In the Heights – From Musical Play To Vibrant Cinematic Event

The creator of Hamilton and the director of Crazy Rich Asians invite you to a cinematic event, where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big, fusing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s kinetic music and lyrics with director Jon M. Chu’s lively and authentic eye for storytelling to capture a world very much of its place, but universal in its experience.

“I started writing this show when I was 19-years-old, and I just turned 41, says Lin-Manuel Miranda. “Even when I was 19, this show was bigger than it had any right to be. It was bigger than was possible for me to mount in college; it was bigger than we could mount in the basement of the drama book shop. Finally, with this movie, Jon has brought it to the biggest canvas possible. To imagine 500 people dancing to your music in the middle of Highbridge Park pool… for me, every day was a dream come true.”  

Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award-winning songwriter, actor and director Lin-Manuel Miranda is the creator and original star of Broadway’s Tony-winning “Hamilton”and “In the Heights.” Additional Broadway: “Freestyle Love Supreme” (Co-Founder, Guest Star), “Bring It On: The Musical”(co-composer/co-lyricist) and “West Side Story”(2009 revival, Spanish translations). Lin-Manuel Miranda, and The Miranda Family, are active supporters of initiatives that increase people of color’s representation throughout the arts and government, assure access to women’s reproductive health and promote resilience in Puerto Rico. TV/Film credits include:Hamilton, His Dark Materials, Fosse/Verdon, Saturday Night Live, Sesame Street, Moana and Mary Poppins Returns.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

“The whole thing is a love letter to this incredible neighborhood. It’s a first chapter in so many stories—American stories start here”

Lin-Manuel Miranda is effusive when he talks about Washington Heights, the neighborhood that is his home—up in the northernmost part of Manhattan, beginning at 155th Street and stretching for nearly 40 blocks. But perhaps he is even more exuberant discussing the musical play-turned-film inspired by that community, “In the Heights.”

Miranda explains, “It’s always been an immigrant community. Now, it’s a Latinx neighborhood; it was Dominican when I was growing up in the ‘80s. Before that, it was Irish, it was Italian, it was Jewish. It’s always the first chapter in so many stories, and that’s what makes it universal. And being first-generation kids, we always wonder, what would it have been like if our parents had stayed? Those really personal questions—what does ‘home’ even mean? And every character in this is answering it in a different way. For some, home is somewhere else, and for others, home is the block that they’re on. That’s worth singing about and worth celebrating in a movie of this size.”

Lights up on Washington Heights… The scent of a cafecito caliente hangs in the air just outside of the 181st Street subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies this vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is the likeable, magnetic bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who saves every penny from his daily grind as he imagines, hopes and sings about a better life.

Director Jon M. Chu directed In The Heights from a screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the multiple-Tony-winning musical stage play, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegría Hudes and concept by Miranda.

Chu grew up far from New York City in California but felt a personal connection to the story as a first-gen American as well. “I knew what it felt like to be an immigrant kid,” he offers, “and to watch the community that grew out of that and to decide: what do you choose to carry forward as an American now living here and calling this place home?

Jon M. Chu

“This past year has been hard for everybody, we had to deal with a lot,” Chu continues. “And the only people we could turn to were each other. That’s the spirit of this movie—that’s what Lin and Quiara created so many years ago and that I’ve been lucky enough to be invited in to. It’s what you felt on the streets of Washington Heights every day before the pandemic. I got to learn day-by-day, listening and discovering every word, every line and what they meant in the musical. Along the way, I could not have anticipated the amount of stuff that I would learn about simply being a human being.”

Jon M. Chu notes, “Some of the initial discussions, when we pitched this, were about ‘In the Heights’ being a ‘street musical,’ in air quotes. Eventually, we would describe it as a ‘dream musical.’ When I first met with the cast, everyone shared their wistful dreams you have as a kid. “This piece is actually about people with walls not big enough to contain their hearts,” he closes. “They deserve a cinematic experience as big as you can get. Everyone is fighting their own challenges in this, flying their dreams as banners, and we get to witness that.”

Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda Team Up for New Animated Movie  Vivo | TheaterMania
Screenwriter and producer Quiara Alegría Hudes with Lin-Manuel Miranda

Also a resident of Washington Heights, screenwriter and producer Quiara Alegría Hudes—who also wrote the book for the original musical—says, “I’m like my parents were. They came from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia—I came from Philly to New York. There’s a line in the movie, ‘We’re a people on the move.’ For me, it’s about the heart, integrity and intentionality behind the life you live. Now, I have new neighbors here, and I’m getting to know a new barrio in Washington Heights. Some of that heart is the same—check on your neighbor, the old lady who lives on the corner, as you’re walking by. Does she need groceries or a coffee? That’s the little, humble seeds that become these big numbers onscreen. That’s the heart behind it, these little interactions that together weave a really wide fabric. That to me is home—the intentionality you bring with you wherever you are.”

Quiara Alegría Hudes

Quiara Alegría Hudes (Writer / Producer)  is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Water By the Spoonful” and the author of a new memoir, My Broken Language. With collaborator Lin-Manuel Miranda, she wrote the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “In the Heights.” Her notable essays include “High Tide of Heartbreak” in American Theatre magazine and “Corey Couldn’t Take It Anymore” in The Cut. In opposition of the carceral state, Hudes and her cousin founded Emancipated Stories, a platform where people behind bars can share one page of their life story with the world. As a barrio feminist and joyous mischief maker, Quiara y su hermana created the Latinx Casting Manifesto. A passionate wife and mom, Hudes is a native of West Philly, U.S.A., and now lives with her family in Washington Heights, NY.

“Returning to ‘In the Heights’ was thrilling as an opportunity,” offers Quiara Alegría Hudes, “because the play is set on the block, so the stage is the block. But Usnavi… his body is in the Heights, but half of his heart is in the Dominican Republic—the camera can go there in a way that the stage couldn’t. It gave me the chance to go into their dreams. We could also go to other places in the community. It was a big, beautiful playground in which to have fun. I wanted to take this as a way for people who already know and love the musical to discover new things in it. Keep the heart and soul and add to it, and go to new and surprising places, so you can have an even deeper experience if you are already familiar with it… and a wonderful, exciting experience if you are new to it.”

Ultimately, In the Heights is a musical portrait of a community full of lively numbers as diverse as its cast. The story weaves together an ensemble of characters during one particular summer of seismic change in all of their lives, with much of the action taking place at one intersection central to the neighborhood. The songs and dances cover a variety of styles—from hip-hop to Latin to pop and musical theater—and this provides ample opportunity to explore the varied influences of the distinct Latin cultures that merge and continue to populate and represent Washington Heights.

It’s the timing in the piece that stands out to producer Scott Sanders: “One of the things that people discover about ‘In the Heights’ is that the immigrant experience is absolutely relatable. I think, overall, the world is migrant in a way that it’s never been before, and the experience of having an immigrant community within a community is global. I also think it’s being thought about in new ways—diversity, representation, inclusion. And so, the idea that this movie can come in and help us look at what that experience is about and process it in a positive, humanistic way, gives a wonderful grounding to this film, for audiences domestically and internationally. Hopefully, even though this is a little microcosm in upper Manhattan in New York, people will see more commonalities than differences. Nothing better than music and dance to be the common glue to bring all of that, and us, together.”

Principal photography took place on location in the titular neighborhood, and producer Anthony Bregman found the blending of subject and place to be inseparable. He remembers, “Shooting ‘In the Heights’ in the actual Heights was key to us, because the stories being told in the screenplay are intrinsic to the community. The streets were busy all day and at night until the wee hours. Music was coming out of boomboxes on corners, the windows of apartments, radios in cars, underscored with car and motorcycle engines revving. It really felt like what’s said in the movie, that the streets are alive with music. That hum, that energy pervaded the production and the performances. It seemed to make everyone come alive, but also rooted them to this place in realistic and romantic ways.”

While In the Heights may come from a variety of deeply personal places for the filmmakers, producer Mara Jacobs observes that its strength comes from its universality. No matter where the audience hails from, “I think that anyone watching the movie can say, ‘That’s Washington Heights. I may not know it, but that’s also my neighborhood.’”

Referring to the shift of the film’s release date from summer 2020 to summer 2021, she continues, “If we had done this movie several years ago, or released last year, it would have been a different movie that carried a different meaning than it does today. The timing is right for now.”

Stage Musical To Feature Film: “¿Qué quiere decir Sueñito?”

Lin-Manuel Miranda completed his first draft of the stage musical “In The Heights” during his sophomore year at Wesleyan University, where it was performed as part of the school’s Second Stage. There, the 80-minute one-act played for a mere three days, but the potential for a grander production was evident from the start. Even now, after a wildly successful Broadway run and film adaptation, Miranda is amazed that it all started when he was still that young. Having recently seen a stage production of the work, he muses, “I went to see something a child wrote—a child version of me.”

It wasn’t until later, when Miranda and his team were building towards an off-Broadway run, that playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes joined the project. Hudes had recently moved to New York and a reading of a play she had written about the Latino community in Philadelphia had attracted the attention of producer Jill Furman, who arranged a meeting between Hudes and Miranda.

Hudes points to this first meeting with Miranda as not only a turning point for the project, but also for her life. “I think when we had our first meal together, the things that we had in common were how much the family stories that we held meant to us—they fueled us, gave us joy, purpose—even when we were asking big questions about identity: are we Puerto Rican enough? are we American enough? We both had really strong cores, which was clear from that meal together. That’s the stuff that true friendship is built on.”

Their collaboration would later earn them both Tony Awards, numerous world tours and legions of fans. After a stint off-Broadway, where it collected nine Drama Desk nominations with two wins (including Miranda’s Most Promising Male Performer), “In the Heights” opened in the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway on March 9, 2008. It ran for nearly 1,200 performances and racked up 13 Tony nominations, earning four—Best Musical, Original Score, Choreography and Orchestrations. The accolades did not end there, as the Original Cast Recording won the production a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album and the Pulitzer Prize committee named the show a finalist for its accolade for drama.

Later, while “In the Heights” was winding its 10-year path from Broadway stage to motion picture screen, Miranda transformed the theatrical landscape with “Hamilton,” which found itself at the center of zeitgeist discussions about culture and representation, presenting the story of the founding and shaping of America as a whip-smart, hip-hop musical epic forged by immigrants. Miranda and the show were steeped in awards, among them a Pulitzer Prize in Drama, 11 Tonys (out of a record-tying 16 nominations) and a special Kennedy Center Honors (for Miranda, Thomas Kail, Andy Blankenbuehler and Alex Lacamoire) for their collaborative achievement in “Hamilton” and its continued artistic impact.

Jon M. Chu on diversity in Hollywood and new movie 'In the Heights' - CNN  Style

By the time the film “In the Heights” landed Chu as director, translating the show from stage to screen had already been at the forefront of filmmaker discussion. Hudes boils it down: “On the stage, ‘In the Heights’ runs two-and-a-half hours. There are many lead characters, and if we tried to get all that onscreen, the movie would be too long and lack focus. For me, it wasn’t about cutting, it was about focusing.”

Hard choices were made, like saying goodbye to a handful of numbers and the character Camilla Rosario (Nina’s mother and Kevin’s wife) from the original production. After that decision, “it was important to me to still have a traditional married couple in the piece, so I decided that couple would now be Daniela and Carla, and they own the salon together,” Hudes supplies. This allowed her to pay tribute to the impact queer individuals have had on communities like Washington Heights and, at the same time, shine some light on an oft-omitted group in media. “I didn’t know any queer women from the culture on stage and screen that were iconic for me… but I did in the community, big time. And so, it’s really nice to introduce Daniela and Carla as a couple now.”

Some characters’ stories were also enlarged and given more resonance for an audience in 2021. Nina’s reticence to return to Stanford is no longer fueled only by financial concerns, and Sonny is now facing immigration issues. “The amount of heat and intensity surrounding people like Sonny feels different now,” Hudes notes. “I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to fold a more immediate immigrant story into his character.”

Miranda adds: “When you hear Sonny say, ‘racism latent to blatant,’ it’s more true now than it was in 2008.” He continues, “Quiara has written an incredible screenplay. I’ve always thought the themes of ‘In the Heights’ are home, community and how America is made better by the people who come here to start new chapters in their lives. All of that is even more important now than when I first wrote the show.”

For Miranda and Hudes, the most exciting element in the journey from stage to screen was bringing on Jon M. Chu as director. His passion for directing music and dance onscreen is in abundance in his films and his “League of Extraordinary Dancers” project. His critically and commercially successful adaptation of the bestselling novel “Crazy Rich Asians” was colorful and dynamic, and changed the perception in Hollywood of how a blockbuster is supposed to look.

Chu likewise felt the adaptation process was one of plumbing greater depths: “People kept asking me, ‘How will you make it cinematic? How will you blow it up? What will you do to make it big?’ In fact, we went inside. We went internal to blow it up, because internally, there’s no small story. In your mind, your dreams and your hopes are bigger than any journey to the moon, any adventure to some deserted island. To show what people in Washington Heights dream about and imagine themselves as is as exciting as anything else. I credit Quiara and Lin with allowing us to find the cinematic voice of the piece. Not a lot of people would understand that translation. I’m sure it was scary at times, breaking it and re-breaking it, trying to find the right fit. But, without such an amazing partnership, we wouldn’t have been able to present it in film.”

Hudes assures any anxious fans of the show that no matter how it may have evolved for the screen, its essence remains the same: “‘In the Heights’ is a piece about joy. That has never changed.”

In The Heights', Lin-Manuel Miranda Movie Musical, To Open Summer 2021 –  Deadline

Building A Community

Filmmakers were determined to assemble the right ensemble and, with the studio signing on to their policy of “best actor regardless of name recognition,” authenticity in the part became the goal of casting.

Recalling the many months spent during the process, Chu remembers, “I think there was a lot of trust that had to be built up from the very beginning, when we first met the performers in auditions. We knew each of them had something very special in their chemistry and in their own story of how they became an actor, a singer or dancer. When you put them in a soup together and they are very, very different from each other, you get to see how complementary—or contradictory—they are with each other.”

In the Heights (2021) - IMDb

Hudes joined Chu and Miranda in the painstaking process, pushing to make the onscreen community as diverse as the one just out of frame. While going through dance auditions, she remembers saying, “If we only cast a dance corps with teenagers and performers up to their mid-30s, it won’t be reflective of the neighborhood. We need to have elderly dancers doing it in their style. That will reflect how it happens on the streets.”

Casting sessions were held in Los Angeles and New York, but also in Washington Heights and surrounding neighborhoods as well, and the reaction they got from local residents proved inspiring. Miranda and Hudes often personally attended the sessions, even calls for extras, which created a buzz throughout the community. “It was so exciting,” Hudes relates. “We were onstage and someone yelled out, ‘We’re gonna make you proud, Lin!’ It was really beautiful!”

In the Heights stars Anthony Ramos (A Star is Born, Broadway’s “Hamilton”), Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton, Kong: Skull Island), singer/songwriter Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera (TV’s “Vida”), Olga Merediz (Broadway’s “In the Heights”), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Broadway’s “Rent”), Gregory Diaz IV (Broadway’s “Matilda the Musical”), Stephanie Beatriz (TV’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), Dascha Polanco (TV’s “Orange Is the New Black”) and Jimmy Smits (the “Star Wars” films).