Throughout the summer of 2019, New Yorkers in Washington Heights were especially thrilled to see film trailers, movie crews and Latinx actors grace their neighborhood. For them, the filming of the much-anticipated film adaption of Broadway musical In the Heights was more than a movie in the making. It was an acknowledgement and celebration of their hood by their very own, boricua Lin-Manuel Miranda. He put the Heights on the map with his successful award-winning Broadway musical at the Richard Rogers Theatre more than a decade ago. Now, it will make its return as a film adaption tackling real-life issues of gentrification, immigration and family as residents are featured as background actors throughout the film.
In the Heights, with music and lyrics by Miranda and book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, tells the story of a bodega owner, who has mixed feelings about closing his store and retiring to the Dominican Republic after inheriting his grandmother’s fortune. The young storeowner watches the joys and heartbreaks of his tight-knit community as they pass through his bodega. Set over the course of three days, the storyline centers around the largely Dominican and Latinx community of Washington Heights.
It tackles how experiences make us change.
Miranda has never forgotten his uptown roots and has kept a strong connection with his ‘hood by supporting it in many ways—from attending the George Washington High School production of the musical to hosting film screenings and raising funds for the beloved United Palace, a church and cultural and performing arts center in the Washington Heights community. He made sure the Heights played the real-life backdrop for the film adaptation. Exterior shots were taken on several Washington Heights streets over the course of two months, while the number 1 train station at 191st Street (known for its graffiti murals and tags), was shut down for three days for a scene that used floodlights for the illusion of daylight.
Film interiors were made at a completely different location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where Remezcla got an exclusive tour of the facility and a chance to talk to its cast and crew, including Mara Jacobs and Scott Sanders, who, along with Anthony Bregman, produced the film. “The spirit and energy that comes from inside this piece,” Sanders tells Remezcla. “It has wonderful, colorful characters, tackles how experiences make us change.” Abuela Claudia, played here again by Olga Merediz, she adds, is the heartbeat of the piece.
“We’re hoping it will have a human effect on people,” added Jacobs. “We have gone beyond the idea that you can predict politics. The film is entertainment and art. It opens the eyes of people not overtly political movie but an open window. It gives everyone the sense of who they are as they sing and dance.”
Jacobs was very adamant about pointing out that the filmmakers “didn’t take the stage play and put it on screen.” The movie musical has gotten quite a makeover from its original script. This time, it is set in the present with an almost completely different cast and new characters, as well as tackling current issues facing the community. New characters to the movie musical will include Sonny’s father played by Marc Anthony and Cuca being played by Orange is the New Black‘s Dascha Polanco. And while he’s not playing the lead role of Usnavi anymore, Miranda does have a role in the film, as a Piraguero, a local who sells flavored ice from his cart and offers colorful commentary on the action.
We’re hoping it will have a human effect on people.
Entering on Heyward Street, Remezcla witnessed the real-life scale of the beauty salon and Usnavi’s bodega with a sidewalk between them. We were able to watch a musical number inside a hair salon sung by five dynamic actresses: the three salon divas—Daniela (played by Rent cast member Daphne Rubin-Vega; Carla (played by Stephanie Beatriz); and Cuca (Polanco); as well as Nina (played by singer/songwriter Leslie Grace) and aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (played by Vida‘s Melissa Barrera). We watched the “No Me Diga” a musical number in which Nina is getting her hair done and catching up with her friends who ask her to “tell me something I don’t know.” They all have their two cents about how life has gone for Nina since she went away to college including bochinche that she “probably got knocked up.” By the end of the number, Nina drops an unexpected bomb to her girlfriends—that she dropped out of Stanford. Expect to see pressed hair, long nails, name chains and fanny packs in the scene as well as local dancers who serve as extras including Spanish Harlem’s own Violeta Galagarza of KR3T’S dance company fame.
Remezcla spoke with Anthony Ramos, who stars as Usnavi de la Vega, played by Miranda in his original Broadway show. Ramos has had a longstanding working relationship and friendship with Miranda, dating back to Hamilton where he played the roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton. “It’s a dream, to be honest with you,” said Ramos about playing the role. “When I’m on the set of video village, I can’t believe this is my job and I can tell this story.” Ramos grew up in the projects of Bushwick in the ’90s, in Brooklyn, not far from the Williamsburg movie set we were speaking from.
According to Ramos, “this is a film about real-life, real things. People dressed up in regular clothes. The whole movie is genuinely listening to your heart.”
Actor Corey Hawkins, who has experience both on and off the big screen, agrees. Hawkins plays Benny, an African American on the dispatch, Nina’s love interest. He says the film has several themes including love, home and sacrifice. “It’s interesting because the musical is about finding home,” Hawkins said.
This is a film about real life.
Hawkins spent two months rehearsing for the part and made sure to be “faithful to the original in what the intent was.” He has lived in Inwood and Harlem, has firsthand knowledge what it’s like being “the young black guy living in the Heights.” Hawkins said, “It was great to see [Benny’s] roots and the Latin roots in the film.” He vividly recalled the Washington Heights community and its positive vibes throughout—from people cooking for the cast and bringing coolers to the set to guys on motorcycles doing wheelies for the cameras. “You couldn’t tell who was in the background and who was not. It was magical and inspiring to have this stake, roots in the Latino culture.”
In the Heights will hit theaters and be available for streaming on June 11.
Editor’s Note, May 5, 2020 at 6:35 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to reflect proper spelling of Violeta Galarza and KR3T.