‘In The Heights’: backstage on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical

How do you follow 'Hamilton'? With a big-hearted summer blockbuster. We meet the cast and creators of this feel-good classic

Few films this year showcase the pure joy a big screen experience can bring like new musical In the Heights – an all-singing, all-dancing delight that, at its best, is a perfect marriage of Broadway fun and Hollywood spectacle. As cinemas slowly reopen after lockdown, there’s no better film with which to kick off a summer of movies.

Its co-creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, of course, shot to fame in the 2010s with hip-hop stage hit Hamilton – but before that, In The Heights allowed him to make his Broadway debut (and a living) in 2008. 13 years later and we’re finally getting a film version of the coming-of-age tale about a New York bodega owner who dreams of better things, adapted by original book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes and Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu. Rocketman, La La Land and the Mamma Mia franchise have all bossed the box office in recent years – but it’s up to the king of musical theatre to prove this genre revival has legs.

“‘Hamilton’ doesn’t exist without ‘In the Heights'”
– Lin-Manuel Miranda

In the Heights is also a huge cultural moment for Latino Americans. Miranda had been trying to get the movie, which focuses on the mostly Latino community of Washington Heights in New York, made for years, but had come up against the usual studio excuses for why it wouldn’t work. With fresh young talent like Anthony Ramos and Leslie Grace alongside veterans in Olga Merediz and Daphne Rubin-Vega, the diverse cast has the potential to pave the way for more positive representation. “The conversation has really shifted,” Miranda tells NME. “Like, what power do we have and what platforms do we have to get our stories told? We don’t want to see the stories that others have been telling about us. We would like to see the stories that we tell for ourselves. In a lot of ways the world feels ready for that.”

The co-creator

Lin-Manuel Miranda

What do Hamilton fans need to know before watching In The Heights?

Hamilton doesn’t exist without In the Heights. It was my coming-of-age graduate school. [Screenwriter] Quiara [Alegría Hudes] and I spent the better part of our twenties writing that show together, and I would put everything I learned on that to use in Hamilton, particularly in how hip-hop is an underused tool in theatre.”

Tell us about hip-hop and In The Heights

“My favourite hip-hop songs all tell stories. Musical theatre composers often assign themes to different characters, and then bring those themes back around. But when you get to assign flows to character – Usnavi [Anthony Ramos] raps like this and Benny [Corey Hawkins] raps like this, and when they get together it sounds like this – it becomes a whole other level of lyrical dexterity, and a way of letting us know who these people are and how they fit into the world. There’s also a blink and you’ll miss it Hamilton Easter egg in our movie, which is a reference to [the song] ‘You’ll Be Back’.”

We heard you filmed next door to Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story?

“It was unbelievably surreal! I directed West Side Story in my senior year in high school. If there’s a show I know the score to better than anything, it’s West Side Story. There was one day when I texted [screenwriter] Tony Kushner, and he came over and saw the last few moments of our day. Then I walked over to his set and I watched the last few moments of ‘Maria’. That was a moment of serendipity when we were within blocks of each other.”

In The Heights
Anthony Ramos plays Dominican bodega owner Usnavi. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

The cast

Anthony Ramos

Who they play: Usnavi

What they get up to: Dominican bodega owner Usnavi is saving up to return to the Republic and buy the beach bar once owned by his father. He’s also been crushing on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), but is too nervous to ask her out.

What does Washington Heights mean to you?

“I grew up in a neighbourhood like Washington Heights. I lived there after I graduated college too. That predominantly Latino community is very familiar to me – that’s where I’m most comfortable. With the city being tough, it gives you this extra layer [of protection], I was able to relate to Usnavi because of that. I would never live anywhere else.”

How did it feel to be working on such a huge project?

“I felt like we were making a piece of art, and we were making something that was way bigger than any of us. We ain’t never seen a movie like this. We’ve never seen 70 Latinos in the middle of the street dancing, singing about pride in an alleyway and raising their flags. I’m really celebrating the Latino diaspora in this way. I kept saying that this is for the ancestors that came before to give us all a better life. And then, God willing, the kids who watch this movie will say: ‘That character looks and sounds like me!’”

In The Heights
Melissa Barrera and Anthony Ramos in ‘In The Heights’. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Melissa Barrera

Who they play: Vanessa

What they get up to: Vanessa works at the local salon, but she dreams of moving downtown and opening a dress shop filled with her designs.

What was your favourite scene to film?

“I have this calendar and I wrote what we were shooting each day in it. I remember making a note of ‘Champagne’, because I was excited and nervous about it. We were going to sing it live and in one single take. I grew up doing theatre and that’s what I went to school for – it felt like a very theatrical scene to do.”

How did it go?

“There’s something to say about being completely in the moment and letting your emotions take over – and telling the story from beginning to end without having to cut and do different camera setups. It was very exciting!”

Corey Hawkins
Corey Hawkins during ‘96,000’ set piece at Highbridge Pools, New York. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Corey Hawkins

Who they play: Benny

What they get up to: Benny works as a dispatcher for the local car service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), whose daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) – Benny’s former love – has just arrived back in town.

You share a lot of scenes with Leslie Grace, do you remember your first meeting?

“We were walking down the street in New York City to go and meet our casting directors for a chemistry read, and we got to the door at the same time. I remember us both putting our hands on the door to open it at the same time. It was one of those magical moments. We rode up the elevator together. We were confused and bumbling around… that never left throughout the entire shoot! It’s easy to get jaded sometimes. But with this being Leslie’s first film, I got to look into her eyes every day and see the innocence of being on a movie set for the first time. It was amazing.”

The song ‘96,000’ was filmed at New York’s Highbridge Pools – were you looking forward to a dip?

“Up until that point, I was asking Jon [M. Chu]: ‘Do I have to take my shirt off in the pool?’ I really didn’t want to. He was like: ‘Yeah, I mean, it’s a pool. Like, why would you keep your shirt on?’ I didn’t want to take my shirt off bro. I ain’t got muscles popping out, you know? So I circled that day in the calendar, because I was like, once it’s done you can have some McDonald’s afterwards! In the film, it’s supposed to be the hottest day of the year, but it was the coldest day of the summer when we shot it! It rained on everybody. Then we had to wait another few weeks. So I had to re-circle it and stay on the diet! But once we wrapped it we all piled into Anthony’s trailer and got that McDonald’s!”

Leslie Grace
Leslie Grace (centre), as Nina during a visit to the salon. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Leslie Grace

Who they play: Nina

What they get up to: an A+ student, Nina is considering dropping out of Stanford due to racial micro-aggressions and the financial strain her education is putting on the family business.

In The Heights was your first experience on a film set…

“It was! And I knew that it was an anomaly to have all these people – a Latin-leading cast, people of colour in general and the entire spectrum of Latinidad – represented. I was like: ‘These people look like my family, this looks like what I grew up with’ – and it made me feel so validated and so empowered. I hope that people take that from the movie too. That’s our goal.”

What was Lin-Manuel like to work with?

“He was so excited to share everything. We all felt the internal pressure to not mess up this thing that he made – Jon included. But anytime Lin was there, he was like: “Yo, the day that I wrote this song it was after I went on a date with Vanessa, we had just started dating.” He would give us all the context for these moments that we were recreating on set so that we could feel almost liberated, with all the support that we needed to make this story our own.”

The screenwriter

Quiara Alegría Hudes

In the Heights opened on Broadway in 2008 – how did you update the story for 2021?

“I’m really glad we decided to set the movie now, because the neighbourhood that I and Lin-Manuel both live in continues to thrive and be vibrant and rich with culture and gorgeous geography and all of those things. A lot of that hasn’t changed, but there were some new things. One of those things was the fever pitch surrounding the immigration conversation in this nation. I definitely folded that in more consciously and more explicitly.”

How close were the visuals in the movie to what you had imagined?

“In some they match up pretty well. For ‘Paciencia Y Fe’, I had scripted it as a very long escalator ride, but Jon put in another stop and that became a very long tunnel. Some we changed on-site – this is what happens when you film on location in Washington Heights. I hadn’t scripted anything to be in the Highbridge Pools. But as we were doing our location scout, Jon asked: “What else haven’t I seen in your neighbourhood?” I was like: “Well, you know, people like to swim in this park over the summer…” Next thing we know, ‘96,000’ is being set there. That was really different to how I had originally scripted it.”

‘In The Heights’ arrives in UK cinemas on June 18