Director takes on adaptation of Broadway musical

Universal Pictures has set Kenny Ortega to direct “In the Heights,” the bigscreen adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.

Ortega plans to make the tuner his follow-up to “This Is It,” the musical docu built around rehearsals for Michael Jackson’s final concert that Sony Pictures Entertainment turned into a success.

U acquired rights to the musical in fall 2008, with creator Lin-Manuel Miranda expected to reprise his starring role. Miranda wrote the lyrics and music, as well as originating the role of Dominican bodega owner Usnavi in the premiere production of “Heights” Off Broadway and in its Main Stem transfer. The show’s book writer, Quiara Alegria Hudes, came attached to write the script. Meryl Poster will produce. Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller and Jill Furman Willis, all producers of the stage musical, will be exec producers.

Ortega, who until recently had been expected to direct “Footloose” at Paramount, considers the “In the Heights” gig to be a dream job.

“It’s a project so near to my heart that when I went in and pitched myself, I told the executives at Universal that they were not going to find a guy who has more of a life connection to that story,” Ortega said. “I’ve seen the show six times on Broadway since it opened, several times when Lin played the lead role. He blew me away with his presence and charisma.”

The musical covers three days in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, where a bodega owner who inherited his grandmother’s lottery windfall plots his retirement to a Dominican Republic beach. As he bids farewell to his customers on the block, he becomes conflicted about leaving behind a group that has become family.

Ortega said though he grew up near San Francisco as a child of immigrants from Spain and Cuba, the mix of community and music in “In the Heights” made him nostalgic. “We struggled, and the hopes, dreams, music and love of culture sustained us, and forged who I am,” Ortega said.

While Ortega directed the “High School Musical” films and choreographed “Dirty Dancing,” he knows his shot at “Heights” came largely from the success of the Jackson film. The strong reviews, the box office and now the “Heights” assignment has left him conflicted. “I’d trade it all in a second to have Michael back with us, but I owe a debt of thanks to him,” Ortega said. “He’s my angel. Whenever I said yes to him, I came out on the other end benefitting greatly.”

While the new regime at Universal is certainly questioning the movies it will make, the studio remains bullish on musicals. Aside from “In the Heights,” Universal is formulating a new installment of “Mamma Mia!,” and it is beginning to move forward on a screen version of the Broadway smash “Wicked.” Studio also recently attached “Hairspray” composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron to a musical based on a soon-to-be launched Mattel toyline that aspires to add a new twist to monster lore.

Ortega is repped by Paradigm.

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