The weekend before the In The Heights film was to start shooting was a busy one for its behind-the-scenes crew. On Friday director John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) led a final run through with his cast, who have been rehearsing now for ten weeks straight, nailing the song and dance numbers that make up Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s 2008 Broadway musical. And while he, Miranda, co-writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, and producers Anthony Bregman and Mara Jacobs knew they had a busy Saturday ahead casting background actors from the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City for the film, they took a trip to the George Washington Educational Campus to catch a high school production of the Tony Award-winning musical.
For Miranda, it was his first time seeing In the Heights in the actual Heights, in the same high school where he took his SATs. After the show, during which he surprised the cast during their final bows, he spoke with Remezcla about how energizing it was to see Usnavi, his cousin Sonny, his love-interest Vanessa, and the rest of the show’s characters being played on stage by a group of kids from the very neighborhood the story is about.
The production, which was directed by Zulaika Velazquez, served as yet another reminder of the impact Miranda’s show has had since it first played Broadway: “I remember I fell in love with theater, not by going to Broadway shows, but by being in the school play,” Miranda told Remezcla shortly after the curtain went down. “And so the thing I was most excited about with In the Heights was not the Broadway run: it was the fact that schools would do this show someday. So the fact that we’re here in Washington Heights, and it’s kids across district six — literally kids all over the neighborhood, it really is the dream come true. Every school production thrills me. What was thrilling about tonight was that I could tell that these were hometown kids talking about their neighborhood — Caridad got one of the biggest laughs of the night!” He remembers when the line about that Heights go-to staple didn’t even land down on 46th street during his Broadway run. It showed what a difference a diverse audience and a homegrown ensemble can do with a show written specifically for and about them.
Miranda was, as expected, tight-lipped about the film itself, which stars Hamilton‘s Anthony Ramos, Vida‘s Melissa Barrero, Jimmy Smits and OG Rent cast-member Daphne Rubin-Vega among others. But he did confirm that in its transfer to the big screen, Usnavi’s story will be set in the present. The screenplay has been updated to move it into the reality of 2019, something Miranda noted wasn’t as difficult as one would expect. It mostly just highlighted how timely the issues (gentrification, immigration, family) he was touching on over a decade ago remain.” I mean, immigration was an issue in 2008. But when I think of Sonny’s lyric — you know ‘Politicians be hating / Racism in this nation has gone from latent to blatant.’ It’s more true in 2019, than it was in 2008.”
He also confirmed there will be no new songs. The focus was to keep as many of the original songs as possible; some, alas, have been cut. But audiences will get to meet one character that wasn’t in the original stage show: Sonny’s father. It’s all part of the beauty of adapting the musical for the screen, the ability to flesh out its reality and anchor it in its real-life inspiration. But he knows that the bar for authenticity is high; a challenge he’s more than happy to take on.” I want this neighborhood to recognize themselves in this film,” he beamed.
That’s why, as Bergman and Mara confirmed to Remezcla, most of the film will be shot on location with real-life Washington Heights residents as background actors. And while that will lend a degree of authenticity the project requires, they couldn’t stop gushing about what Chu has dreamed up for some of the numbers. “Part of the plan was to have something that feels like it kind of like departs from reality,” Bergman shared, “but at the same time is super grounded in reality. And in order to have the flights of fancy, we needed to have the grit of the actual sidewalks and the buildings and everything.” It’ll all take place very much in a corner, as the show did, “but at the same time, you will feel like you’ve kind of like gone out into like another universe and then back. Let’s just say there’s one scene that will turn your perspective upside down.”
As if we needed any more reasons to have this film as our most anticipated project of 2020.
In the Heights arrives in theaters June 26, 2020