clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How In the Heights went from a student musical to one of the summer’s biggest movies

The tortured 22-year backstory of In the Heights, explained.

Anthony Ramos stars as Usnavi in In the Heights (2021).
Warner Bros.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

In the Heights, the new movie musical directed by Crazy Rich Asians’ Jon M. Chu and based on a Tony-winning Broadway musical by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, is widely expected to be one of the summer’s biggest movies. As the horrors of a plague year begin to ebb away, what could be more suited to the moment than a gorgeous, joyous spectacle of a musical, one with talented and beautiful young people singing and dancing their hearts out on a giant movie screen?

In the Heights isn’t only timely: It’s also based on a beloved existing property, and its early reviews have been mostly raves. Industry observers are nearly unanimous in saying it will be a smash.

That’s a lot of hype for a show that started so small.

The story of In the Heights begins in 1999, when an unknown Lin-Manuel Miranda was a sophomore at Wesleyan University, decades before he received a MacArthur “genius grant” and won a Pulitzer. He was just a kid, high on awe for Rent (which had opened three years earlier) and a longing to impress Wesleyan’s big man on campus. Under their combined influences, Miranda developed material for a musical set in his old neighborhood, the Latino community in Upper Manhattan known as Washington Heights.

This new musical would tell the story of a raw, fraught love triangle: Washington Heights boy Benny is in love with Yale student Nina, his best friend Lincoln’s little sister — but Lincoln, a closeted aspiring songwriter, is in love with Benny himself.

Like Rent, Miranda planned, his show would blend classic Broadway ballads with the music of the moment. Which, in Miranda’s case, meant not the rock of Jonathon Larson’s Rent score but the Latin salsa and hip-hop on which he grew up.

The student audience at Wesleyan went wild for that early campus production. (Among its fans was the BMOC the young Miranda wanted to impress, who told Miranda that he made an audience feel “so cared for.”) Miranda wasn’t yet satisfied; he loved the show but thought it needed more work — a lot more work. He would continue to refine it for nearly a decade after he left school before bringing it to Broadway.

When In the Heights made it to Broadway in 2008, its debut marked the start of a stratospheric trajectory. The show would, eventually, become a smash — but only after an endless, tortured series of workshops and revisions saw it heavily transformed from its origins at Wesleyan.

It would be another 13 years before In the Heights made it from Broadway to Hollywood — and that transition, too, would involve multiple hurdles and setbacks. But it has ended with In the Heights’ imminent release in 2021, just as America begins to emerge from its long and painful quarantine. Suddenly all those setbacks have begun to look like serendipity.

Only three words from the score of Miranda’s 1999 In the Heights remain in Chu’s electrifying 2021 film adaptation: the “en Washington Heights!” the cast sings in unison to close out the show’s opening number. The story, too, has been revamped: Though Benny and Nina still exist, albeit in heavily revised forms, Lincoln is gone. An arc involving a winning lottery ticket and a blackout provides the skeleton of the new plot, and there’s a heartbreaker of a death scene.

The movie narrative is built around a character who barely featured in Miranda’s earliest college drafts: Usnavi the bodega owner, the role Miranda originated on Broadway, played in the film by Anthony Ramos in a star-making turn. Miranda himself is no longer the face of In the Heights (he has a sweet cameo in the film), but the ideas he began fiddling with at Wesleyan in 1999 will now be splashed onto larger-than-life movie screens across the country, poised to become the film of the summer.

Here’s the 22-year story of how In the Heights got from there to here — and how it changed Broadway forever in the process.

It took nine years for In the Heights to transition from Wesleyan to Broadway

Miranda began workshopping In the Heights for a potential Broadway run in 2002, shortly after graduating from Wesleyan. As he shaped the show in the basement of Manhattan’s Drama Book Shop, he began to assemble a team of trusted collaborators, people he would work with again and again across his career. By the time he began creating Hamilton in 2009, he would have given the group an official name: the Cabinet.

The first Cabinet member was Tommy Kail, a fellow Wesleyan grad and an ambitious young director. The two met to discuss workshopping In the Heights in June 2002 and, as Miranda writes in In the Heights: Finding Home, immediately “locked in.” Kail would direct In the Heights off and on Broadway, and would eventually go on to direct Hamilton as well.

Alex Lacamoire, who would become Miranda’s go-to music director and orchestrator, joined the team in 2005. One year later, as In the Heights mounted its off-Broadway production, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler came on to create the show’s distinctive swirl of movement.

As the creative team formed, the version of In the Heights that would have Broadway sitting up and talking began to take shape.

Miranda had stayed offstage when he put together his campus production of In the Heights at Wesleyan, but in 2002, Kail suggested he might as well play supporting character Usnavi. Usnavi had to be able to rap, which Miranda could, and which wasn’t necessarily a common skill among aspiring Broadway stars at the time. Moreover, Miranda had a nervy, rangy stage presence that worked well with the show’s underdog energy.

Miranda agreed to take the part, although he didn’t particularly identify with Usnavi. Usnavi was at the center of the story’s community. He saw everyone else clearly and narrated their lives, and Miranda didn’t feel like he’d ever been at the center of any community. Nina, who feels out of place at her elite college and in her own neighborhood, was the character he felt closest to.

But early audiences responded strongly to Miranda’s Usnavi. In In the Heights: Finding Home, producer Kevin McCollum describes seeing a workshop in 2003 and thinking, “Every time this character Usnavi spoke, I was really hooked in.” At intermission, he conferred with another producer, who agreed: “I really dig that guy. Every time he comes onstage, I want to know more.”

In 2004, Miranda added another major collaborator to the process: Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes came on as a book writer who could help shape the sprawling, messy story while Miranda devoted himself to the songs. It was Hudes who determined that In the Heights had to be about the community of Washington Heights itself rather than any one particular character. And in her hands, the show’s focus on class became sharper and clearer.

The show continued to evolve from workshop to workshop. Usnavi grew from a supporting role to a main character, and his longing for inaccessible dream girl Vanessa became more prominent as a result. Nina moved from Yale to Stanford as the distance between her home life and her school life widened. Lincoln stopped being in love with Benny and began feuding with his father, who didn’t understand his dreams of becoming a songwriter. Benny stopped being a lothario and developed into an aspiring businessman.

But the show was still too cluttered, producers said. There were too many main characters, too many competing plot lines. In 2005, they gave the creative team an ultimatum: One of the lead characters had to go, and it should probably be Lincoln.

It was the right call, Miranda says now. “The moment we cut Lincoln, Nina inherited his fraught relationship with Kevin [her father], and it instantly made Nina so much richer and more complex,” he writes in Finding Home. “Lincoln died so that Nina could thrive. Thanks, Lincoln.”

The newly streamlined In the Heights, Hudes decided, would focus on three businesses on a single block in Washington Heights: Usnavi’s bodega; the car service where Benny works, run by Nina’s dad; and the beauty salon where Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest, works. All three would be threatened by the menace of gentrification, and the community’s response would form the action of the show. Within this structure, the two central love stories could flit in and out of focus.

The result would be a show animated by the political problem of whether gentrification would destroy this vibrant community and by an optimistic set of human-scaled romances. It had heart, but it also had genuine class concerns. And it would accomplish this balance while melding Broadway balladry, Latin salsa, and hip-hop into a distinctive sound that would break new ground on Broadway.

In the Heights had its off-Broadway premiere in 2007. It was a modest success, but not an overwhelming one. Regardless, in 2008 it transferred to Broadway, where it changed the shape of American musical theater for good.

In 2008, In the Heights was like nothing Broadway had ever seen before

It’s hard to overstate how white Broadway was in 2008. At the time, the biggest roles for Latino actors in the Broadway songbook were in West Side Story, written by an all-white creative team. And although West Side Story gestures toward Latino musical traditions, its efforts are just that: gestures. When the Sharks shout “Mambo!” during “The Dance at the Gym,” the rhythm playing underneath their dancing feet is not a mambo rhythm.

Hip-hop, with its emphasis on flamboyant wordplay, should be a natural fit for the lyrics-heavy sound of musical theater. But barely anyone had successfully put hip-hop on Broadway before Miranda came along. Legendary composer Stephen Sondheim loosely nodded toward the idea with a singsongy little ditty about beans called “The Witch’s Rap” in 1986’s Into the Woods. Otherwise, the emo rock of Spring Awakening, which came to Broadway in 2006, was as edgy as the Great White Way ever got.

In the Heights changed all that. It proved it was possible to put hip-hop and genuine Latin music on Broadway, that American musical theater had room for sounds that weren’t thoroughly whitewashed, and that those sounds could be performed by actors of color.

“In one night,” writes theater critic Chris Jones in Rise Up, his 2019 history of Broadway, “you could see how limited and exclusionary Broadway had been, what stories it had told, and who had been chosen to tell them. In the Heights would start to change that reality, but it would do so while genuinely welcoming everybody to Washington Heights.”

Even those who had their doubts about making changes to the traditional Broadway sound found themselves charmed. “Although I was sometimes struggling to keep up with the hip-hop and Spanish-infused lyrics, the exciting set and choreography paired with excellent acting held my interest in the storyline,” a critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote in 2010 as the show’s tour passed through Ohio. “Although not the traditional choreography and music of time-tested musicals that have come and gone from Broadway, In the Heights is just what it claims to be—a new musical that tells a realistic story of life, love and the pursuit of dreams.”

In the Heights was nominated for 13 Tonys. It won four of them, including Best Musical. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It won a Grammy. It recouped its costs and then some. By the time its Broadway run ended in 2011, it had grossed more than $105 million in ticket sales.

The show’s heartfelt optimism was part of what made it so effective. In the Heights seemed to herald the dawn of a triumphant new era of a vital, urgent, and multicultural Broadway. It matched the mood of the country as commentators gladly announced a period of urgent and multicultural politics into which America would allegedly enter as In the Heights premiered.

“Indeed, In the Heights might even be regarded as the first musical of the Barack Obama era,” wrote Time magazine in 2008, shortly before the show’s Broadway opening. “It represents change on Broadway. It’s a show full of hope. And it has its producers—and a lot of other people who want Broadway to reach out to new audiences with contemporary, heartfelt shows like these—crying ‘Yes, we can.’”

In the Heights’ journey from Broadway to Hollywood was a long string of near catastrophes

In the Heights’ transition from stage to screen would be even more tortured than its transition from Wesleyan to Broadway, marked by a series of coincidences, accidents of lucky timing, and near disasters.

As In the Heights was declared the toast of Broadway, Hollywood started putting out feelers. In November 2008, just months after the show premiered, Universal Studios announced it had acquired the screen rights to In the Heights. Miranda was set to reprise his role as Usnavi, and Hudes would write the screenplay. Kenny Ortega, choreographer of Dirty Dancing and director of the High School Musical franchise, would direct.

The film adaptation stalled. Studios wanted star power to go with it, but where were the Latino stars of the right age for a project like this one? The film rights reverted to Miranda and Hudes in 2012.

In the Heights, which by then had been off Broadway for a year, was starting to look like old news.

Then in 2015, Miranda’s new musical Hamilton became a phenomenon not only on Broadway but also around the world, and a film adaptation of In the Heights once again became a hot property. Hamilton wasn’t going to get a film adaptation anytime soon, not while the Broadway production was still selling so well. But an In the Heights movie wouldn’t cannibalize Hamilton ticket sales, and Miranda was now an extremely bankable name.

In 2016, the Weinstein Company acquired the In the Heights film rights, and Jon M. Chu, who had directed some of the films in the Step Up franchise, signed on to direct. In the next two years, two things would happen to drastically change what these two developments meant for an In the Heights movie.

The first happened in October 2017, when Harvey Weinstein, head of the Weinstein Company, was revealed to be a serial sexual predator and forced to retire in disgrace. The second occurred in the summer of 2018, when Chu’s romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians was released and became a huge hit.

In 2016, the still-developing In the Heights was a project with a relatively unknown director but a production company that could offer credibility. By 2018, it was a project with a newly minted hitmaker of a director and a production company that was worse than a liability.

Hudes publicly demanded that the film rights be returned to her and Miranda.

The Weinstein Company declared bankruptcy in March 2018, and all the films to which it held the rights were frozen into place until the bankruptcy’s outcome was decided in court. The ensuing delay could have lasted years. But In the Heights escaped bankruptcy-induced stasis on a technicality: When the Weinstein Company didn’t start production before the end of 2017, the rights once again reverted to Miranda and Hudes. “In the Heights has effectively caught the last helicopter out of Saigon,” Deadline reported in April 2018. The next month, Warner Bros. bought the film rights for $50 million at auction.

At last, things were moving quickly. Chu had a cast assembled within months. By then, Miranda had aged out of playing 20-something Usnavi — but the young Anthony Ramos, who originated the dual role of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton, had taken a turn playing Usnavi in the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage production in March 2018, and Miranda was blown away by Ramos’s performance. It seemed almost too perfect: The actor who played Miranda’s son on Broadway would take over the role that first made Miranda famous.

In November 2018, Chu announced that Ramos would star in the film version of In the Heights. Production began in 2019, with the movie itself set to premiere in June 2020.

Instead, the pandemic came. In the Heights went on ice for a year.

In 2021, In the Heights is more explicitly political than it used to be. But it is still joyous.

The In the Heights film arriving on screens as America continues its cautious reopening isn’t all that different from the version that electrified Broadway 13 years ago. Nothing anywhere near as drastic as cutting out Lincoln has happened this time around. Instead, Hudes’s revised screenplay has gently, lovingly streamlined the stage production. A few songs have been cut or rearranged, a few minor characters have been dropped, a few roles have been expanded. Mostly, though, the storylines that have always been at the center of the show have deepened.

Benny and Nina have a bittersweet backstory to their romance: They’re now high school sweethearts who split up when Nina left for college, rather than new lovers slowly coming together over the course of a summer. Usnavi’s dream girl, Vanessa, has a stronger arc; on Broadway, she was driven solely by a longing to move downtown to the Village, but onscreen she’s an artist in her own right, who wants to move downtown so she can make it as a fashion designer.

The most pointed changes to In the Heights are also the most political ones, largely centering on the minor character of Sonny. Sonny is Usnavi’s 16-year-old cousin and sidekick who helps him out at the bodega, and onstage, he has a couple of solos about the disenfranchisement of Washington Heights.

“What about immigration?” he raps in one song. “Politicians be hating. Racism in this nation’s gone from latent to blatant.”

“You are so cute,” Vanessa coos in response.

Onstage, Sonny’s radical idealism was sweet, funny, and nonthreatening. In the Heights has always been interested in examining American racism and xenophobia, but amid declarations in 2008 that it was the first great musical of the Obama era, it was willing to wrap that critique in the conciliatory politics of the moment. So at the time, the only character to explicitly name the show’s villain as gentrification was a comic side character who did so by rhyming “gentrification” with “edjumication.”

In the movie, Sonny’s role has been expanded. Now he goes to protests in defense of DREAMers, and when he starts to talk about the plight of undocumented immigrants, the moment is very far from a joke. Like much of the rest of America, In the Heights came out of the Trump era radicalized. The show is more certain than ever that the status quo is untenable — and a lot less willing to be circumspect about that idea.

Yet In the Heights in its newest form is still a joyous show. It is still a heartfelt show. It’s a musical that celebrates home, family, and community, debuting after a historical event that made us more aware of those values than ever. When the cast comes together behind Usnavi to announce in unison that they are “en Washington Heights!” — well, the moment will give you goosebumps. Just like it’s been doing for audiences since 1999.