In The Heights Movie: 10 Changes from the Broadway Musical

Thirteen years after Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about the Latino community of Washington Heights opened on Broadway, “In The Heights” is now an exuberant, sentimental movie musical directed by Jon M. Chu. There are lots of changes from the Tony-winning stage version, which shouldn’t be a surprise: By the time the show had opened on Broadway in 2008, Miranda had already been working on it for nine years, ever since he was a 19-year-old college sophomore – and all that had survived to Broadway from the very first version was the phrase “In Washington Heights” and the five-note melody that accompanies it.

Much more of the Broadway version has been kept in the movie. Many of the changes are too small to make a difference, or even to be noticed by any but the most intense aficionados.  But some of the most noticeable changes are for the better; some aren’t; some are neither better nor worse, just…different. (Note: I both try to avoid spoilers below, and also try not to assume that you already know the musical intimately.)

  1. The Set: On Location

The most obvious difference is one that’s common in the translation from stage to screen. It’s been “opened up.”

 The set of the Broadway musical, with its looming George Washington Bridge against a deep blue sky, was the first thrilling aspect of the show, because it was what you saw first.

The set of the movie musical is, largely, Washington Heights itself; this is not just a thrill; it makes the movie. (I can’t imagine it working otherwise.)  Much of the action takes place on the corner of 175thStreet and Audubon Avenue (which is a few blocks away from where I used to live in Washington Heights — and not far from where Miranda lives still!) It’s the corner of the main characters’ bodega, car service, and salon, a corner where friends and neighbors meet and greet….and sometimes sing and dance.

  Indeed, of the several exciting ensemble production numbers, the most spectacular take place on location. The most notable of these is “96,000,” which has the entire neighborhood speculating about what they would do if they won $96,000 in a lottery. It takes place in Highbridge Pool, a public swimming pool in Washington Heights, yet harkens back to the massively synchronized choreography of Old Hollywood — either Busby Berkeley or Esther Williams; take your pick.

2. Playful filmcraft

Chu also goes Old Hollywood, using state of the art technology, in “When The Sun Goes Down,” a love duet between Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace) that takes place on the fire escape of a standard six-story pre-war apartment building in full view of the George Washington Bridge — until Benny suddenly bends over the railing, and starts walking on the wall, bringing Nina along with him…and they dance, at a ninety degree angle to…gravity — like Fred Astaire does on the ceiling in “Royal Wedding,” except this one ends in a kiss.
Chu noodles around with fanciful film technique on a smaller scale with several uses of animation, and in the production number “No Me Diga,” in which the salon workers gossip, and the wigs on manikin heads on a shelf nod along conspiratorially to the infectious beat. 

3. The Characters

“In The Heights” tells the story of some dozen interrelated characters, each with individual dreams not yet realized, who live in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. It focuses on bodega owner Usnavi (portrayed by Miranda on Broadway, by Anthony Ramos in the movie), who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, where he lived until the age of eight. Technically an orphan, Usnavi has a family-like relationship in the neighborhood with the other characters, especially his actual cousin and employee Sonny and his honorary Abuela Claudia, as well as his love interest Vanessa, his friend Nina Rosario, Nina’s love interest Benny, Nina’s father Kevin Rosario, who owns a car service company (and who is Benny’s boss), and salon owner Daniela and her employees.

Much of this is the same in both the stage and the movie versions, but there are several noteworthy changes

Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) is now a widower; on Broadway, he had a wife, Camila, portrayed by the great Priscilla Lopez. His fights with his daughter now no longer have a mediator.

A new named character is added to the salon, Cuca (portrayed by Dascha Polanco of “Orange is the New Black”), and Sonny now has a father, portrayed by Mark Anthony.

Sonny is more political (more on this later)

Vanessa, another one of Daniela’s employees, has a new ambition — to be a fashion designer.

Nina and Benny are now renewing a relationship they had before she left for Stanford, rather than initiating one, and (unlike the stage version) Mr. Rosario doesn’t object because Benny is Black (at least not that we see on screen.)

Daniela and one of her employees Carla (Daphne Rubin Vega and Stephanie Beatriz)  are now a married lesbian couple. We know this because they wake up in bed together in the opening morning montage scene  (although blink and you’ll miss it.)

4. The Plot

Much of what the characters do, and what happens to them, is the same — there is still a lottery, there is still the blackout, there is still a sudden reason for grief (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here) — but the plot points are presented somewhat differently, sometimes in a different order. There is also a new framing device that begins and ends the movie — Usnavi telling the tale to some young children on a beach — that I found a bit confusing.

5. The Cast

Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, the matriarch of the community, is the only performer who is reprising for the movie the role that she originated on Broadway. Her main song, Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith), is being acclaimed as one of the best movie musical moments in memory. (It comes in a different place in the movie than it was on stage, which arguably adds to its power.)

It’s fair to say that most of the other actors from the Broadway production have aged out of their roles. But several original cast members perform in the movie in small roles, including Miranda himself as Piragüero (the street vendor who sells shaved ice treats) and Christopher Jackson (the original Benny) as the Piragua guy’s arch rival, the Mr. Softee truck driver.

Stand-outs in the new cast include Ramos as Usnavi, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela (who dominates the electrifying, literally flag-waving production number, “Carnival del Barrio”) and, in the role of Sonny, 16-year-old Gregory Diaz IV, whom, I feel compelled to point out, impressed me no end when he starred at age 13 in a play I saw called Pedro Pan.

6. Closeups

If Ramos’ performance in “In The Heights” launches him into movie stardom, I’ll attribute at least some of the reason to his masterful use of gestures and facial expressions, which he employs (especially when courting Melissa Barrera’s Vanessa) to hilarious, touching, and spot-on effect (Such close-up expressiveness is not as possible on stage)

7. The Songs

The movie cuts a half dozen songs that were in the Broadway production (Inutil, Siempre, Sunrise, Enough, Hundreds of Stories, Everything I Know), adds one (Home All Summer, which plays over the end credits) and changes the order a bit.

Here was the order on Broadway

In The Heights
Benny’s Dispatch
It Won’t Be Long Now
No Me Diga
Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith)
When You’re Home
Siempre (Always)
The Club/Fireworks

Act 2
Hundreds of Stories
Carnival del Barrio
Everything I Know
No Me Diga (Reprise)
When The Sun Goes Down

The songs in the movie:
In The Heights
Benny’s Dispatch
No Me Diga
It Won’t Be Long Now
When You’re Home
The Club
Paciencia y Fe
Carnaval del Barrio
When the Sun Goes Down
Home All Summer

8. The politics

There were references to gentrification and Latino pride in the stage musical, but screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes (who was also the librettist for the Broadway show) has made the politics more explicit, and more up to date. Some of it is easy to miss — like the lesbians. Some of it is school homeroom territory during Hispanic Heritage Month, Usnavi listing great Latina women (“Chita, Rita, Frida, Celia, Delores, Isabel, Sandra,Julia, Rigoberta, Mirabel, Sonia”), while the camera zooms in on their faces in a mural. Some is employed in a humorous vein. Daniela, forced to move her salon to the South Bronx because of rising rents, tries to convince a reluctant customer to continue to patronize her store, by proclaiming (accompanied by almost church-like amens from the salon habitués): “Our people survived slave ships. We survived Taino genocide. We survived conquistadors and dictators. You’re telling me we can’t survive the D train to the Grand Concourse?” But, more seriously, Sonny is now a political activist, and there is an entire added scene of a rally he and Nina attend on behalf of the Dreamers (those undocumented who came here as children), complete with a speech from an actual activist, Mexican-American journalist Maria Hinojosa. Nina’s reason for disliking her first year away at Stanford University is now not just alienation but discrimination (racial profiling.) And one of the characters (I won’t spoil it by saying who) turns out to be undocumented, which becomes a significant plot point that didn’t exist on stage.

9. The lyrics: No more Donald Trump

Speaking of politics, Miranda has changed a number of the individual lyrics. These are largely updated pop references, so that people born after the musical was conceived (!) will recognize the names. But there is one change that was obviously made for a different reason. On Broadway, when Benny imagines what it would be like to win the lottery in “96,000” he raps “I’ll be a businessman, richer than Nina’s daddy/ Donald Trump and I on the links, and he’s my caddy.” In the movie, it’s Tiger Woods who would be his caddy (which makes just as much sense.)

10. The Timing

“In The Heights” arrived on Broadway at a time when its use of rap and Latin music (salsa, merengue, mambo) made it a novelty…for Broadway.  It was a new stage aesthetic, and the promise of a more inclusive theater – which Miranda followed through on seven years later with “Hamilton.”

Whatever “In The Heights” does for Latino representation in Hollywood, the movie also symbolizes something larger. It arrives now, after a delay of a year because of the pandemic, to welcome — and embody — The Return. The return to going out (although you can also see this movie on HBO Max), the return to summer movies, the return to summer fun, the return to community.

Check out the book “In The Heights Finding Home”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

6 thoughts on “In The Heights Movie: 10 Changes from the Broadway Musical

  1. Wesleyan University, not college. As an alum and denizen of the same program housing Lin-Manuel lived in years before, just had to be pedantic and point that out!

  2. “More Ho’s than a phone book in Tokyo” was cut in favor of “I got more flows than Obiwan Kenobe yo” – probably a good change, although the original line (while offensive to some) was also brilliant…. another thing was the unclear timing of Usnavi’s arrival in the US. In the original (and maybe in the film?), his parents named him for the US Navy ship they saw the day they came – so he was BORN in the USA. This time, he arrives with Sonny (in diapers on that flight) when Usnavi is 8 years old. So maybe they went back and forth? ….

    1. I’ve edited out your spoiler. (There ARE people who haven’t seen the movie yet.)
      That Tokyo line was supposed to reveal Graffiti Pete as not only clueless (there are not a lot of Japanese with the surname “Ho.” He’s confusing Japanese with Chinese) but also a bigot. The changed line in the movie makes him just clueless. In both versions, Usnavi calls him out.
      Yes, in the film, Usnavi is named for the U.S. Navy ship that his father saw in New York, but Usnavi tells the kids on the beach that it was on his father’s first trip to the U.S. that he saw the ship, not on his “arrival.” (The implication is that his father visited when he was a child, saw the ship, and decided “Usnavi” would be the name of the son he would have someday.) So no, Usnavi was not born in NYC. There may be some inconsistencies in the movie, but that’s not one of them.

  3. Great article, thank you for hunting down and pointing down the various differences, large and small.

    One difference – *huge* in my book, although some may see it as not super significant – is the character motivations for actions taken during the blackout itself. In the movie, the danger of looting is completely nixed, which understandable in light of the year we’ve had – but it lowers the stakes. In the original, Folks are defending their homes and property with their *lives*. “look at the fireworks” – a community in distress finds a way to shed light on itself in the middle of powerlessness and chaos, to keep darkness, crime and mortal risk at bay. Artificial suns to keep a semblance of sanity.

    …They throwin’ bottles in the street
    People lookin’ and shootin’
    Sonny, they wanna see a robbery
    We gotta keep movin’!

    Naw, man, I can’t leave
    We gotta guard the store.

    They gonna bombard the store
    Until you ain’t got a store no more.
    I got a baseball bat
    And a rack in the back…
    (Opening a book bag.)
    I got a couple roman candles
    We can distract the vandals
    Hey, yo, I see some thugs comin’,
    Man, we gonna get jacked up…”

    Without crime and looting it’s “Look at the nice lightshow”. Sonny and Benny’s rushing to protect their respective workplaces / familial strongholds makes much less sense and is less effective now that they’re not risking their life.

    It may be a necessary, or justifiable, choice – but I do think the art suffers for it.

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