How Musical 'Miss You Like Hell' Brings Immigration Issues to the Stage

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Joan Marcus
Rubin-Vega onstage as Beatriz.

"It felt like I poked the universe, and Quiara appeared,” says singer-songwriter Erin McKeown. It was 2011, and McKeown was about to leave for a “life-changing” trip to the border city of Nogales in Arizona and Mexico, when she was first approached by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes.

Hudes -- a Barack Obama supporter who had nonetheless been disillusioned by the rise in deportations early in his presidency -- was searching for a creative partner to write a new musical that, while “not an issue play,” would paint a rich picture of the country today, including the struggle of Latin American immigrants. The result of the Hudes-McKeown partnership: Miss You Like Hell, one of the spring theater season’s potential hits, arriving at New York’s Public Theater, where Hamilton premiered in 2015, for an April 8 opening after an extended run last year at La Jolla Playhouse in California.

Miss You Like Hell tells the story of Beatriz, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, and her daughter, who reconnect and embark on a road trip across the United States. “I’ve found in my own work that the more explicitly political you make something, the less effective it is,” says McKeown. “The more fulfilling and effective activism comes from just focusing on the relationship between people.”

She and Hudes, who created the lyrics together (Hudes wrote the book for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, and is herself also a composer), were inspired by a mélange of American sounds, resulting in a show that Hudes describes as having “the vibe of a rock concert,” with the band onstage. One particular star performer adds to the electricity: Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi in trailblazing rock musical Rent, plays Beatriz. “It’s not every day that a Latina gets a role that is as powerful as Blanche DuBois -- a real beast of a role to wrap your arms and whole body around, that’s written for someone who looks like you,” says Rubin-Vega. “When I was 17,” notes Hudes of Rubin-Vega, “she was the first Latina I ever saw onstage. To create a role for her all these decades later? I’m proud as hell of that.” 

This article originally appeared in the April 14 issue of Billboard.