It Won't Be Long Now: How In the Heights Finally Made the Leap From Stage to Screen

Not every smash-hit musical translates seamlessly into movie form, so here's what the makers of In the Heights did to transcend the challenges and produce a film perfect for this moment.

By Natalie Finn Jun 11, 2021 4:00 AMTags
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For every West Side Story or Chicago, there's a Cats. Meaning, just because a show has enjoyed a smash-hit run on Broadway and scooped up a handful of Tony Awards, there's no guarantee it's going to make for a great—or even a particularly watchable—movie.

To be fair, the much-maligned film adaptation of Cats was supposed to just be a fur-coated romp, the stage show itself only having the thinnest outline of a plot, let alone a point (despite efforts to give it one in hindsight) other than to dazzle audiences for a few hours. 

But not having a point isn't exactly Lin-Manuel Miranda's style.

Just in time to greet the light forming at the end of the tunnel, the long-awaited (and pandemic-delayed) film adaptation of In the Heights—the 2008 musical that started it all for Miranda and his close-knit creative team—is here to rekindle your faith in stage-to-screen adaptations.

And your faith in a whole lot of other things, too.

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"I feel like the world needs stuff like this," Bill Sherman, one of the film's two executive music producers, told E! News in a May interview, in which he and fellow EMP Alex Lacamoire explained how they helped turn the 13-year-old musical into an all-the-feelings movie that director Jon M. Chu has called "a vaccine for the soul."

"It's about togetherness and about family and about home and all of those—they sound narratively cliché, but they're so important and they're so intrinsic to us all," Sherman continued, allowing his excitement for the film's finally imminent release to bubble over. "And I think now more than ever, when we've all been huddled in our houses and scared to go outside—99 percent of this stuff takes place outside! So it's outside on the street, it's about talking and communicating, face to face. It's not text messaging, it's not emailing. It's talking, you're there, you're near a person, you're touching them, you're hugging them."

And while a lot of people were overjoyed to be able to stream Hamilton in their living rooms last summer, both Sherman and Lacamoire are glad that Warner Bros. opted to postpone In the Heights' release until more people could watch it on a big screen. (Though if you can't make it to the theater, it is streaming on HBO Max for a month as well.)

Warner Bros. Pictures

"I feel like, what could be a better time than right at this moment, when the world opens up," Sherman said, "and [if] the world opened up to this film, I love that idea."

Noting how the world was "in a heavier place" last summer for myriad reasons, including the pandemic and widespread civil unrest, Lacamoire admitted that he's been feeling much more optimistic, lately at least—and he's guessing he's not the only one.

"The hydrants are opening, the doors are opening, hearts are opening," he said, invoking the vibrant New York City streets that serve as the backbone of In the Heights, which takes place over the course of several steaming-hot summer days. "We're in a new administration, all of those things. And like it's now time—this is the time that we're ready to receive this message, and be able to bask in what this [film] is and what it represents and be able to express it in return. I don't think we were ready to do that last year, and my optimistic heart feels like now is the time."

Warner Bros. Pictures

Not that there was ever a wrong time to tell the story of aspirational Dominican bodega owner Usnavi, his family, friends and the Washington Heights neighborhood that shaped him—a story that first sprouted more than 21 years ago when Miranda was a student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and ultimately became a celebration of love, community, Latinx culture and the different loyalties that bind us as we make our way in life.

Lacamoire smiled as he noted that he's had more than a few occasions to look around on the first day of a rehearsal and say, "'Dude, we're all here because of some song Lin wrote,'" an anecdote that prompted a laugh from Sherman as well. "And that just seems so crazy to me, right? That it goes from that, and it just multiplies and keeps going, and now we have this whole new family, a whole slew of people working, and it just amazes me that the family can just keep getting bigger, and I couldn't be happier about it."

Added Sherman, "It's so exciting, and not to—oh god, quote Lin again—but it's like we're all delivering this baby, again!"

NICK HUNT/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Suffice it to say, neither can quite believe that so much time has gone by since In the Heights was first conceived, its March 9, 2008, Broadway premiere a beginning but also the culmination of a long road that started years beforehand in its earliest incarnations at Wesleyan's student theater company, Second Stage. 

"Alex and I were listening to a mix [from the film] yesterday," Sherman said, "just sort of high-fiving each other and just being like, 'Hey, remember when we were in your old s--tty apartment and we were listening to this, and you were like, 'Hey, how about this?' and I was like, [goofy voice] 'Hey, how about that?'"

Michael Buckner/WireImage

How about it, indeed.

Lacamoire and Sherman, whose delightful buddy chemistry was palpable even from separate Zoom windows, won the Tony Award for Best Orchestrations for In the Heights, one of four statues the show claimed that night (Best Musical, Best Choreography for Andy Blankenbuehler and Miranda's Best Original Score Written for the Theatre were the others), and were part of the team that later won the Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.

And they've never left the mountaintop, Lacamoire winning two more Best Orchestrations Tonys for Hamilton and Dear Evan Hanson, Grammys for those two cast albums as well as one for The Greatest Showman soundtrack, and most recently an Emmy for his work as supervising music producer on the FX series Fosse/Verdon. Sherman, also a Grammy winner for the Hamilton album, scooped up three Daytime Emmys during his time as musical director on Sesame Street, and he's the EMP of Miranda's upcoming directorial effort, tick, tick...Boom!, starring Andrew Garfield as Rent writer-composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson.

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But while they've worked together since those early days composing in Lac's "s--tty apartment," reteaming for this film—as executive music producers they oversaw basically every aspect of how the music sounds ("an umbrella job," Sherman summed it up)—has been no less than another surreal milestone.

"It was so fun," Sherman said, "and it's also I think gratifying as a musician, to see stuff that we wrote 20 years ago really stand the test of time. And it's been super-fun to go back and be like, 'Oh, that's what we did?!' and 'Oh, that's cool,' or 'How can we make it better for the film?' So yeah, it's been a big blur of excitement and heartwarming everything."

Speaking of making it better, the whole production of course had to navigate that potentially treacherous leap from stage to screen.

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"There's a phrase that often gets used, like, 'How do we make the score of In the Heights feel cinematic?'" Lacamoire said. "And that can mean a lot of different things for a lot of different people, right? And that's not to say that the Broadway score doesn't sound cinematic in its own way. It's got its moments of grandiose fantasy, it's got its moments of intimacy—it runs the gamut."

But this, he shared, was their chance to make their sonic dreams for the story come to life.

Warner Bros. Pictures

"Bill and I always joke that we wanted the music to sound like 'Heights 2.0,' musically speaking," Lacamoire said. "So what is the more robust way to have everything feel like that much more confident-sounding, that much more refined—you can use the word 'perfect,' as if that existed, it doesn't. But there is definitely more leeway you can have when you're working on a produced recording," as opposed to a stage show that is designed to be repeated night after night.

"What you hear on Monday is not going to sound exactly the same on a Wednesday matinee, or two months later in a July Thursday night performance," Lacamoire explained. "It's always going to be ever-evolving. But here we are where we know we can take a chance and [for instance] pan something ever-so-slightly to the left and take this really special sound and tweak it, so that you know you're able to get that much more refined and have a lot more ear candy. [Or] if this song requires a huge string section that you could never fit into a Broadway pit, then so be it, that's what the song needs. So we were able to look at every moment of every song and just really say, 'If we had our dream, how would this sound?' And every song was just basically fulfilling that dream, I feel."

Warner Bros. Pictures

To authentically bring In the Heights' culturally expansive sound home—the hybrid of rap, pop and traditional-musical show-stoppers that made Hamilton a generation-defining phenomenon also a hallmark of this production—Sherman and Lacamoire turned to producers and experts from the worlds of reggaeton, hip-hop and salsa, not wanting to miss an opportunity to make the songs more robust.

"Whenever we felt like it was something stock or too easy, we'd be like, 'Nope! Do it again,' or "Nope! Make it bigger, badder, louder!' or something," Sherman recalled. "So yeah, that's where we are."

The film implements a combination of live singing (for more intimate numbers like "Champagne") and laying the track down ahead of time (like on the bustling "Blackout"), but in any case, "they all sang their faces off," Lacamoire said.

Warner Bros. Pictures

The effervescent cast of up-and-comers includes Anthony Ramos as Usnavi de la Vega ("A force" and "just an all-around good dude," Sherman said of Ramos, who's poetically stepping into the role originated onstage by Miranda after playing his son in Hamilton); Corey Hawkins as his best friend Benny; Leslie Grace as Nina, the neighborhood girl who made it out of the neighborhood, to college at Stanford; Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, Daniela's employee and Usnavi's crush; and Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny, Usnavi's unmotivated cousin. Seasoned stars of stage and screen such as Daphne Rubin-Vega as salon owner Daniela; Olga Merediz, back as Abuela Claudia after playing the barrio matriarch for the entirety of the show's three-year Broadway run; Jimmy Smits as Kevin Rosario, Nina's father and owner of the local cab stand; and Marc Anthony, in the newly added role of Sonny's father, Mr. de la Vega, round out the ensemble.

Miranda, a producer on the movie as well as its pioneering creative force, remains in the mix as the "piragua guy" Piraguero, proprietor of a stand selling the Puerto Rican shaved ice treat.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Asked if anything surprised them while working with the newcomers to the In the Heights family, Lacamoire marveled at how they all made it clear that the musical had meant something to them long before they ever joined the movie production.

"'Respect' sounds like too holy of a word," he explained, "but you can tell that the show really resonated with them...and there was a sense of pride on each of them about, 'My gosh, I get to do this' and 'My gosh, I get to sing these words and be in this movie and represent in this way.' That is something that is really special to me, because you know this is the call-back to where we were, right? When we were just Bill and I, Lin and Quiara [Alegría-Hudes, who wrote the musical's book and the screenplay], and Blank [choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler] and Tommy [director Thomas Kail], we were just getting together in apartments creating art because we loved it, because we enjoyed what we do, and this show was speaking to us and we loved Lin and we loved what this piece was saying."

"So never in our wildest dreams were we thinking that one day it would be a movie," Lacamoire continued. "Never did we think that it would affect this many people, that people would be growing up listening to these songs as youngsters or performing it in their schools. We didn't see any of that—and that was never our goal. All we ever wanted to do was make something good, and make something that we were proud of. And so the fact that this is the reward at the end of it all is really quite humbling and special, and I don't take it for granted."

Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures

As for handing the keys over to Chu, director of such crowd-pleasers as Step Up 2: The Streets and Crazy Rich Asians, Lacamoire said it was actually a great thing to see the production they knew inside and out through fresh eyes, someone who "respected the material but also had a clear vision of what he wanted it to be."

Chu, who next is helming the big-screen adaptation of Broadway mega-hit Wicked, seemed to be "walking on eggshells, at least in the beginning," Sherman recalled, before the director was sure "that we believed in his vision as much as he did."

"And then once I think he figured that out and we started to roll, like both as a film and on film, he loved having our input and he loved us being there," the producer said. "And then it all just became—one of the great things about In the Heights is, like Lac had said at the beginning, like once you kind of get into it, you just become part of this fabric of this family. And Jon just became that guy, and he was our faithful leader." 

Chu told Variety in a recent interview, "When you are trying to make stories that change what we've seen before, you can get caught in the small things. But you try to do as much as you can, to be as truthful as you can. And the rest, other people are going to fill. We got to crack it open a little bit." (And for further guidance, Chu had the note Miranda playfully wrote on the director's copy of the script: "Don't f--k this up.")

Sherman admitted to E! News, "To take notes and things from a guy who you've never worked for, it was a very interesting process. But [Jon] was so confident—and I don't mean that as a negative thing—but he knew what he wanted and he was very specific with us, and he fought us when he wanted to, and we fought him. And it was a really fascinating sort of thing, but it all felt like we had known each other for years. Like he and I now send pictures of our kids back and forth, and we've been talking s--t constantly."


Certainly sounds like family to us.

Naturally then, it was a bit of a gut punch, to be shepherding this labor of love to the finish line, racing to be done by early March 2020, only for their cozy collaborative process to come to a screeching halt.

But they made it work, proceeding to get the movie finished and the music mixed at a more leisurely pace, albeit during a fraught time for one and all.

Lacamoire played his piano passages from home on his keyboard, files whizzing back and forth between him and the mixer in Los Angeles. "We would attend playbacks in the city and it was like the only times I left my house in the summer for awhile, to go to the studio and see other people," he said with a laugh. "It was very surreal in that sense." But at the same time, it was also inspiring as an artist, as the need to create butted up against the temporary logistical difficulties of creating, and the production still kept chugging along.

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"I think that's a real testament to leadership on Jon's part, on Warner Bros.' part, making sure that we were all safe and taken care of, and then doing it the way we needed to do it," Lacamoire said, noting that they probably couldn't have accomplished all that they did remotely 10 years ago. And ultimately, "I think the extra time helped us. It helped us not rush and I really, truly feel like we made this movie, sonically, for us, speaking for us, like the way we wanted it to be. I feel like this is the fullest expression of how we think the music could have been made for this movie that Jon made, and to have no regrets about it, there's no, 'Oh, we could have, should have.'

"I think we got it all. And we tried to honor the piece and the movie and the vision, and we worked our tails off—in normal times, during pandemic times—and here we are getting ready to show it."

Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment

And once again, after countless false starts through the years ("I was so naïve," Miranda told Variety. "I thought once a studio buys the rights to the movie, the movie's getting made"), plus the unexpected postponement once they were so close to being done, somehow they still got the timing just right.

"I feel like it's the perfect time," Sherman emphasized. "It's the summer, people want to smile, they want to be outside—or they want to be in a movie theater, they want to be together. And that theme is not only a great theme of our time, it's the theme of the movie. It's all about home and togetherness and joy, and I feel like the fact that those two things are lining up so simultaneously is very surreal."

The way he sees it, "It's the perfect storm, if you will, of things that are happening. And it's a really good movie! And I'm not just saying that because we worked on it," he added with a smile. "I watched it and it's good. Movie musicals, as you know, are a hard thing to pull off and I feel like this is a new aesthetic and it's really believable, and it's gritty and it's dirty and it's fun and it's awesome."

In the Heights is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max starting June 11.

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