For most artists, the harshest critic in their life isn’t The New York Times, it’s themselves. Case in point: Pulitzer-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes. “No one scrutinizes the work more than I do,” she said over Skype from La Jolla, Calif., where she’s readying her newest project, a musical called Miss You Like Hell. It isn’t just based on her 2009 play 26 Miles; it emerged from her dissatisfaction with the original.
“It was one that I felt never lived up to its full potential,” she explained. “But the idea itself I thought had greater potential, so it was hard for me to let it go.”
It wasn’t that the play hadn’t been successful—it had a well-received productions across the country, and was published in American Theatre’s July/Aug. ’09 issue—or that Hudes needed to recycle material. Her most recent play, Daphne’s Dive, received a much-lauded run at Signature Theatre in New York City this past spring, following the national success of her “Elliot Trilogy,” which won her the 2012 Drama Pulitzer for its middle installment, Water by the Spoonful.
But she felt more than a vague discontent with 26 Miles; in recent years, Hudes had gone so far as to pull rights on a few productions because of her unhappiness with the play. While she felt the story—of an estranged mother and daughter on a road trip across America to repair their relationship—had merit, she felt she “never captured the scale of the America I wanted to capture, I never captured the mother and daughter the way I wanted to capture them.” Hudes had a personal connection to the work: It was inspired by a road trip she took with her own mother to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
To rethink the work, Hudes teamed with singer/songwriter Erin McKeown, director Lear deBessonet, and actor Daphne Rubin-Vega. The show, now called Miss You Like Hell, plays at La Jolla Playhouse, Oct. 25-Dec. 2. A much-anticipated work, it was extended even before previews began.
Miss You Like Hell isn’t just an adaptation of 26 Miles with musical underscoring. In fact, Hudes changed and revised it so much that some of the only traces of the original are the main characters’ names: Beatriz, the mother, and Olivia, the daughter. Also surviving is a sort of aria, spoken by a Peruvian-American tamale seller living in South Dakota, who “gives a whole big monologue on what his recipe is,” Hudes said, only now it’s set to music. “That was kind of ripe from the plucking to write a song.”
In turning 26 Miles into a musical, Hudes didn’t just add songs and running time; she also increased the cast size. The original play had a cast of four, with two cast members doubling as characters that Beatriz and Olivia meet on their journey across America, while Miss You Like Hell boasts a cast of 10, and there are more stops on the road trip. That’s where the music comes in.
When Hudes was seeking a musical collaborator, she was given a list of singer/songwriters by a friend. “I wanted a composer who was playing with a broad range of American idioms, because I wanted this to feel like we touched different corners of our country in musical ways,” explained Hudes.
Because the road trip in Miss You Like Hell starts in Philadelphia, where Hudes was born, and ends in Los Angeles—with stops in Ohio, Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Wyoming along the way, among other places—music could be a shorthand to denote place without relying on dialogue or set design.
From that initial list of musicians, one name stood out: Erin McKeown, whose music is usually categorized as folk/rock but which also incorporates blues, jazz, gospel, and hip-hop. Her facility in playing with different styles made her an ideal fit for Miss You Like Hell, Hudes felt, though she had never written a musical before. (Hudes, notably, co-wrote the Tony-winning In the Heights.)
For her part, McKeown related most to the road trip within the story, being a traveling musician. “It definitely meshes really well with my life,” she said over the phone after a rehearsal. “It’s one of the great pleasures of my singer/songwriter career, honestly—to get to know America in that very intimate, town-to-town way.”
Less familiar to her has been turning that experience into a piece of theatre. She describes writing a musical as “the most difficult and challenging songwriting that I’ve done.” She and Hudes cowrote the lyrics, and McKeown described her the music as “choral singing with a deeply rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section rolling underneath it. It also has elements of electronic music, straight-up American blues, and plenty of rhythms from the southwestern United States.”
At the center of Miss You Like Hell is the mending of Beatriz and Olivia’s relationship. And herein lies another notable difference between the new show and its precursor, which, Hudes said, raised more questions than it answered.
“Where are this estranged mother and daughter going and why? What is the ticking clock of their road trip? Also, why are they estranged?”
In updating original the play, which was set in 1986, to the present day, she found a through line that felt truer, as well as more timely. Olivia is still the daughter of a white father and a Latina mother (now Mexican, changed from Cuban), but this time there’s a new wrinkle. “They were separated because the mother was not a citizen, and that got her into trouble when there was a custody case,” explained Hudes. “That was a reason for them to be estranged and it’s also a reason for them to get back together, which is that the mom is facing her final [immigration] hearing.”
This new layer struck a personal nerve with actress Daphne Rubin-Vega, as it was it was reminiscent of her own family’s story. Rubin-Vega immigrated to the United States from Panama when she was 2 with her mother, Daphine, who died when Rubin-Vega was 10. In playing Beatriz, the mother in the play, Rubin-Vega chose to channel Daphine And her research for the role led to her looking through her family’s immigration papers.
“It makes me just look and see the sacrifices that every immigrant makes,” Rubin-Vega said over the phone before a rehearsal. “I think about the personal price that my mother made coming to this country, and getting married, falling in love with someone who actually adopted her children, and the tragedy of her dying right after that.”
Miss You Like Hell marks 10 years since Rubin-Vega has been in a musical; her last foray into that realm was as Fantine in Les Misérables on Broadway. She’s been acting in plays since, most notably as Stella in the 2012 Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. She says she’s been waiting for a musical to speak to her in such an intensely personal and culturally specific way. Because unlike Stella and Fantine and other nontraditional roles, Miss You Like Hell allows Rubin-Vega to play something that is still rare onstage: a powerful, multifaceted Latina lead character.
“It’s a huge honor to play a role where I actually look like the person,” said Rubin-Vega, who first broke through as Rent’s original Mimi. “A lot of us spend our whole life trying to adapt, to put ourselves into something and to be told that it’s not quite it. So we create roles for us, and that’s what we’re doing here. And it’s not just for us, it’s for the world, but we’re telling the story.”
The “we” is a multicultural cast that is Latinx but also black, Asian, white, and everything in between. And besides immigration and family conflict, Miss You Like Hell also touches on materialism, gay marriage, and the history of people of color in America. It’s showcasing a country that is becoming more diverse every day.
“It’s my kind of throwing my hat in the ring about what a normal American life looks like,” Hudes said. “We were interested in a theatrical fantasia on the state of the nation.”