Why ‘In the Heights’ made these 5 major changes to the story

Leslie Grace, center, with Melissa Barrera, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco and Daphne Rubin-Vega
The sharpened story line of Nina (Leslie Grace, center, with Melissa Barrera, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco and Daphne Rubin-Vega) is among the major story changes in “In the Heights.”
(Warner Bros.)

The following story contains spoilers from the movie “In the Heights.”

The plot lines of the movie “In the Heights” are slightly different from those of the beloved Broadway musical, which ran for nearly 1,200 performances and won four Tony Awards in 2008. With music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a script by Quiara Alegría Hudes, it zooms in on the close-knit Latino community of the titular Upper Manhattan neighborhood.

To adapt the story into a film, “we didn’t want to go external with the conflict, as if there’s some big bad landlord behind all the gentrification,” said director Jon M. Chu. “Instead, we went deeper into what drives each of these characters, and made their dreams and hopes and struggles as big as any movie you’ve ever seen. Because there’s no such thing as a small story.”


Here are five of the major changes to “In the Heights” in its translation from stage to screen:


Usnavi’s beachy beginning

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) wants to leave Washington Heights for the Dominican Republic.
(Macall Polay/Warner Bros.)

The stage show starts with Usnavi opening his bodega for business, serving cafe con leche to his friends and neighbors as he introduces them to the audience. The movie stays true to this sequence, but only after a setup with Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) beginning the story from a bar on an idyllic beach.

The framework does double duty: Strategically, it grounds the story’s pivots into song, which generally are more believed onstage than onscreen. In the movie, the songs can be considered “the embellishments of a storyteller,” said Hudes. Which is fitting, since “in Washington Heights, everyone has their windows open and blasts their music at top volume, so you can hear reggaeton and boleros on the same block. That’s how life is lived here.”

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It also keeps the viewer guessing on the fate of Usnavi, who wrestles with his lifelong dream to return to his family’s hometown in the Dominican Republic. Just before the first beats of the opening number, the movie shows Usnavi waking up to photos of his child-age self with his father on that same beach. “Best days of my life,” he whispers to himself.

That brief but telling moment, which also wasn’t in the stage show, is “more than nostalgia — there’s a sense of dislocation that he lives with every day because he was uprooted,” said Hudes.

Usnavi ultimately decides to stay with his community in Washington Heights, which is why the ending reveals that the “beach” from the beginning was always the bodega, which Usnavi’s parents opened and left to him.

“This place is beautiful for what it is — not because of the beach that they painted on the store’s walls, but because of its history,” said Chu. And the movie ends with Usnavi’s daughter looking into the camera to evoke “the idea of building a legacy to pass onto your kids — like, tag, you’re it.”


Benny and Nina’s budding romance

Benny (Corey Hawkins) supports Nina (Leslie Grace) after her tough year away from home.
(Macall Polay/Warner Bros.)


Onstage, Nina returns home after a financially trying freshman year at Stanford: Since she had to work numerous jobs to supplement her scholarship, her grades suffered and her funding was put in jeopardy. The relationship she starts with Benny is condemned by her father — not because he’s a longtime employee of his cab company and she’s his Stanford-attending daughter, but because he is not Latino.

In the movie, Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins) “are all good,” said Miranda, whose trimmed songs “Everything I Know” and “Sunrise” are included in the film’s score. “[The story] isn’t about the parental disapproval of this interracial relationship because we wanted to focus on the specifics of the racial microaggressions Nina faced at Stanford, which Benny very much understands and has her back on. So it didn’t make sense for her to be fighting that war on two fronts.”

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Onscreen, Nina is written as Afro Latina, and “experiencing a cultural isolation when she goes to an elite college, which is really her first experience living in a predominantly white space and a predominantly wealthy space,” Hudes explained. “Nina grew up with the value of community care — Abuela Claudia watching her do her homework after school, Daniela and Carla letting her sit at the salon. But those elite institutions historically prioritize competition and a very rigid sense of individualism.

“So when her dad [Jimmy Smits] tries to sell his business to pay for her tuition, she’s like, is it really worth the tremendous sacrifice?” continued Hudes, who observed the national conversation about microaggressions at schools and in workplaces and found that the conflict can be intergenerational, as with Nina and her dad.


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“He doesn’t understand that, when he came from Puerto Rico, which had its own tremendous challenges, he moved into a well-populated Latino community. It doesn’t compare because Nina doesn’t have a community in the same way that he did when he arrived.”

The stage character of Nina’s mother was cut for the movie, but Hudes still wanted a traditional married couple in the story. Therefore, the film sees Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) as married and owning the salon together.


Vanessa’s fashion focus

Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) has a passion for fashion — and eyes for Usnavi (Anthony Ramos).
Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) has a passion for fashion — and eyes for Usnavi (Anthony Ramos).
(Macall Polay/Warner Bros.)

Vanessa’s MO in the stage musical is to stop working at the salon and move to the West Village, but narrative doesn’t really go into why. In the movie, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) has a passion for fashion and believes she has to leave her community in Washington Heights in order to make her dream come true.


“It’s not that far, but her interest in moving downtown is more about cultural distance,” Hudes explained. “It’s about the models she’s seen of what makes a successful artist in, essentially, white industries that exist most visibly in very wealthy spaces. So to her, there’s no way she can have a legitimate path as an artist unless I inhabit those spaces.”

That’s why, in the movie, Vanessa “doesn’t even let Usnavi call her an ‘artist’ because she doesn’t feel that she looks like what an artist looks like,” Hudes said. It isn’t until she sees the spray-painted rags of Graffiti Pete (Noah Catala) that she has an epiphany. “She realizes, ‘Actually, I am an artist here’ — just a change of point of view that fuels the rest of her life.”


The reveal of the lottery winner

Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) held the winning lottery ticket.
(Warner Bros.)

In the original version, the reveal that Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) was the person who bought the winning lottery ticket happens before the neighborhood’s blackout. During “Paciencia y Fe,” she sings, “What do I do with this winning ticket? What can I do but pray?” and holds up the ticket for the first time — a moment that elicited delightful gasps from the audience. She then tells Usnavi that she’s splitting her winnings with him and Sonny and encourages him to follow his dream to return to the Dominican Republic.

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To keep up the tension, the movie delays this reveal until the end, after Abuela Claudia has died. While packing up the last of her belongings, Usnavi finds a small box that holds the winning ticket. His onscreen reaction was not in the script. “That was Jon [M. Chu] pointing a camera at Anthony and saying, ‘Go.’ That was Anthony, as Usnavi, deeply reckoning with this woman’s legacy. It’s so beautiful.”


Sonny’s undocumented status

Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV, center) is loved by the community, including Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Nina (Leslie Grace).
(Macall Polay/Warner Bros.)

The subplot of Sonny’s (Gregory Diaz IV) status as an undocumented immigrant is all new for the movie — thanks to Hudes, who thoroughly researched and wrote the musical “Miss You Like Hell,” about a mixed documentation family.

“When I returned to write the screenplay of ‘In the Heights,’ that story had become a part of me in a more immediate way,” she said. At the same time, “Dreamers” were “at the fever pitch of the national conversation, and being demonized over these immigration questions. I wanted to bring that back home to the human level in a strategic way, with the character who loves the United States and Washington Heights the most.”

Initially, Usnavi wants to bring Sonny back to the D.R. with him and visits Sonny’s troubled father (Marc Anthony) to ask him for permission. “The movie eschews the portrayals of Latinos in Hollywood of being flunkies and junkies and dropouts and all these things that are so trite and unfair. But we wanted to raise the stakes for Sonny, and seeing his home life helps us understand that it’s not all fun and games. He’s got a lot of obstacles to overcome.”


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The disclosure of Sonny’s status spurs Usnavi to use the lottery winnings to hire an immigration lawyer and inspires Nina to return to Stanford with the goal of fighting for other Dreamers like Sonny. Miranda hopes the new plot “puts a humanizing face on undocumented folks in the United States. You’re telling me Sonny, whom everybody loves, doesn’t belong in this country? That kid who wants to change the world and make his community better?”

Although the final moments of the movie show Usnavi, Vanessa and their child in the neighborhood, Sonny is nowhere to be seen. (If it had included a status update with Sonny, “then we’d have to show where Nina and Benny end up, and it becomes overcrowded,” Hudes said.)

Does he get deported after all?

“I feel that it’s stronger as an open question than giving the audience closure about it,” Hudes said. “What we do know is that his immigration lawyer says to him, ‘The odds are against you,’ and that is and remains the reality. Nina stands in for all of us at that moment: It’s up to us who do have the privilege of citizenship to decide what Sonny’s future is.”