Olga Merediz, Heart and Soul of In The Heights, on Playing the “Quintessential Abuela”

by Gabe Bergado

Olga Merediz
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Olga Merediz tells everybody that she doesn’t remember the lyrics to anything but “Paciencia y Fe,” her electrifying showstopper she delivers in In the Heights as Abuela Claudia. In the production, the beloved matriarch of Washington Heights recounts her childhood, the hot summer days in Havana before moving to Nueva York with her mother, and making the uptown neighborhood their new home. It’s a song that Merediz has performed for years, having originated the role of Abuela Claudia in the production that started Off-Broadway, which opened on Broadway in 2008, and has now transformed into a film adaptation available on HBO Max and in theaters today.

“The most challenging part was singing that song eight shows a week. That last note, ‘Pacienca y feeeeeee,’ many times I almost fainted,” Merediz says over a Zoom call, where she seamlessly sings out the note for a couple of seconds, takes a look at her watch, and continues. “Many times I almost fainted. I would hold that note so long I’d see black and I’d have to stop singing otherwise I was just going to fall over onto the conductor.”

Those who did not have have the pleasure of seeing Merediz perform on stage will get to see her in the film version of the musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hude, which tells the story of a NYC bodega owner and the lives of various Heights residents over the course of a sizzling hot three days. There are bops and bangers about chisme overheard at the hair salon, a coveted $96,000 lottery prize, and more.

Similar to her character, Merediz was born in Cuba. Her family then moved to Miami when she was five, and again to Puerto Rico, which is where she mainly grew up. She has been performing across genres for decades, landing her first film credit in 1984. Merediz has also appeared in dozens of television series, including Law & Order, Orange Is the New Black, George Lopez, Diary of a Future President, and more. Before In the Heights, which nabbed her a Tony nomination, she had a smattering of other Broadway appearances.

Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Despite Merediz’s long history with the character of Abuela Claudia, she didn’t know for sure if she’d be reprising the role in an adaptation for the silver screen. There were plans all the way back in 2008 with another production company that were eventually scrapped, but Merediz remembers while on Broadway seeing a revolving door of celebrities coming backstage and speculating with her castmates, “Oh he wants to play the father, she wants to play the salon lady.” Once Warner Bros. took over production a few years ago, she was eventually asked to audition.

“It’s amazing for me to have this journey with this character from its inception. It’s very rare for a theater actor to have the opportunity to play their role in a movie. I’m so grateful, it’s like a miracle, a dream come true,” Merediz says. “I knew that the audition was make it or break it for me, life or death. I had to really blow it out and do the best job possible.”

Abuela Claudia is the heart and soul of the Heights, often caring for the youngsters on the block. In one touching scene with a young woman who returns home after struggling during her freshman year at Stanford University as a non-white student, the abuela offers sage words that stem from her own feelings and experiences of being in a new, foreign place; to find those “little details that tell the world we are not invisible.” The full gusto of Abuela Claudia is felt during “Paciencia y Fe,” a musical masterpiece that features the matriarch remembering her early days in New York simply trying to survive, from learning English to working as a maid in the Upper East Side. For the number, Claudia is transported back in time while riding the subway, a flurry of dancers flouncing around her as she sings her family’s history. It’s both an ode to everything her own mother gave up to give her daughter a life in the United States and the community and dreams Claudia built and accomplished herself over the years.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Pulling off the spectacle of the number was no easy feat. Merediz explains that the scene commenced filming at 5:30 one evening and she didn’t get home until 14 hours later, at 7:30 the next morning. But between the direction from “genius” Jon M. Chu, the dancers, and the visuals the crew created in the subway tunnels and trains, Merediz says she felt extremely supported and that everything melded together into perfection.

The performer also shares how growing closer with her own mother over the years has made the connection with the character even more intimate. When she was younger, she and her mother were a bit estranged, but by working to strengthen that relationship, she has recognized the incredible gift of growing closer with her mother—so much so that she even filmed a documentary about that journey, titled My Two Moms - A Story of Separation, that will be released later this year.

“I am so thankful that she lived so long that I had the opportunity to have this rapprochement, this togetherness that I have with her now,” Merediz says. She adds while winding up her hands, motioning as if she’s pulling something from deep inside and throwing it out, “I use all of that in Abuela Claudia, all of that stuff.”

As an industry veteran who has held her own since 1981, Merediz says she has seen so much change over the years, especially when it comes to work that is so unapologetically Latino, like In the Heights.

“I was just off the boat, I did a Latino musical called El Bravo at the Entermedia Theater, it was an old Yiddish theater on 2nd Avenue. This was completely ahead of its time. It was headed for Broadway and never made it because people were not ready to see a Latino musical at that time,” she says. “With In the Heights, it’s the movie that we need and it’s going to resonate with everyone. We’re ready for something like this. And there’s more Latinx performers on Broadway. Things have changed, thank God.”

Merediz and In the Heights have undoubtedly come a long way, two forces that have helped make it possible for more Latinx talent to find its way into the performing arts. She has had quite the adventure with Abuela, getting to revisit the character for the film adaptation of the musical. As for what’s next? “I would like to play different roles. What I’m afraid of is that everybody’s going to say, ‘That’s the woman who played Abuela Claudia, let’s get her for the abuela part!’ I feel like after playing this quintessential abuela, I don’t know if I can play any other abuelas,” she says. “I want things that I can transform myself with, I like to play invisible characters and transform myself, I’m a character actress. Things that have depth and are interesting. Hopefully we’ll see. Either that or I’ll retire.”