A big cast number from In The Heights

6 In The Heights Behind-The-Scenes Set Secrets

Just when you thought you couldn't love the movie more...

by Ani Bundel
Warner Bros. Pictures

Before the viral sensation Hamilton, there was In The Heights. The first hit musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda was a Broadway darling when it debuted in 2008; it was nominated for 13 Tony awards and won four, including Best Musical. But its journey to the big screen was long and arduous. The film took years to get made and then, just as it was about to arrive in theaters, the coronavirus pandemic delayed it yet again. These In The Heights behind-the-scenes movie facts show that the actual making of the film was no walk in the park, either, even though the finished project feels as easy as a summer day in Washington Heights.

Unlike most musicals, which focus on a central couple and a single story, In The Heights is an ensemble piece. The musical tells the story of one hot summer in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, with two different couples struggling to get by. On one side, there’s bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega, the show’s narrator, who falls in love with Vanessa, who works at the local salon.

On the other, there’s Nina, the first in her family to go to college, who has come home with the secret that she plans to drop out. But her family’s real alarm is that she’s also gotten into a relationship with Benny, who they see as a dead end. The other characters revolve around these two relationships as they rise and falter as all four try and find a happily ever after.

But how hard was it to film the musical, with its over-the-top, joyous numbers featuring casts of hundreds? Here are a few details to help you appreciate the film more:

1. In The Heights Wasn’t Filmed In Order

Most films aren’t created in order, but in this case, one of the hardest sequences was left until the end. Nina and Benny’s musical sequence in which they dance up the side of a building was one of the very last musical numbers to be filmed. Part of the reason is that, unlike the stage show, the movie magic was being employed. But it still required both actors Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace to do a lot more work than was ever envisioned for their on-stage counterparts.

“We leaned on each other, literally and figuratively,” Grace said in an interview with WTOP. “We left parts of our body on the side of that building for sure, but it was so worth it.”

2. There Was A Strong Crazy Rich Asians Influence

Directing Crazy Rich Asians influenced how much director Jon M. Chu leaned into the reality of Washington Heights culture. Speaking to Buzzfeed, Chu said, "I think I didn't understand the full power of the specificity that I could show in Crazy Rich Asians that would resonate with the audience. I didn't know how important that really was." So when he approached In The Heights as director, he made sure to incorporate as much of the reality of the area. That way, it would resonate with those who grew up there.

3. The “Carnaval del Barrio” Sequence Was Super Hot

Not a joke, and not a metaphor: One of the problems with filming on-location is that sometimes the location doesn't behave, especially in the summertime. The "Carnaval del Barrio" number is a perfect example, as the cast found themselves dancing in record-hot temperatures. According to an excerpt in Entertainment Weekly, the sequence was nearly cut because it was deemed unnecessary for the plot momentum, making it hard to justify the cost of shooting it.

Even after writer Quiara Alegría Hude altered the plot to make it more central, filming was still a nightmare. Getting all the actors together to rehearse was bad enough; to shoot was even worse. The production picked a super-long summer day in June to do the final sequence in order to get as much daylight as possible... and wound up shooting on the hottest day of the year in triple-digit temps.

4. The “96,000” Sequence Was Super Real

If the “Carnaval” sequence was complicated, at least it had a shooting script and a specific guide to follow. The “96,000” number, filmed in Washington Heights’ main public swimming area, the Highbridge pool, didn’t have much of a script.

Instead, Hudes told Buzzfeed the production team decided they had to film in the real space, with extras made up of the area’s actual residents. That’s why the dancers aren’t always totally lined up or the costumes matchy-matchy. The goal was to capture the energy of those who love the place and have that drive the number.

5. There Are Broadway Easter Eggs In The Movie

Miranda starred in the original In The Heights Broadway production as Usnavi, much like he played Hamilton in Hamilton. But unlike the Disney+ film, a new cast was found for the Warner Bros. production, putting long-time Miranda collaborator Anthony Ramos in the role. Thus, Miranda wound up in the minor part of Piragüero, the Piragua Guy.

But that’s not the only place he appears. Chu would not confirm whether Miranda was or wasn’t the voiceover coming out of the radio in the background, nor if the original actor who played Nina, Mandy Gonzalez, turns up singing on the radio in the dry cleaners. But fans are convinced those are them.

6. The Film Was Delayed For Nearly A Year

Fans might not realize this, but initially, In The Heights was set to arrive in the summer of 2020. The stage production of Hamilton wasn't planned to be released as a film until the fall of 2021. When the COVID shutdowns forced In The Heights to delay until 2021, Disney+ moved Hamilton up to 2020 and released it via streaming.

But the wait wasn't easy on the actors. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Ramos said, "There are a lot of people's hopes and dreams in this movie." Hopefully, now that it's out both in theaters and on streaming, fans will get to sing along to those hopes and dreams too.