle to try to find a new home. She poured all of it in there because she drew from the same kinds of experiences.
Merediz: It was groundbreaking to have an elderly person like that in a housecoat, singing an aria at center stage. The song is very challenging — vocally, breath-wise, emotionally — and when you’re doing eight shows a week, you’re battling exhaustion and your voice is always tired. It’s a long song, and that last note — many, many times I almost blacked out and fell on top of our conductor Alex Lacamoire, which is not a pretty sight. I’d have to cut the note short in front of thousands of people so I wouldn’t faint.
But I love the idea of playing an invisible woman whom society often discards and overlooks — what a mistake that is — and giving her the platform she deserves. I met [Edmunda Claudio] and I fell in love with her. She took care of Lin-Manuel Miranda — and she did a good job because look at that man! She saw the show a million times, and we’d hug whenever she came backstage.
Jon M. Chu (director): It’s the rock-star story of our grandparents that we never talk about: “Wait, what? You left everything you knew and moved to another country? That’s nuts!” We wanted to respect what she was able to accomplish — a motherless child who took care of this community, something that isn’t the normal American ideal of victory — by giving it the place on the big screen it deserves. It’s one of the most expensive moments in the movie, and it’s the easiest thing to cut. We all knew we were gonna have to fight for it to the very end.
Christopher Scott (choreographer): The first day of rehearsal was an experience I’ll never forget. Olga explained what the number means to her. She said, “When you get to be my age you stop looking to the future, because there is no more future. Everything becomes about the past and that question: ‘Did I make the right decisions?’”
Merediz: They were all so young, so I had to tell them: When you’re older, you have regrets. When you’re young, you don’t have time to have regrets yet.
Ebony Williams (associate choreographer): Then she sang the whole thing, and everyone had tears in their eyes. It was so organic and so brilliant, she could have carried this out on her own, without any of us, and it still would have been breathtaking.
Chu: When she sang that day, I realized that we cannot distract from her. This is not a showcase of dance, this is a showcase of Abuela Claudia. She has to be at the center of the frame at all times — and her frickin’ close-ups that just tear you apart — and 60 dancers help to tell her story.
Why Lin-Manuel Miranda says Chu was right to direct “In the Heights” and the circuitous journey the “Crazy Rich Asians” helmer took to the musical remix.
June 3, 2021
‘Into the bowels of hell’
Chu: Originally, I wanted it to be like an old Hollywood musical where she may be in a subway at first, but then it opens up to a soundstage, like with Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain.” Very clean and modern, with projections all around her. Another version was setting the whole thing inside a subway tunnel, which goes dark and then becomes this dance space with all these neon lights.
Alice Brooks (cinematographer): We looked at blackbox spaces, architectural spaces, historic New York places that were mostly way downtown. We went everywhere and nothing felt right. Jon kept saying, “I want it to be this light show where you see the immigrant journey as a beautiful, elegant ballet.”
Chu: One day, we were touring the New York Transit Museum and learned that we can rent cars from any era and move them on a track. How fun would that be, to move backward through time? So then we started looking at subway stations. They all sucked.
Brooks: One of the MTA people said, “There’s this one abandoned station way out in Brooklyn that ‘Joker’ used.” It’s three stories underground with no elevator. It took five days to rig our lighting and we only got one day to film there, but everyone was up for the challenge.
Lacamoire: We had to change the way the song begins. Onstage, Olga sang it in a chest voice almost like a cry, “Calor! Calor! Calor!,” while the band plays these strong chords.
Quiara Alegría Hudes (screenwriter): Jon was like, “I can’t start a song in a movie with an old woman belting at the top of her lungs. That worked on stage, but onscreen it’d be like, ‘Lady, what’s wrong with you?’” So we made it smaller, like she’s trying to catch her breath on this super hot day. The movie is a love letter to Washington Heights, but when you’re older, New York can be a hard city to live in.
Mitchell Travers (costume designer): Olga’s physicality is incredible, because she’s this gorgeous woman who, when she transforms into Abuela, carries her weight to one side of her body a bit more, slows her gait and does a slight limp. I didn’t want what she was wearing in this sequence to take away from all the work she was doing. We found one with a rectangular shape that was also vibrant enough to be interesting at the center of a frame.
We aged it down so it’d feel like she’s had it for over 20 years, as if it had been mended in a couple of places and washed in the sink of the laundromat over and over. And if you look really closely, you’ll see she wears a watch, which I imagined as belonging to her mother, and a little bracelet a child in the community had made for her. I wanted that pairing of the people who raised her and the people she was raising.
Miranda: When I was writing the section in Cuba, I called a family friend from there and asked, “What is the Washington Heights equivalent of Havana? Like, what is the immigrant working-class neighborhood there that she and her mother would be from?” All the details from that phone conversation are in the song.
Lacamoire: We wanted to honor the Cuban sound, so we have instruments like the tres guitar. The piano plays a montuno; the bass plays a tumbao rhythm. For the movie, we added three more horns than we had on Broadway. The real magic is the strings, which we never got to have on Broadway and make things sound cinematic in the best possible way.
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes explain the reasons behind the musical’s biggest tweaks from the stage to the screen.
June 10, 2021
Williams: For Cuba, I wanted to blend Afro movements with contemporary and salsa and mambo so that it felt as if you were transported. Like you can feel the energy and heat, but also the community. You get this interconnectedness, as if they were all relatives.
Travers: Jon wanted the dancers to look like memories, so we made costumes that were just simple enough so that it reminds you of that time in your life. Just the shapes of hats and silhouettes of the time periods. And we hid everyone’s hair so no specific features stood out, and just kept it about the movement.
Brooks: The MTA lets you use their cars but you cannot touch the lighting. But each car tells a different story, so we needed things to dim on and off as she exited a car, almost like a receding memory where things are in focus for only a moment. And we specifically wanted warm yellow light for Cuba and cold blue light for America. The gaffer had a brilliant idea to create boxes that held battery-operated LED lights that hid perfectly in the cars so we could get the cues we wanted.
Williams: In New York, you can almost hear the noise of all the rushing. It’s all about individuals scurrying around as if they had this tunnel vision of their own specific path.
Scott: There was a point where we were going to have dancers contorting inside telephone booths to show how cramped New York was, but we couldn’t get the permits to get them down there, so we used suitcases.
Brooks: I’m not a crier. I didn’t cry at my wedding, I didn’t cry when my child was born. But the first time I saw Olga get thrown down into the subway seat with people pounding on the windows, I just burst into tears to the point where I was shaking.
Merediz: Those dancers were amazing in the depths of the subway, when it’s 100 degrees outside and a very thin oxygen level down there. It was like going into the bowels of hell!
‘Do I leave or stay?’
Chu: The first time Lin gave me a tour of Washington Heights, he took me to this graffiti tunnel where he shot all his home videos. It’s the most electrifying, magical swirl of colors that’s unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Hudes: Jon and Lin were acting like kindergarten boys on the playground, running around and screaming and playing with the echo. Because it’s three blocks long, it creates this really deep perspective. Jon imagined a dance number in which Abuela Claudia’s ancestors are lined up behind her, literally creating a lineage. It’s so beautiful because we think of Abuela Claudia from a younger point of view, but even the mother has a mother, even the abuela has an abuela.
Chu: It was perfect for the ending. Let’s show that she lived a powerful life and that all these little breadcrumbs that took her left and took her right lined up to put her exactly where she was supposed to be in that moment, to take care of these people and for these people to take care of her.
Miranda: Toward the end of my abuela’s life, we were able to put her in a nursing home in the neighborhood on 190th and Audubon, which is through that tunnel on the 1 train and up the elevator. So for Abuela Claudia to end up singing her song in the tunnel I used to visit the person she was based on was hugely meaningful.
Brooks: That tunnel is 900 feet long. We couldn’t close it off to the public and start shooting until 10 p.m., so before that, we rehearsed and rigged the whole thing with these bands of lights while people were walking through. And we had to be done at 5 a.m. for the people who use the tunnel to get to work.
It was going to be a rainbow of light, but at the last minute, Jon said, “I think it should be red, white and blue — the colors of the Cuban flag, the Puerto Rican flag and the U.S. flag.” It still feels like a rainbow because it’s bouncing off so many colors on the walls.
Miranda: We filmed it on the hottest weekend of the summer. Olga is in all these prosthetics and her makeup is f— melting off.
Brooks: It was so humid, the walls are soaking wet. That tunnel is literally sweating. It became this spectacular reflective surface for the lights.
Lacamoire: On Broadway, the song was a real big gasp moment: When the music came to a halt, she pulled the ticket out, and the audience realized that she was the winner of the lottery.
Miranda: For the movie, we were taking that out, and getting rid of the lyrics, “What do I do with this winning ticket? What can I do but pray?” Without the lottery ticket, she was taking us on this journey while running errands, going to her dry cleaner. We struggled with, why is this song in this movie?
Brooks: It didn’t fit where it was supposed to go, and at one point, they just pulled it out completely. They did a “friends and family” test screening without this number in it. It must not have gone that well, since they added it back.
Hudes: Lin wrote the new lines “I made it through, I survived, I did it. Now, do I leave or stay?” He was talking about Abuela Claudia choosing to stay in the U.S. or going to the [Dominican Republic] with Usnavi. But this question obviously has a much larger resonance for an elderly person: Did I do my job? What did it all add up to?
During that shoot, I was in the producer booth watching it on screen and I said to Scott [Sanders, producer] and Mara [Jacobs, producer], “Her life is literally flashing before her eyes right now. This number is really forecasting her death — people are gonna know.”
Brooks: When we shot it, we just did the intuitive thing: pulling away from her as she walked up the stairs. We didn’t mean for it to be like she’s leaving this world, but it worked perfectly.
Miranda: I didn’t realize in 2004 that I was writing a deathbed song, but it makes sense in the movie.
Merediz: I think it’s a brilliant placement of that song, especially with those new lyrics. It’s been a privilege to have had this journey with this character and been able to grow with her. I’m only now relishing how lucky am I to have originated this role onstage and translate it to film. Very few theater actors get to do that. I wanted to offer her to everyone — her love, wisdom, compassion and empathy.
My last day on set, I was very sad and I said to myself, “This is the final goodbye to Abuela Claudia.” Jon said, “You know, if there’s a remake in 20 years, you could play her. You’d finally be the right age.” Who knows what life has in store?
Ashley Lee is a staff reporter at the Los Angeles Times, where she writes about theater, movies, television and the bustling intersection of the stage and the screen. An alum of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute and Poynter’s Power of Diverse Voices, she leads workshops on arts journalism at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. She was previously a New York-based editor at the Hollywood Reporter and has written for the Washington Post, Backstage and American Theatre, among others. She is currently working remotely alongside her dog, Oliver.