When In the Heights came out to stream and in theaters, all of my friends and I wanted to see what they did with the stage show. I was so excited, I relistened to the Original Broadway Cast recording just so I could remember the story. The great thing about musicals being adapted to film is it makes the piece accessible to people who may not have seen it in the past. Whether they missed it because they aren’t theatre people, they don’t live in New York or some other theater city while the show is performing live, or for a myriad of other reasons, it’s now possible to see this great story in a different way. It made me wonder though, what are the differences really between musicals and film? And what if we use this newest release as a way to investigate those differences? One is not inherently better or more artistically valid than the other, but there are things that morph in the translation of a story and I think they’re worth noting.
The most obvious change from the original productions and other stage versions of In the Heights was something that often happens with movies adapted from the stage. The origins of western theatre— by which I mean the Ancient Greeks— founded three basic tenants for something to be considered a play. It all happened in one location, it happened in real time (meaning two hours in the play was two hours passing for the audience), and it followed a structure where there was one climax toward the end of the show, then a relatively quick resolution. These rules bled into storytelling as we know it in many other mediums as well, including film. Modern theatrical works play with these traditional aspects but the film of In the Heights had more room to play with space. The stage production had just one set built as a block on the street.
Usnavi’s store was one space, the salon was next door, and so on and so forth. However, set pieces were pushed into the larger playing space and a scene shift occurred to let the audience know they were now seeing a different location. This is a variation of the “one location” rule from the Greeks, but it’s mostly because audiences tend to want a more dynamic theatre experience even though they’re still watching something happen in one location.
Film has more freedom in this regard. It’s normal for a film to change location or angles so there’s another aspect of the story being seen. The visual component in film is of the utmost importance. In theatre, while necessary, a story can be told without inherent spectacle. In the theatrical production of In the Heights, the viewer gets the impressions of spaces, in film complete immersion in the location is more the goal. The most prevalent moments of this are the intros to new locations or larger spectacular ensemble numbers. “96,000”, for example, in the staged production takes place outside of Usnavi’s convenience store, and everyone comes out to commune on the block. In the film, they go to the community pool where we still get the communal aspect and individual dreams of the number, but in a way that moving to a new flashy location adds to the song.
When I found out In the Heights was coming to screen, one of the first questions I asked myself was “How are they going to do ‘96,000’?” This number is a huge and essential part of the plot and character’s inner dreams and motivations. We hear Usnavi talk about saving his bodega and moving out of Washington Heights. Usnavi’s cousin Sonny wants to use the money for social change in his neighborhood. Benny wants to use it to further his career ambitions. You learn exactly what the characters would do with the money if they won. It makes the viewer first, sympathize, and second, know what would happen depending on which of the main characters wins. So it can’t be skipped over like some individual songs; like “Inútil”, or “Enough.” Both songs are gorgeous, but they focus on secondary characters and don’t move the plot or a main character’s story forward. This makes them expendable depending on what story the creators decide to tell. That’s not to say he doesn’t give flash and spectacle to more introspective songs in the show. “Paciencia y Fe'' got its own sort of visual interest that isn’t there in the stage production. Where we still have the dancers and Abuela Claudia singing the song alone, in the film, the use of the subways as their own sort of time capsules as she tells this story, adds an element of her zooming through her life and reflecting on what it’s meant so far. Jon M. Chu’s choice to add even more spectacle to the already energetic and highly choreographed numbers brings up another way the two stories differentiate.
This isn’t the first time that movies of broadway musicals have altered a show. For a comparison, one can bring Rent to mind. The stage production, which is based on the opera La Boheme, is also an opera. There’s no spoken dialogue in the stage version. They changed this for the film to make it a lot more palatable and relatable for the audiences who may not have been exposed to that history of Rent or may have been less likely to listen fully to the story if they were turned off by the singing.
When watching film and theatre today, aspects of the audience’s grip on reality are tested. It’s a prerequisite before going into a playhouse or a movie theater. Certain aspects of this film will not make sense in the real world, so leave those notions behind for the sake of the story being told.
We can think of Chicago as a great example. We see the musical numbers through Roxy’s daydreaming in “Funny Hunny” or “We Both Reached for the Gun” when reality gets to be too much for her. There’s color and flash to a burlesque-filled world because it’s being performed in her own head, but the real world looks a lot greyer. Now, can we as actual people see into someone’s subconscious to find Follie-esque musical numbers and tap dancing lawyers? No. The suspension of belief is something all art asks of it’s viewer.
Both versions of In the Heights require this of the viewer, but musical production has more of a history and tradition behind asking this question of the audience. Musicals in and of themselves require a huge suspension of disbelief from the audience. It isn’t “normal” to see people dancing because the character is so excited to paint some graffiti. It isn’t “normal” to see someone rapping about feeling stagnant in their life after their friend just rapped at them to go after the girl they have a crush on. This also has a history in film, but it’s not as extensive. If one is walking into In the Heights knowing it’s a musical, and that there’s going to be singing and dancing out of nowhere, the film benefits from that precedent set by the stage musical. Where the film branches off is, it uses spectacle in a way to push the dreamlike aspect of In the Heights. We accept it wholly because of the vision for the film. A way to notice this is the use of the world around the realistic Washington Heights apartment building bending so the characters could walk on it while singing about their love for each other. It’s a complete departure from reality. Even with singing and dancing, it does something only a film can do.
The most precious thing an audience can give any sort of art is attention, or time. It’s a finite resource so storytelling must be succinct and purposeful. In live theatre, time moves differently. Whether it’s the element of live action in real time or the age-old communal aspect still attached to theatre from the ancient Greeks, focusing solely on the story makes things move slower. The stage version of In the Heights can get into a sort of nuance of a story in a different way than film can because it’s not focusing on having to establish nearly as many rules and places. What does the story gain with that? It can give a lot more nuance for one thing. For instance, in the musical, one of the reasons Nina’s father doesn’t want her to be with Benny is because he can’t speak Spanish and will never truly belong in their family. Nina teaches Benny some Spanish and this language barrier adds rapport to Nina and Benny’s chemistry. In the film, Benny and Nina have a small conversation where they talk about how they dated in the past, and Nina left Benny behind to go to school. Both versions of this show off the electricity between the characters, but one takes a lot less time to explain because the film is also busy establishing a new location, a new relationship, and continuing on the visual language it set up for the audience.
This isn’t to portray the cutting down for time aspect for film as a bad thing. Sometimes it makes for more simplistic storytelling in order to rope in viewers who may not know the history of In the Heights. This is why movie musicals are so significant because they give people access to something that was only shown in person for a certain amount of time.
The choices of what was sacrificed and what was added to the In the Heights film essentially came down to its creative team. It’s evident when going back and forth between both adaptations of In the Heights that care was taken when translating it to the screen. With two of its original collaborators behind it (Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Algería Hudes doing the music and book respectively), the film gives as much love and homage to where it came from, as much as it becomes its own entity.
About the Author
Olivia is a writer based in North Carolina. She graduated from The New School College of Performing Arts with a bachelor’s degree in Dramatic Arts and enjoys viewing and analyzing media from plays (actual or virtual) to film and television. Her favorite writers tend to be playwrights like Lanford Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry and Tony Kushner, but her favorite books include The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah or The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. When she isn’t watching or reading new work, she listens to Bruce Springsteen, knits, and watches book reviews and costuming/sewing videos on YouTube.