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How Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘In the Heights’ Went From College Project to Major Motion Picture

On the musical’s long road to the big screen, the COVID delay was just the half of it

“In the Heights,” the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-“Hamilton” musical, finally hit theaters and HBO Max on Thursday. Although Broadway blockbusters are practically guaranteed to get the Hollywood treatment these days, this particular movie musical, helmed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), was two whole decades in the making. 

The Tony-winning musical centers on a bodega owner in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City with one foot in his childhood in the Dominican Republic and another in his dreams for the future. 

Below, see the show’s journey from Miranda’s college dorm room to Broadway to the big screen. 

Joan Marcus/AP

“In the Heights”: The Musical

In 1999, Miranda was a sophomore at Wesleyan University and writing the first draft of the project that would eventually become his first full-length musical. Inspired by his memories of growing up in Washington Heights, Miranda sought to stage a show that honored the vibrant culture of the predominantly Dominican community. 

“It was, in many ways, an attempt to write what I saw was missing, both in terms of representation and in terms of stories about [Latinos] in popular culture,” he told Billboard this year.

The play was accepted by the university’s student theater company, where Miranda turned it into an 80-minute one-act show, adding freestyle rap and salsa numbers to flavor its otherwise traditional Broadway sound. The musical enjoyed a one-weekend run during Miranda’s spring semester. After seeing the play, a small group of Wesleyan students and alumni approached Miranda about taking “In the Heights” to the next level. Among them was aspiring theater director Thomas Kail.

After Miranda graduated in 2002, he and Kail got to work on the project. By the time book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes signed on in 2004, the Connecticut thespians had already completed five separate drafts of the show. The fine-tuning continued until 2005, when “In the Heights” premiered at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center as part of the National Music Theater Conference.

The production secured an off-Broadway run in 2007 before upgrading to the historic Richard Rodgers Theatre and opening on Broadway the following year, with Miranda in the lead role of Usnavi, the bodega owner.

“In The Heights” was nominated for 13 Tony Awards in its first year on the Great White Way, and won four, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. It also earned a Grammy Award in 2008 for Best Musical Show Album. The musical ran for three years and over 1,000 performances.

As “In the Heights” splintered off into national and international tours — from Japan to the West End — Miranda shifted focus to a new show, an American history musical called “Hamilton.”

Warner Bros.

“In the Heights”: The Movie

Back in 2008, Universal Pictures acquired the rights to adapt “In the Heights” into a feature film for release in 2011. Kenny Ortega was attached to direct and Quiara Alegría Hudes would write the screenplay. However, the project was canned before development had even begun.

“I was so naive,” Miranda recalled to Variety. “I thought once a studio buys the rights to the movie, the movie’s getting made. I didn’t know the sheer tonnage of miles between acquiring the rights and a green light. You can find interviews of me being like, the ‘In the Heights’ movie is happening any minute now!”

Cut to January 2011, when Miranda revealed that a film version was back in discussions. In May 2016, it was announced that The Weinstein Company would distribute the film. That fall, Chu was confirmed as director, with production slated to begin in spring 2017. Miranda said he would not reprise the role of Usnavi, as he’d aged out of the part, but could return as another character.

Come October 2017, Hudes revealed she’d received permission from The Weinstein Company to take the production elsewhere in light of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse allegations. In April 2018, the film rights officially reverted to Miranda and Hudes, who then sold them to Warner Bros. Pictures for $50 million following a bidding war with several other studios. Jon M. Chu remained as director.

The shoot began in the summer of 2019 in New York City, with Miranda playing the smaller role of Piraguero. Coincidentally, the shoot took place just blocks away from another high-profile movie musical, Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” which is scheduled to premiere this December. The sets were so close, in fact, that a “West Side Story” catering cart accidentally ended up in one of Chu’s shots, per CBS News. Following the shoot’s wrap, Warner Bros. set a release date of June 26, 2020.

But COVID-19 had other plans. The pandemic pushed the release back almost a full year to now, June 2021. Better late than never.

In addition to Miranda, “In the Heights” stars Anthony Ramos, Stephanie Beatriz, Jimmy Smits, Ariana Greenblat, Corey Hawkins, Dascha Polanco and Melissa Barrera. It currently boasts a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with multiple reviews heralding the film as a milestone in Latinx representation and a joyful return to moviegoing. See TheWrap’s own review of the film here.