Watch a trailer for In The Heights
It was during the summer of 2019 that the cast and crew of In The Heights descended on New York to bring the cinematic adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s celebrated musical to the big screen. The film was several years in the making after the critically-acclaimed show — centred on a diverse Latin American community living in the Washington Heights area of the city — came to a close on Broadway in 2011.
Quiara Alegría Hudes was in charge of adapting her original book into a screenplay with Miranda serving as a producer and swapping his original role as lead Usnavi, a bodega shop owner with dreams of selling up and moving back to the Dominican Republic, for a more comical cameo as Piraguero, the Piragua Guy.
Jon M. Chu was hired in 2016 to direct the film having spent several years making franchise sequels like Step Up 3D, G.I. Joe Retaliation and Now You See Me 2 so was looking to make a bigger contribution to the art he loved so much.
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The rights to the film would go through several studio hands before Warner Bros. announced it would be producing the movie — Miranda made Hamilton and Chu made Crazy Rich Asians while they waited for the greenlight — and soon enough, some of the most exciting emerging and established names from the Latin American community had signed up to star.
Yahoo Entertainment UK was invited to the film’s Brooklyn set to check out the action and speak to the cast and crew about the musical event.
This is what we learned...
It’s about the American dream
Usnavi, played by Anthony Ramos isn’t the only key player in this local story; there’s Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a wannabe fashion designer hoping to move downtown to start her label, Benny (Corey Hawkins) works for Rosario’s taxi service and hopes to start a business one day himself and Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and her life partner Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) who are moving their beauty shop a few stops away on the subway. They are dreaming of a better life, a self-made life, and Chu said it’s “the story of America that needs to be told.”
“I’m from a family of immigrants that came over from China and Taiwan and this is the America that I know, that I love,” he said. “I'm living the American Dream, my parents came here and didn't even know the language but they started a Chinese restaurant 50 years [ago].
“I'm in the Hollywood business which I didn't have any connections in so I just felt very blessed and wanted to sort of tell how that feels to be in a community like that.”
The film also explores what the meaning of home is in a diverse community made up of first, second and third generation immigrants with Latin roots but embedded in an American culture of their own definition.
“I came from a family that was very much about following your dreams if you work hard,” said Chu, “I'm not from the Washington Heights community or anything like that but feeling so many connections and that universal feeling of home, finding your home and people having dreams...I think it’s time for this movie made in this way.”
We’re going through changes!
A lot has changed in the world since the musical opened on Broadway in 2008 and both Miranda and Hudes made changes to their original story in order for the characters and plot to better reflect the concerns of Latin-Americans now. The character of Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) has an expanded storyline about being an undocumented minor with other moments touching on microaggressions experienced by people of colour.
A few songs and characters were cut for time too including that of Camila Rosario, the mother of Nina. Leslie Grace, who plays Nina, said that decision has an emotional resonance for her journey as a Stanford student; everyone expects big things, including her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) who is investing all of his money into her success, but is uncomfortable with the educational environment she was met with.
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“The financial restraints are still there but the pressure is just a bit deeper now because in the film I don’t have a mom,” Grace said. “She knows that her dad is basically giving up the only memory that they have of this family business, for her to just be able to go back.”
Carla and Daniela, meanwhile, are no longer just co-workers but life partners.
“They're married in this film version,” explained Beatriz, with Rubin-Vega adding, “she's my kooky partner!”
The salon is the heart of the community
Carla and Daniela’s salon is the “epicentre” of this little community not least because during the heatwave of the film, it provides the locals some respite from the climbing temperatures. “The salon is the only place with air conditioning,” Chu said. “So when you come into the salon, you feel like you're floating above the whole place. You come here to feel good about yourself, to love yourself, look good coming out and hear all the gossip. It's awesome.”
On set, they are shooting the salon sequence for the song 'No Me Diga', a lively number that sees clients and stylists dancing around the small space, with wigs on mannequins swinging, as they playfully muse on the romances of Nina and Benny and Usnavi and Vanessa.
"We have wigs like a Greek chorus, puppeted by dancers,” said production designer Nelson Coates. “We were going to have loads of crazy magical things like musicians bursting from the mirrors, but at that point it felt like a step too far."
The power of three in charge is Daniela, Carla and Cuca, played by Dascha Polanca, a character created for the movie.
“We, as a team, cover the element of unity in the community,” said Polanco. “Where everybody pretty much goes and divulges all the information like girls to their therapists.”
“We are like the witches in the Scottish play!” Rubin-Vega added.
But this salon is more than just a forum for gossip, it’s a place that is not only representative of the diversity of the Latinx community today but an empowering statement of what they can inspire.
“Salons and women of colour in particular, have a history,” Rubin-Vega said. “It's a way to be empowered individually, to have your own agency.”
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“It's not it's not a mistake that there's lots of different kinds of Latinos in that salon,” added Beatriz. “Lots of different sexual orientations in that salon all existing in the same space and lifting each other in celebration.”
“Playing this moment is not just, “Hey, we're nails and hair,” we're the source of where we feel comfortable,” she said. “We represent not only salon girls like Carla, we represent what we need to see on the screen, the stories that must be told, especially in the year 2021.”
Dance, dance, dance
Chu feels the same way about musicals as he feels about dance: it allows powerful feelings to be expressed when simply talking doesn’t emote enough. “What I love about dancers, and especially street dancers themselves, is that it came out of necessity to express themselves with more than just words,” the director said. “Like, my body needs to express this frustration or this joy, or whatever it is, with not being taught it but just doing it. Musicals do the same for me when words aren't enough, it just needs to be expressed.”
So he built his dance troupe movers and shakers from the street as well as the stage who could embody the heightened emotions of this community of people with a shared culture. Grace said it was “wonderful” to see so many different faces come together for the dance numbers but also fill out their rich, vibrant world.
“There's so many real people here, you could almost know these women, real faces that would really be in the community, not just dancers, but like real people that would live in the community and all of these numbers,” Grace said. “In one of the numbers, Carnival, we all felt that energy of 75 plus dancers, plus the cast, and to feel the pride, the weight of what this is going to be for the community and for people around the world to see that we make things like this and that they are relatable, it’s groundbreaking.”
Ramos felt just as emotional seeing New Yorkers from in and around the area turning up to watch them shoot the film. “People love Lin, especially up in the Heights,” he recalls.
“[They] would stick around and watch, people would come from other boroughs to watch on the street and from a distance to see the dance numbers and it was awesome.”
“The show is not like Les Mis that was on Broadway for God knows how long but people were just mad fired up because this is a musical about real people, doing real things, dressed up like the everyday people who just happen to be singing.”
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Hawkins too remembers the welcoming attitude of the people in the areas they were shooting, including at the Highbridge Park pool where a synchronised swimming was shot for the number '96,000', the George Washington Bridge, the street art covered tunnel at 191st Street and the streets of Washington Heights, when they weren’t shooting interior scenes of Usnavi’s bodega and the salon, sets built in a Brooklyn warehouse.
“This has been such an embracing thing,” Hawkins said. “You see guys on their motorcycles riding up doing wheelies, and Jon's like, ‘shoot it,’ you know, let's let the community in. “When we were shooting ‘When You're Home’ in the park, people just came and brought their coolers, you couldn't tell who were in the background and who was in the movie!”
Chemistry from the get go
With two concurrent romance storylines playing out, it was important to cast actors who could not only keep their characters grounded and down to earth but able to lift up and inspire when they’re romantic moments hit. Ramos was one of the earliest actors cast having previously appeared as Usnavi for a musical special during the Kennedy Center Honours, but when he knew Barrera was testing, he slid into her DMs.
“I hit her up privately on Instagram and said, you know, we're doing this chemistry test if you want to meet up, like an hour before the audition, to grab a bite so [after] we can go in there and act like we've been in love for all this time,” he said. “That little bit of time we had with each other I think was monumental. In the reading the chemistry was crazy. She's one of the best scene partners I’ve ever had, period.”
Ultimately, this is a film with acceptance in mind. Accepting who you are, your dreams, ambitions and feeling pride in your culture especially when it has found its home in a different land of opportunity. Certainly, for Ramos, it was a guiding ideal in his portrayal of Usnavi and his understanding of what this movie could offer an audience both within and outside of the Latin community.
“The whole movie is about listening to your heart, listening to that voice inside of you that we tend to ignore,” he says, pointing to the very human habit of thinking the grass is always greener. “More than ever now, social media is crazy. You look at somebody’s page and see someone’s outfit and think I wish I had some shit like that in my closet.
“But it’s like, focus on what you have in your own closet and make the most of what is going on in there,” he added. “I think In The Heights is a movie about looking in your own closet as opposed to somebody else's.”
In The Heights is in UK cinemas on 18 June.
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