In the Heights and the Movie Musical

At the start of In the Heights (2021, dir. Jon M. Chu), Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) exits his Washington Heights apartment and spins a manhole cover with his toes as a DJ spins a record. Thus begins the title song, and thus the tone of the world is set: we are in a fantastically real land of musicality, where neighborhood-wide dance numbers are a normal fact of life. Or, at least, one would think that’s the world we’re in, after viewing this opening. But an hour later, behold scenes of dramatic dinners, tense non-musical conversations, and lots and lots of people doing paperwork. Yes, in this Broadway-adapted movie musical, there are numerous long scenes of people doing paperwork.

If this seems tonally inconsistent, that would be because it is.  

The best portions of In the Heights follow the example of the opening. They eschew reality for style and ‘embrace the artifice,’ as an acting professor of mine once instructed. They find exciting ways to include the ensemble chorus, the defining feature of the 2008 Broadway mainstage production of In the Heights (starring composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, he of Hamilton fame), and include lots of dancing. 

A disregard for the chorus has long been the kiss of death to Hollywood versions of Broadway musicals, such as Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (2007). Although decent enough taken on its own merits, Burton found no way to include the ensemble Greek chorus which so utterly defined Sondheim’s work from that period. It is the chorus that makes Sweeney Todd, but one need not be Tim Burton to realize that a dozen baritone men singing off-screen, when Johnny Depp is supposedly living each dramatic musical moment within the diegesis, will not work. The performers providing vocals all have to be on-screen—and how do you fit a Greek chorus within a camera’s frame? (The answer: like this.) I can imagine an adaptation of Sweeney Todd that tries, but it would be surreal, a nightmarish trek through Victorian London more like Eraserhead (1977, dir. David Lynch) than a normal theatrical film. All verisimilitude would be abolished.

I am happy to report that In the Heights has not removed its chorus. It also hasn’t solved this dilemma. The showing is strong in places: leaving the opening aside, take the song “96,000,” in which we see the effusion of excitement at a pool when the community learns of a local lottery win. Here each background individual contributes to the group chorus. The filmmakers found diegetic reasons to include musical conventions. Dancing, group singing—it’s a party! Where better to find both?

Alas, scenes like “96,000” are the exception. The film does not go far enough in embracing its artifice. In the Heights doesn’t seem to know what it is. Are we in a land of oppression and bureaucracy, or is this a Washington Heights where manhole covers are instruments?

No help is offered from a sloppy handling of most musical numbers more generally, like the midpoint song “Blackout,” where the filmmakers cut out the song’s buildup—because it’s complex and sung by the ensemble chorus—and directly begin its refrain (“We are powerless!”), presumably because they found this political message more compelling than the actual song. But cutting out the build-up ruins the punchline and renders the message, well, powerless. So it is with many of the film’s numbers. They almost always feel rushed.

These issues may seem small in the abstract, but they’re symptoms that presage overall adaptational failure. First one must understand the fundamental nature of the ensemble material from which this film was adapted. Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is plot-driven, and so it works even when mutilated for the big screen. The strength of the story is immutable. But In the Heights is not about any particular story. It’s about the people who live in Washington Heights. It’s about the setting and the language and the music. And the strength of these elements is fundamental to the magic of musical theatre; it cannot be replicated easily in film.

So what is the magic of musical theatre? First and foremost is the unavoidable reality that, in film, the cinematographer must tell us where to look. It is the fact that we can view each character in his or her own world, singing his or her own part of each song, that makes numbers like “96,000” work on stage. We need to be able to view all parts simultaneously for any individual part to work. That’s why this sends shivers down my spine every time, while the same scene from the film is at best bopping. It’s the difference between a music video and a live concert. Being forced to look somewhere in particular defeats the entire point of the exercise.

On stage, the narrative function of complicated ensemble dance numbers is to immerse the viewer in the world of Washington Heights. For this reason we can forgive the musical when lacking a structured narrative. Without the sense of place afforded to us by the real, concrete perspective of a three dimensional set, a lack of plot creates pacing issues. In the Heights (2021) has terrible pacing issues, especially in its second and third acts.

Then, at the end of the film, Usnavi learns the theme and realizes his place is at his bodega in New York. He also sings the same lines he does in the musical:

“Yeah, I’m a streetlight
Chillin’ in the heat.

I illuminate the stories of the people in the street.

Some have happy endings

Some are bittersweet.

But I know them all and that’s what makes my life complete.”

On stage these words are hugely cathartic. All throughout the musical Usnavi has been there, in the background, observing each song. Like a streetlight. But, despite that he is literally the film’s narrator now, this line makes no sense in its new context. Usnavi isn’t even in half of the film. Beyond the opening number he doesn’t do anything to “illuminate the stories of the people in the street.” The bodega he runs isn’t a locus of community activity; it hardly matters to most of the story—which focuses more on Vanessa’s innovative Jackson Pollock clothing designs than Usnavi’s business troubles.

On stage, by being the narrator, Usnavi does ‘illuminate’ the lives of the characters, because he speaks directly to the audience. His bodega is centerstage throughout, always part of the set. He’s always there in the background. But here he’s speaking directly to neighborhood children—that’s hardly the same as communicating the stories of his friends and family to outsiders!

The same adaptational issue is present from the end of the very first song. Usnavi sings in the stage musical:

“So turn up the stage lights!

We’re takin’ a flight

To a couple of days in the life

Of what it’s like [en Washington Heights].”

Now the word ‘stage’ has been replaced with ‘street,’ so that the cinematic Usnavi says, “So turn up the street lights.” Except, although understandable, this change makes no sense. Usnavi says to turn up the stage lights because the play is about to begin. “Turn up the street lights” doesn’t mean anything. First off, street lights don’t turn up or down; they’re either on or off. But moreover Usnavi is speaking directly to the audience: he’s saying ‘so let the show begin.’ Turning up the street lights has nothing to do with the show beginning, and it makes no sense that he would say that to his children if telling the story of Washington Heights in the year 2020. In other words, there is no diegetic explanation for the lyrics. They’re completely meaningless beyond the fact they rhyme and fit the meter of the verse.

The fundamental point is that, like a lot of theatre, In the Heights is a reflexive musical. That reflexivity does not translate 1:1 to the screen, and swapping out words does not complete the transition. Doing such a translation needn’t be impossible, but getting it right is going to be challenging. Suffice it to say, In the Heights does not get it right.

The unavoidable reality is that theatre and cinema have dissimilar conventions. These dissimilarities can be reconciled by the clever filmmaker when adapting stage plays founded in realism, like the work of Chekov or Tennessee Williams, but they are often incompatible with ensemble musicals like In the Heights. To say nothing of its other merits, when this latest adaptation reckons with its roots and embraces its artifice, it works cinematically, if still not as well as it would on stage. But it doesn’t go far enough, and in trying to reach a balance between fantasy and realism, finds neither.