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Visiting In the Heights – secrets we learned on the set of the upcoming film

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On set in the salon
(© 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved, photo by Macall Polay))

A pandemic, an election, a Disney Plus release of Hamilton on stage – a fair few things have happened since In the Heights was meant to have premiered last year.

Having been forced to shuffle back its release date due to the closure of venues and cinemas, the feel-good film (based on Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics) and Quiara Alegria Hudes's (book) Tony Award-winning musical of the same name) will finally be unveiled next month in a very different world – one without a certain former present in charge but also a place where the idea of physical contact, dancing and communal celebration have all been shut away for many many weeks.

The stage show (and the film) isn't your usual Broadway fare – there are no baddies, no central tension and no dragon to slay. It's all about lives, hopes, aspirations, inhibitions and, most importantly, dreams. Following a motley assortment of Washington Heights residents as they deal with significant turning points in their lives, after its Broadway premiere in 2008, it quickly snowballed into something of a phenomenon, well before the idea of Miranda's Hamilton had even began workshops.

Almost two years ago WhatsOnStage was flown over to New York to see how the process of adapting the hit show for the screen was going. We were brought to see the team (led by director Jon M Chu of Crazy Rich Asians fame) tackle one of the show's most famous scenes – "No Me Diga" – set in the beauty salon owned by vivacious Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) alongside her partner Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and their good friend Cuca (Dascha Polanco).

Now brought to cinemas (and streaming platforms in the US), In the Heights was shot predominantly on location ("even farther than Harlem to northern Manhattan", as the show's lyrics say) with additional moments captured on sound stages housed in a cavernous Brooklyn warehouse – where a full-size replica of a New York street corner was replicated, including the show's famous bodega.

We were carefully guided around said warehouse – seeing prop teams, choreographers, dressers, designers, cast members and more all hard at work. Having come from the world of theatre, it all felt slightly familiar – salon dancers were practicing their steps, extras were touching up their make-up – a general fizz of creativity wafted through the air.

The cast of In the Heights
© Macall Polay

What is clear from both time wandering around the sound stage and all the trailers so far is that Chu's vision for the film is one grounded in community. Capturing a musical on location in New York is by no means a cost-effective choice (many productions go for look-alike locations such as Atlanta or Toronto) – but is instead one that was vital for giving the piece a genuine authenticity.

The production team also knew they had to get the Washington Heights locals on-side – sponsoring a young person's staging of the show before shooting began so that Heights residents would be familiar with the source material and the film's urgent message.

What this commitment to realism means is that none of the CGI pomposity that defined recent musical films like Cats or The Greatest Showman exists here – Chu gives each of his scenes a musty, earthy realism. The magic and the mundane in harmony.

This was incredibly evident on set: Chu and production designer Nelson Coates hadn't just got the look right, the bodega smelt like what Miranda describes as "just another dime-a-dozen mom-and-pop stop-and-shop". Tins of soup, bags of rice, chilled drinks, each individually labelled with sticky price tags, stood sentinel in the quiet shop.

For a fan of the show, to be stood in the actual bodega was a spine-tingling experience. This was where Usnavi and Vanessa sort out their date! This is where a certain special lottery ticket is bought! Where that iconic mural is painted (though, without giving a twist away, not in the way you might expect...)!

A few lyrical and structural changes will also be spotted by avid In the Heights fans, ranging from the small (the removal of a reference to that recent President in "96,000"), to the large (some numbers and characters are cut completely).

What's striking from watching and listening to the show is that it doesn't just have some cosmetic changes – it sounds very different. What you'll hear from the tracks already released on Spotify is a very contemporary vibe compared to when the show first appeared on Broadway. As music supervisor Steven Gizicki (who previously worked on La La Land and Crazy Rich Asians) explained on set – "It'll sound very new, for now. We've sought out some of the world's best Latin players to bring authenticity to the tracks, while also working with hip-hop producers, merging it all with the 2010 version of In the Heights."

Gizicki is on set every day, following up on his time with Miranda and Alex Lacamoire on Fosse / Verdon. He says that, amidst all of his various projects, Miranda was also there for the full recording the soundtrack, helping to tease out the jokes and stories in the numbers. As Gizicki notes, "there's a responsibility to get this right".

Chu has really got the look down – as Coates points out with the salon, "there's so much that goes into this." A massive fan of the original Broadway show (he saw it three times in the space of ten days), he has been dreaming of making the film happen for over a decade. Speaking about the salon, he notes the challenges in bringing the space to the screen. "In the show the salon is a couple of chairs...now we have to do a deep dive into Dominican culture. It's not down-heel, it's different people in their lives. "

He added: "We have wigs like a Greek chorus, puppeted by dancers. We were going to have loads of crazy magical things like musicians bursting from the mirrors, but at that point it felt like a step too far." Indeed, with mechanised mannequin, garish pink spots and a dynamic set, it's remarkable how quickly the space is transformed from bustling salon into dynamic dance floor, complete with choreographed nail tapping.

Coates also had to run around various intersections in the Heights, trying to work out spots for the best light while also respecting the show's cultural roots: "the east side of Washington Heights is the Dominican/Cuban/Puerto Rican side, so ideally the bodega had to be placed there."

Want secrets from the set? Well, murals on the streets of Usnavi's corner tell the whole story of the film – with lovers holding hands, little girls listening to the story and Abuela Claudia's birds. Coates said that there are easter eggs throughout the design – the taxi cab number for Rosario's taxis is a reference to the original Broadway production, while one apartment vender sign is named after Miranda's wife's maiden-name, Nadal. Chu's mum is also given a nod. A drawing that Miranda did at high school was also used on the side of a special cart.

Miranda's performance in the film (he plays the iconic Piragua Guy, who roams the streets of Washington Heights selling his iced snack) wasn't by any means guaranteed. As it turns out, it was only when the schedule for His Dark Materials shifted that a window opened up and he jetted in. As the producers noted, "he loved it – he got in the beard and everything."

What was decided from the start is that Miranda (who originated the lead role of Usnavi on Broadway) had no intention of playing the lead role himself on screen. That job fell instead to Anthony Ramos (following a lengthy casting process), who we managed to talk to on set and will be covering shortly.

We'll have further In the Heights features coming up over the next few weeks, including additional interviews with stars Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace and Corey Hawkins, plus chats with director Jon M Chu and the film's producers. Lights up!

In the Heights will be released in UK cinemas on 18 June.

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