'In The Heights,' Lin-Manuel Miranda's Musical, Dances From Stage To Screen Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning musical is an ode to the neighborhood near where he grew up. Now a movie musical, the film's director, cinematographer and choreographer discuss the new adaptation.
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'In The Heights' Dances From The Stage, To The Streets, To The Screen

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'In The Heights' Dances From The Stage, To The Streets, To The Screen

'In The Heights' Dances From The Stage, To The Streets, To The Screen

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NOEL KING, HOST:

A new summer movie musical hits this weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

ANTHONY RAMOS: (As Usnavi) The streets were made of music.

KING: "In The Heights" is Lin-Manuel Miranda's tribute to the largely Dominican neighborhood near where he grew up. It won a Tony on Broadway. And now the director Jon M. Chu and his team have translated the story from stage to film. Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: "In The Heights" was shot on location in Washington Heights on the Upper Upper West Side of Manhattan. The film unfolds as Usnavi, a young Dominican immigrant played by Anthony Ramos, opens his bodega.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) Lights up on Washington Heights. Up at the break of day - I wake up, and I got this little punk I got to chase away.

DEL BARCO: Director Jon M. Chu has Usnavi peer out the window of his shop to the corner of 175th Street and Audubon Avenue.

JON M CHU: Looking out with that yearning, with that hopefulness of seeing something beyond. But he's trapped from this window.

DEL BARCO: In the reflection of that window, we can see people in Usnavi's neighborhood beginning to move in sync.

CHU: They're challenging him, daring him to break that window, daring him to dream bigger.

DEL BARCO: Then an elaborately choreographed flash mob bursts out onto the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) So we cannot not stop. This is our block.

DEL BARCO: Chu worked with cinematographer Alice Brooks to zoom in on the action from a 50-foot crane. Choreographer Christopher Scott says this is one of the films' challenging dance numbers.

CHRISTOPHER SCOTT: Because it's lightning speed.

ALICE BROOKS: You don't even see Usnavi dancing there at first. You just see all these dancers.

SCOTT: You know, the camera just swoops in. And Anthony is in the middle of that, holding his own amongst 75 professional dancers.

CHU: You would never pick him out until you just happen to zoom in on him. And you realize, that's the lead guy in this movie. And he looks right at the camera.

BROOKS: And it's his story.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) To a couple of days in the life of what it's like...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) In Washington Heights.

DEL BARCO: Director Chu says he enjoyed adapting Lin-Manuel Miranda's production for the big screen.

CHU: Lin made an amazing story that resonates beyond most musicals. And I think that it was meant to be a movie. You know, in a movie, you have perspective. So you can be 10,000 feet away. Or you could be two inches away. And we're in control of that. It's not wherever you're sitting, that's the only frame you get. It's now we are part of the dance itself.

DEL BARCO: Chu is a longtime fan of movie musicals like "Meet Me In St. Louis," which he says inspired the way he framed some of the scenes of "In The Heights." Chu and cinematographer Brooks met as film students at USC, where they began making movie musicals together. They met choreographer Scott 15 years ago while making the series "The Legion Of Extraordinary Dancers." Brooks says the three of them have been collaborating ever since.

BROOKS: It's very fluid the way the three of us work. The camera really is a dancer in this movie

DEL BARCO: For "In The Heights," they worked out the choreography of the dancers and the camera. Brooks says she used two or three Steadicam operators to weave through the dance scenes in addition to cameras on cranes and dollies.

BROOKS: Sometimes we needed one of the choreography team to literally be right next to us counting us in, right? He'd be like, one, two, three, move. And so, like, we knew exactly what beat to be on. And we'd rehearse that way.

DEL BARCO: Brooks says taking what they had rehearsed to the streets was like an improvised dance. Sometimes they had to stop filming to let ambulances or police cars roll through. And their time was also limited by the natural light.

BROOKS: I wanted to shoot at a specific moment when the sun was just above the George Washington Bridge because down 175th Street, you can see the bridge. And the sun lines up perfectly. And it was so lovely because as we push into Usnavi, there's this slight, little flare on his face for the very end of the number. We pan up very quickly. And then the birds fly over. And you see the opening title.

DEL BARCO: There were other logistical complexities to dance through, like getting heavy camera and lighting rigs down to a graffiti-painted subway tunnel for one number. And for another, they had to figure out the camera tricks for a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers-type dance on the side of an apartment building.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing)

DEL BARCO: Scott and Chu got in an icy public swimming pool to direct 90 dancers. They moved in geometric patterns like in an old Busby Berkeley musical.

SCOTT: It's not easy. You know, synchronized swimming is a whole thing. I was like, well, we got dancers. We could pull it off. That was probably the most challenging part of the whole movie. To keep the circle perfect was like, come on, guys, like - and they're freezing in the pool. I hope we did Busby justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Get up.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Siesta in the heights.

DEL BARCO: Dancer Eddie Torres Jr. worked out the Latin styles like Mambo and Salsa, which were both popularized in New York. And Scott, who had choreographed for Disney's "Zombies" and other shows, added other New York street moves to the routines. - Acrobatic B-boys, breakers who spun on their backs - one of them with sparklers - and Brooklyn-style flexers who contort their arms. Scott says he's proud the film represented New York's Latino community authentically, starting with the lead actor, Anthony Ramos.

SCOTT: You know, Anthony, being from New York, he moves a certain way. He dances a certain way because he's been around it his whole life. So we just built off of that.

DEL BARCO: Some of the original stage cast made cameos in the film. Scott says they also found local dancers, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans, old and young.

SCOTT: I'll never forget the feeling at the auditions. It was different. We did a whole Latinx call to get the whole community out. And every time a group would come in that room, everybody else would be waiting outside. The door would open for a group to leave. And you would just hear a round of applause. And it was, like, powerful. And it was emotional because, you know, this was one of the rare auditions where they're not coming to book the one Latin backup dancer. You know what I mean? It was like, this was their call for them to show us what they do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Carnaval - Carnaval - del Barrio. Barrio.

DEL BARCO: Chu remembers the synergy between the dancers and real people in the neighborhood, like when they filmed the Carnival del Barrio number in a courtyard.

CHU: All the neighbors are in the windows looking out at us, playing the song over and over and over again. They weren't yelling at us. They had their flags out with us. They had their Puerto Rican, Dominican flags, wherever they were from. And they were, like, loving watching this thing happen. That's what happens when, I think, you take a language that was created on these streets or through struggles similar to this and you turn on a camera. It comes to life in a way that it could never on a stage, that could have never on tour. It had to be there in Washington Heights.

DEL BARCO: Chu says he's excited to share this exuberant movie musical about community with audiences ready to celebrate after surviving a difficult pandemic year.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIRAGUA")

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Piragua Guy, singing) Oh, piragua, piragua. New block of ice, piragua.

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