Go inside the making of In the Heights with this exclusive excerpt

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·20 min read
Go inside the making of In the Heights with this exclusive excerpt
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

After the pandemic delayed its highly-anticipated release, the In the Heights movie is finally coming to very thirsty fans this Friday - and, a special behind-the-scenes look at the movie and Broadway play is hitting bookshelves. In the Heights: Finding Home is a joint venture with Lin-Manuel Miranda, screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes, and Jeremy McCarter - it combines never-before-seen photos and oral history style-storytelling to take readers onto the Washington Heights set, spilling all sorts of secrets. Here, in an exclusive excerpt, read along as the cast battles record heat to complete the "Carnaval del Barrio" number.

Chapter 16

Everything Is Melting

Washington Heights is dense enough, and lively enough, to offer a distilled version of the New York paradox: Life is a nerve-fraying ordeal that you miss terribly as soon as it's gone. (According to local custom, people don't just double-park here, they triple-park.) Everybody knew that shooting a movie there would be difficult and expensive. But Jon [M. Chu, the director,] couldn't imagine doing it any other way.

For all of its fantastical touches-what Jon calls its "sing-to-the-stars-y" energy-Heights has always drawn power from its realism, a depiction of life as it's actually lived. The sweet spot for the movie, Jon felt, would be offering "a very truthful take on living in Washington Heights, then upping it."

In other words: No matter how fraught the process might be, the cast, the crew, and all of their gear-up to and including their fake sun in the sky-were going to spend the summer of 2019 in Washington Heights.

"The essence of a movie dictates where you shoot it," explains Kevin McCormick, a Warner Bros. executive who was integral to Heights. "And there's no way you could not have made this in Washington Heights. To have a movie about this community and not film there would be such a lost opportunity."

The first thing they did there was listen. Members of the production team, particularly Samson Jacobson, the location manager (born and raised in the area-a definite plus), and Karla Sayles, the director of public affairs at Warner Bros., met with community leaders to field questions and respond to concerns. Once again, Luis Miranda was a vital resource, drawing on relationships he had built over decades to make introductions.

The producers vowed to do all they could to limit the physical footprint of the shoot. Cast members shared trailers that they might otherwise have kept to themselves. The production hired people from the neighborhood for roles onscreen and off. Instead of catering every meal, they encouraged actors and crew to buy lunch in area restaurants. They even funded a student production of the show at George Washington high school.

What you see onscreen is a two-hour-and-fourteen-minute record of movie professionals falling in love with a place and its people. They arrived uptown to discover that Washington Heights really was different from most places in New York. Locals opened the hydrants on hot afternoons and played dominoes on the sidewalks. The piragüeros really did park their carts on the sidewalk to hawk their flavors of the day. The fascination seemed to be mutual: Actors got used to seeing whole families-little kids and their abuelitas-watching from their stoops at any time of the day or night.

Which is not to say that it came easily.

To Alice Brooks, the director of photography, the weather problems were "insane." If a storm popped up on the radar anywhere nearby, they had to suspend production. This happened with schedule-wrecking regularity. They expected to be free of such interruptions when they went underground to shoot "Paciencia y Fe" on the subway. Instead, they experienced a torment familiar to every New Yorker but with a twist: They weren't waiting for the train to appear so they could ride it to work, they just needed the garbage train to pass by so they could go back to shooting their movie.

The need to solve the endless riddles of New York filmmaking had led the producers to add Anthony Bregman to the team. At this point, he reckons, he's filmed in just about every corner of his hometown, always looking for ways to capture the authentic look and feel of a place-even when the movie is surreal. (He produced Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a valuable point of reference for the reality-bending frame of Quiara's screenplay.) So he wasn't especially rattled when, on the night they filmed "Alabanza," a nearby building caught fire, or when, on another night, gunshots rang out nearby.

"You want the life of the city?" Anthony asks. "The life of the city is complicated."

The production lost valuable shooting time on both of those nights. They found ways to make it up later. But other days offered no second chances. Anthony remembers looking at the calendar before summer began, getting a feel for what lay ahead. Some days seemed manageable; some days seemed tough. Then there was "Carnaval del Barrio."

"That day," he says, "was impossible."

Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Actor Anthony Ramos with director Jon M. Chu on location in Washington Heights

What turned out to be a defining episode in the whole long history of In the Heights almost didn't happen at all. Many a movie executive had suggested over the years that there wasn't enough plot in "Carnaval del Barrio" to justify a song that was very long and very crowded, which made it very expensive. But the song's power doesn't come from the plot, it comes from the theme. The characters rally one another's spirits amid a citywide blackout. They raise their flags and celebrate their heritage-and their humanity-in defiance of every force telling them not to.

That community-fortifying aspect of the song is "essentially the DNA of In the Heights for me," Quiara says. Beneath the joy, there's a legacy of struggle and resilience. " 'Carnaval' unearths that history. All we have is our fight to be here together, the testimony to our spirit."

To help ensure that the number would remain in the movie, she hooked it into the plot more securely, situating it as a farewell number for the salon ladies, who have been priced out of the neighborhood. But the budget wasn't the only limiting factor. "Carnaval" is unique in requiring virtually every member of the cast to be present at the same time.

The actors' complicated schedules meant that Jon wouldn't get all the filming days he wanted. He would get only one.

Which meant it was time for the hard, slow, unglamorous legwork of moviemaking: planning, organizing, rehearsing, designing, equipping, and rehearsing some more-months of it, all to give themselves the best possible chance to "make the day," to film the whole gigantic number in the time available.

In the world of making movies, "day" is a flexible unit of time, especially for a scene that would be filmed outdoors- in this case, a courtyard between two apartment buildings around the corner from where Lin went to preschool. They scheduled the shoot for a Monday, when union rules would let them start the earliest. And they picked June 24, one of the longest days of the year.

They didn't realize it would also be one of the hottest.

The song would be filmed more or less in order. Which meant that for the production, as for the characters, the salon ladies would lead the way.

Some of the movie's actors were new to musicals. Not Daphne Rubin-Vega, who plays Daniela. When Rent blew the mind of seventeen-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda, she was onstage, playing Mimi. But when she arrived for hair and makeup on "Carnaval" day-at 4:30 in the morning-even she was feeling nerves. The uneven concrete floor of the courtyard wasn't like where they had rehearsed. The prospect of filming a seven-page song before nightfall seemed crazy.

She began to hear a voice of doubt in her brain, one that's encoded in a specific ugly memory. After wrapping her first film, she had gone to the airport to fly home to New York and mentioned to the woman at the ticket counter that she had just acted in a movie.

"That's funny," said the woman, who Daphne believes to have been Latina like herself. "You don't look like an actress."

Worries about how they looked, questions about what they were wearing, a general feeling of negativity-Dascha Polanco was feeling them, too. She always loved arriving on set to play Cuca, one of Daniela's fellow salon ladies, because it felt so much like coming home. She was born in the Dominican Republic and while growing up in Brooklyn used to make frequent trips to the Heights with her friends. ("Washington Heights is a small Dominican Republic," she explains.) Now she, too, wondered if she belonged. Am I capable of remembering the steps? she asked herself.

She decided to stop those doubts-for herself and the other salon ladies. She grabbed the hands of Daphne and Stephanie Beatriz, who played Carla, and formed the women into a profane prayer circle.

"Shake that s--- off," she told them. "I'm not going to let anyone or anything interfere with my performance today."

Daphne laughs as she tells the story. "She was so hilarious and said we were going to protect each other from that insecurity. That was such a beautiful thing-going in there with that determination to represent."

By 5:30 A.M., when the sun rose over Queens, sixty dancers had arrived. Christopher Scott, the film's choreographer, tried to prepare them for what was coming, backed by his full team of associate choreographers: Emilio Dosal, Ebony Williams, and Dana Wilson, as well as associate Latin choreographer Eddie Torres, Jr., and assistant Latin choreographer Princess Serrano. By six A.M., dozens of crew members had joined them, making the thousand careful adjustments needed to help a movie look spontaneous.

Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Director Jon M. Chu with cast on set

It was almost nine A.M. by the time Jon called "Action." The cameras started rolling, Daphne started singing, and the clock kept ticking.

Arrange the actors, position the cameras, do a take, reset everybody, do it again. As the sun climbed higher that morning, the temperature rose to what one crew member estimated to be nine hundred degrees. Look closely-see the sweat on people's bodies? Most of it didn't come from the makeup department. But there wasn't time for extra breaks to cool off.

"Please be quiet," a voice on the loudspeaker boomed at one point. "We gotta go."

At one point that morning, Jimmy Smits got his turn to shine. Playing Kevin Rosario wasn't his first Height experience. He had seen the show Off-Broadway and been "blown away" by it, he says. He had offered to help in any way he could, eventually recording a radio ad for the show.

His devotion to Heights carried into rehearsals for the film. As they got underway, he told Chris Scott and the choreography team, "I know I'm playing the dad, but the last thing I want to see is myself in the background, just waving my hands. I want to go all in." They obliged him. He sometimes hobbled home from the dance studio to ice himself for hours.

His payoff came on "Carnaval" day. He had a featured moment in the song: an intricate, whirling combination. The cast and crew watched him do it again and again, cheering him on. He could feel "a lightning bolt of energy" around the set, something he'd experienced only rarely in his long career.

Over the applause after one take, a voice rang out, ricocheting off the walls: "That s--- was crazy! For our ancestors!" It was Anthony Ramos. He, too, had a long history with Heights, but it wasn't as happy as Jimmy's.

Very early in his career, he had tried to get cast as Sonny on the show's national tour. It meant taking a bus into Manhattan from a gig he was doing in New Jersey, going through round after round of auditions. At last he made it to the big moment: a callback in front of Tommy Kail, Alex Lacamoire, and Lin himself.

He gave the song everything he had. He didn't get the part.

He thought he'd missed the one chance he would get to work with Lin, the writer who'd evoked Anthony's own world, Latino New York, so beautifully on a Broadway stage. He needn't have worried. A few years later, the same guys would hire him to originate the roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton, Alexander's son, in Hamilton.

When Anthony got to know Tommy and Lac well enough, he asked if they remembered not casting him as Sonny. They said they did.

"You weren't ready yet," Lac said.

Anthony knew he was right. "Only a homie would tell you that," he says.

But he needed one more break to make his way back to Heights and find himself sweating in the courtyard that morning.

In 2018, Stephanie Klemons, an original cast member of both In the Heights and Hamilton, directed a production of Heights at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The night before rehearsals were set to begin, she lost an actor to an injury. She reached out to Anthony: Could he step in with zero notice?

He didn't feel physically or mentally ready, and was about to pass, but decided to do it. That's how he got a second chance to show Lin what he could do in Heights-not as Sonny this time, as Usnavi. In a series of tweets, reproduced on this page, Lin commemorated how overwhelmed he was watching Anthony step into the role he once played. He, Quiara, and Jon all agreed that when the cameras started rolling, Anthony should be their Usnavi.

The bond between Anthony and Lin added to the drama of filming "Carnaval." Lin played Piragua Guy, so he was in the courtyard, too-or, rather, directly above it, on a fire escape. It meant that the whole cast and crew had a clear view of the brief duet that he and Anthony sing in the middle of the number. To people who knew their history, the sight made time go all swirly. Anthony had originated the role of Lin's son in Hamilton, and now he was playing the role that Lin had originated, and somehow the two of them were singing a duet in Washington Heights.

A quirk of the production process made the moment even stranger and more potent. All day, the actors had been singing along to prerecorded versions of "Carnaval" piped over the loudspeakers. But somehow they hadn't gotten around to recording Anthony's side of his duet, so they had to fall back on the only other version on hand: the Broadway cast album. Which meant that Lin wasn't just singing with Anthony that day, he was harmonizing with himself at age twenty-eight, when every bit of what was happening around him would have seemed like a ludicrous dream. "It was like time travel," Lin says.

Macall Polay/Warner Bros. 'In the Heights' cast with director Jon M. Chu

By three p.m., when everybody had returned from their lunch break-blood sugar bolstered by the ice cream truck that Stephanie Beatriz had hired-time was growing shorter, the day hotter. Now when choreographer Chris Scott talked to the dancers, many listened with hands on hips, hands on knees.

From his fire escape, Lin did his bit to keep up morale. He joined in the clapping that broke out between scenes; he made silly faces; he pulled up his shirt and did belly rolls. Guests watched from the edges of the shoot: Lin's dad and wife, Quiara's sister, Chris's mom, Anthony's sister and mom. Anna Wintour stopped by.

Jon is not the type to direct through a bullhorn, barking orders from the shade. When they'd filmed "96,000" earlier that month on a couple of unseasonably frigid days, he had jumped in the Highbridge Park pool with the cast.

On this day, he darted around the courtyard, giving notes to actors, framing shots, conferring with Alice. He is also not the type to speak in mystical terms, but when he thinks back on that day, he remembers "the sun shining down like a laser-it was like the sun was shining out of everybody."

By late afternoon, the boundary between the make-believe world of the movie and the real world of the shoot had all but melted away. They had reached the part of the song where Usnavi and Daniela try to call forth their neighbors' pride in where they come from. Anthony climbed onto a picnic table and faced the whole cast, rapping, "Can we sing so loud and raucous they can hear us across the bridge in East Secaucus?" Daphne stood near him, arms wide apart, raising them up, willing everybody to stand tall, to keep going.

Both of them were throwing all their skill and commitment into their performances, the stars of two of Broadway's epoch-making musicals doing what they had trained to do. But they also weren't acting.

"To raise the flag for your country, to dance and recognize that we're all here together, and belong here, we don't need to be forgiven for it, or ashamed for it," says Daphne of what she was feeling. "There's a pride in being here from Colombia, or Panama, the D.R., Puerto Rico, Cuba, wherever."

At eight o'clock, with the sun sinking toward New Jersey, the dancers were still dancing. Eleven hours had passed since Daphne had belted out "Hey!" to start the song. Now Jon was trying to get the right take of sixty-plus voices shouting "Hey!" to finish it. In the movie version of the scene, the blackout ends when the song does, so a voice on the loudspeaker would announce, "The power's on!" That's how the actors knew the right moment to cheer that it was over.

After one such cheer, it really was over. Not just the take-the song.

They had done it. They had made the day.

Jon jumped into a swarm of dancers. (Ever see a baseball player hit a walk-off home run, then leap onto home plate into the waiting arms of his cheering teammates? That's what this jump looked like.) People were clapping and shouting and hugging and crying. Alice thought the whole thing was a miracle.

"You know when you see people at a concert cry, and you're like, 'I would never do that'?" asks costume designer Mitchell Travers. "That's what I did." He thinks it's the most sheer human energy he has ever been close to.

Anthony Ramos, in the middle of the crowd, launched into a speech. He can't remember his exact words. He hadn't planned what he was going to say-he hadn't planned to speak at all. He just felt that something needed to be said.

"I might have said, today we made history," he recalls. "This was for our ancestors who didn't get the opportunity to do this-who were fighting to have a chance to do what we just did. It was for love of the culture. It was for our kids, who look like us, to be able to see themselves on the big screen, to see us singing about our pride. Some s--- like that."

Somewhere in the crowd stood Dascha Polanco, cheering with the rest. She was sweaty, tired, tear-streaked-and beginning to feel the spirit move.

"I looked down and saw that concrete floor," she says, "and I saw those fire escapes up there, and I was like, 'New York.' "

She began a chant. It was slow and pitched low: "N-e-e-e-e-w York, N-e-e-e-e-w York." In seconds, the whole crowd took it up. "N-e-e-e-e-w York! N-e-e-e-e-w York!"

They were pointing to the sky. They were dancing.

"N-e-e-e-e-w York! N-e-e-e-e-w York!"

"It wasn't like chanting, 'Oh, I love New York,' " Anthony says later-meaning it wasn't a casual thing someone would casually say. "It was"-he drops his voice an octave and leans in-"I motherf---ing love New York. I'm proud to be from New York. I'm proud to be Latino from New York. That was the chant."

Lin, on his fire escape, was overwhelmed. Quiara, in the courtyard, guessed that people could hear them all chanting for blocks around. "It was the sound of joy and survival," she says. "And the sound of people who were really proud to be artists in community together-all our stories braided and interwoven at that one moment."

The long months of preparation had yielded the thing that movie people dream of creating: the burst of real emotion, the flash of genuine spontaneity. Some of it infuses what you see in the finished version of the song, but some of it can't be recovered now. It's an experience only for the people who got to be part of that impromptu celebration, the carnaval that followed "Carnaval."

That long day and its joyous finale capture, in miniature form, a lot of the Heights experience-what's powerful about it, what's rare. Instead of expecting little from the actors it featured, Heights demanded everything-not just what they could do, but who they were and where they came from. By fusing them with dozens of other artists making the same commitment, it gave them the feeling that Lin had wanted so badly for himself when he started writing the show: a sense of belonging, of being part of a group of people working toward a goal they all hold dear. That's why Anthony, looking back on filming "Carnaval," says, "That was one of the greatest days of my life. Period. If I never do another movie again, I did this."

"Something that arises in 'Carnaval' is a feeling of, 'There's a place for us,' " says Quiara. "But the place is not one that says, 'Oh, I definitely fit in' or 'I definitely don't.' It holds those questions. It allows those questions to exist."

Those questions, she has come to see, are universal.

"People are like, 'What is my place in the world?' That question is actually part of your place in the world," she says. "There's something about In the Heights. It takes such a burden off to hear, 'Yeah, there's a place for you. Here it is.'"

From the book IN THE HEIGHTS: Finding Home by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegría Hudes and Jeremy McCarter. Copyright © 2021 by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. Motion Picture Photography © 2021 Warner Bros. Ent. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Related content: