It’s been more than 10 years since In the Heights first premiered on Broadway, bringing a new kind of musical to The Great White Way—a rap-filled story of a modern-day Latinx community, with characters that felt like people you’d pass on any New York City block. But the show was groundbreaking in more ways than one; it introduced the theater world to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator, who’d go on to have even greater success with his musical juggernaut Hamilton.
Now, after years of waiting, the film adaptation of In the Heights has arrived on the big screen, both in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. Miranda, who originated the main role in the Broadway show, takes a step back in the film version to let a new cast shine. (Don’t worry, his cameo is perfect.) Anthony Ramos, who was part of the original Broadway production of Hamilton, leads the film as Usnavi, a bodega owner dreaming of a life in his home country, the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, he’s crushing on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer; looking after Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), his precocious cousin; and taking care of Abuela Claudia, a neighbor who became a grandmotherly figure, played by Olga Merediz (who also originated the role on Broadway). Everyone in the neighborhood has their own sueñito, or little dream, including Nina (Leslie Grace), a star student who left the neighborhood for college on the West Coast and begins to fall in love with Benny (Corey Hawkins), a hardworking dispatcher for the car service run by her father (Jimmy Smits).
The movie carries all the sparkle and pride of the original musical, but has enough plot changes to keep it feeling fresh for any longtime fans of the show. Below, discover all the major differences between the movie and the musical, though be aware: There are about 96,000 spoilers ahead.
In the musical version of In the Heights, Nina’s (originally played by Mandy Gonzalez) father and a mother, Kevin and Camila Rosario (originally played by Carlos Gomez and Priscilla Lopez), run a local cab company. Both even have their own solo songs, “Inútil” and “Enough,” respectively. However, in the movie version, Nina’s mother has died, and while Kevin has an important role, he does not have any of his own songs.
In both versions, Nina drops out of Stanford, but she does so for different reasons. In the musical, Nina admits that, because she had to work two jobs while in school, her grades dropped and she lost her scholarship. In the movie, Nina speaks about the racism she experienced at school and the loneliness she felt being away from her community.
Nina’s relationship with Benny
In the film, Nina and Benny dated before Nina went off to college, but broke up when she left New York to go to Stanford. Their story is fairly straightforward—they reconnect, fall in love, spend the summer together, and decide to try long distance dating once Nina’s back at school.
Yet in the musical, their relationship is much more complicated. When the characters come together for the first time, it’s clear they have romantic feelings for each other, though it’s never implied they were a couple previously. The two begin to fall in love, but when Kevin announces he’s selling his cab company to pay for Nina’s college, Benny (originally played by Christopher Jackson) is distraught. Later that night at the club, Nina and Benny get into a fight (more on that below), but eventually make up and spend the night together. Benny worries about whether Kevin will approve of their relationship, though by the end of the show, Benny and Nina decide to date long distance once she goes back to Stanford.
Sonny, Usnavi’s clever cousin, is a treasured character in both the film and the musical. He works at Usnavi’s bodega and is always talking about how to tangibly make the block, and the world, a better place. In the musical, Sonny (originally played by Robin de Jesús) doesn’t have much of his own storyline beyond being Usnavi’s sidekick. But in the movie, Sonny is contending with his status as an undocumented immigrant and what that means for his future in America.
In an interview with CinemaBlend, Miranda explained why the producers decided to include a storyline about DREAMers and undocumented immigrants, saying, “To have one of the most beloved characters in the show struggling with that status, it just makes it real for people in a way that a headline doesn’t.”
The revelation of Sonny’s immigration status shifts the rest of the film, which in turn, diverges even further from the musical: Usnavi decides to use his lottery winnings to help Sonny get a green card, and Nina is inspired to go back to school to help other undocumented kids.
The winning lottery ticket
In the film version of In the Heights, we find out fairly soon that someone in the neighborhood has won the lottery, earning a payout of $96,000. But no one ever comes forward as the winner, and the ticket remains a mystery for most of the movie. It’s only after Abuela Claudia dies, and much closer to the end of the film, that Usnavi discovers she had the winning lottery ticket all along and was saving it for him. Usnavi then decides to use the money to pay for a lawyer to help Sonny get a green card.
In the musical, Usnavi actually finds out about Claudia’s winning ticket soon after the song “96,000.” Claudia decides she will give both Usnavi and Sonny one third of the money and encourages Usnavi to use the cash to travel back to the Dominican Republic. Usnavi then announces to the whole neighborhood that Claudia won the lottery in the song “Carnaval del Barrio.”
“The Club” and “Blackout” song numbers
One of the biggest plot differences comes about halfway through the movie and musical, when Usnavi and Vanessa (originally played by Karen Olivo on Broadway) go on a date to a local club. In both versions, Benny and Nina are also there, and Benny is lamenting losing his job. But in the musical version, Benny gets angry with Nina and blames her for getting him fired, since Kevin sold the company to pay for her tuition. He sings to her: “Why don’t you run home to daddy? / He loves to remind me that I’ll never be good enough for your family, for you.” Later, Benny punches a guy that Nina is dancing with, and a fight breaks out in the club, right before the blackout. Benny then tries to find Nina in the darkness and the two continue to fight before eventually making up underneath fireworks. Yet in the film, Benny and Nina don’t argue at the club at all; instead, Usnavi and Vanessa are the ones who fight on the way home in the blackout.
The night of the blackout also differs quite a bit in each version of the story: In the musical, Sonny worries that people will come to rob the bodega, and he and Graffiti Pete set off fireworks partially to distract any looters. But in the movie, the blackout, while chaotic, is much less violent.
Usnavi’s future with Vanessa
Fans of Usnavi and Vanessa get an extra treat in this movie. At the end, the film jumps forward in time, where Usnavi and Vanessa are married and living in Washington Heights. We find out that Usnavi has been narrating the entire story to their daughter, a framing device that’s unique to the film. In the musical, the show simply ends in real time, and Usnavi has only decided to ask Vanessa on a second date.
As you may have gathered, the In the Heights plot changes quite a bit from stage to screen, all while keeping the essence and joy of the story intact. Some additional songs that were cut from the musical include “Sunrise,” sung by Nina and Benny after they spend the night together; “Hundreds of Stories,” where Usnavi and Claudia sing about what they’ll do with the lottery money; “Atención,” which Kevin sings to announce to the neighborhood that Claudia has passed away; and “Everything I Know,” which Nina sings as she reminisces about all that Claudia taught her as a child and what Claudia experienced as an immigrant leaving her home in Cuba. In the stage production, it’s after “Everything I Know” that Nina decides she’ll go back to Stanford.
In the movie, Claudia sings “Paciencia y Fe” moments before she passes away, whereas in the musical, the song comes right after “96,000” and is used to announce that she won the lottery.
And finally, filmgoers will get an extra song that doesn’t appear in the Broadway musical. The brand new tune “Home All Summer,” written by Miranda and featuring Marc Anthony (who also has a cameo in the movie), plays during the credits.
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