‘In the Heights’ cast goes behind the scenes of movie event of the summer

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the 'In the Heights' cast (Part 1)

Before “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda won a Tony for Best Musical with “In the Heights.”

Next month, it becomes a hit movie musical that’s bound to be the event of the summer.

“I was a huge fan of the show,” actress Melissa Barrera told WTOP. “I saw it many, many times on Broadway with Lin, the original cast, every other cast. I would audition for it every chance that I got. I never got a callback, nothing, but now I’m here!”

The plot follows Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner in the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic.

“On stage, it’s one thing, but you can’t do all those things on stage,” actor Corey Hawkins told WTOP. “You can’t bring Highbridge Park with the pool to the stage and do that for ‘96,000,’ so the cinematic world sort of opens it up and cracks it open for us in a whole new way.”

Director Jon Chu even films Hawkins and Leslie Grace dancing up a building.

“We are magic,” Hawkins said. “A lot of work, blood, sweat and tears went into it. It was the last shot of the shoot. … There was a lot of technical camera ballet. We had our own choreography, but then the camera team and Alice [Brooks], our incredible D.P., we just had to work together and figure out how to do that. Leslie and I struggled through.”

“We leaned on each other, literally and figuratively,” Grace told WTOP. “We left parts of our body on the side of that building for sure, but it was so worth it.”

In addition to the dance numbers, each character also gets a character arc. Usnavi (Ramos) dreams of building an island tiki bar; Vanessa (Barrera) is a salon owner who dreams of becoming a fashion designer; Nina (Grace) leaves college to seek justice for immigrants; and Benny (Hawkins) maintains the vital work of the local taxi dispatch.

“It’s beautiful that you get to see all of these people that grew up together, that know and love each other, each have their dreams and how they all lift each other up,” Barrera said.

Along the way, the diverse casting makes it a huge win for representation on screen.

“We need to see ourselves on screen,” Grace said. “You don’t realize how much you miss seeing people that look like you on screen until you do. … They’re universal themes. Things that hit everybody’s heart and hit home. To see it through the scope of a predominantly Latino community is beautiful. Usually we’re not allowed to dream this big.”

Most importantly, it’s a joyous return to the theater after a tough pandemic year.

“It’s been a heavy year,” Hawkins said. “To be able to sit down, get your popcorn, get your concessions. … We haven’t been able to treat ourselves for this incredibly hard year. Jon calls this film a ‘vaccine shot of hope or joy.’ It really is. You get to move, tap your feet. … You’re gonna have rhythm by the time you leave the theater, I promise you that!”

Stay tuned for my full review when the movie hits theaters and HBO Max on June 10.

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the 'In the Heights' cast (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here or watch the video at the top of the article.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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