‘In the Heights’ Music Producers Tell How the Songs Transitioned from Stage to Screen

In the Heights Movie
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tale of the immigrant community of New York’s Washington Heights, will be released on Friday. Its four Tony Awards for the original Broadway show included best musical, best original score, and best orchestrations for Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman — who oversaw the musical transition from stage to screen. Variety talked with both about how the music was handled.

Alex and Bill, you’ve both been associated with Lin-Manuel for many years. What’s your history with “In the Heights”?

Bill Sherman: Lin put on “In the Heights” at Wesleyan [University] when we were sophomores, and I didn’t know him yet. I did music-direct every show that he did after that. But I didn’t even see “In the Heights”; I didn’t know anything about it. Then when we graduated from college, Lin and I lived together. And he was like, “These guys who used to go to Wesleyan have a production company, they’re interested in putting on ‘In the Heights’.” And I say, “Okay, but how are we paying the rent?” And he says, “Oh, I don’t know. But hey, they want to make a musical!” And I was like, “All right, cool!” So we put on some readings of “In the Heights” over a couple of years, and then, finally, when they told us that we had to take it even more seriously, we found Alex. And then that’s when it started to get real.

Alex Lacamoire: Yeah, in 2004 I met you guys. There was a whole three-year process of workshops before we even opened for an audience off-Broadway in 2007.

Did you two divide up the various aspects of the job, or did you basically partner up and do everything together?

Sherman: I’ve never had a partnership that works like this. Lac and I have very specific talents, and I think when we put them together it’s one sort of meta thing. So, no, we don’t really divide anything. We do it all together, and I think the best stuff that comes out of the two of us is when we argue about something. He’ll play something, and I’ll say, “No, no, no, this could be way cooler.” And I’ll play it, and he’ll be like, “That’s not very good.” And then we go back and forth. We’ve been doing that for decades. Everything sort of runs through the both of us.

When it came to making the movie, did Lin want to alter the storyline or the characters or the songs in any way, or are we looking pretty much at the same show, translated to film?

Lacamoire: I have major respect for Lin and [writer] Quiara [Alegria Hudes], and how willing they were to treat the film as its own entity. It would have been very easy to take the script from Broadway and just throw it up on a screen, and that’s not what they did. They cut characters, they went deeper with certain characters. They added certain themes. Like, one of the characters is a DREAMer, and that speaks to that movement. The father is now a widower, whereas the mother lives on the Broadway stage; she’s not a part of this movie. So they were willing to change things, and deal with the fallout as it were.

Also, change lyrics as needed, move the moments around in the movie to make a better experience, knowing that as long as the story was being told, as long as the message that they wanted to put out was being told, it’s still them. It’s still “In the Heights,” it’s still celebrating this neighborhood, still about family, still about these characters. And the way that they were willing to take [director] Jon Chu’s recommendations, to take his input and views in their own special way was really great.

You know, Bill and I were different people back in 2008. So here we are revisiting this show, with the knowledge that we have amassed in the 12 or 13 years since that makes us better producers, better arrangers, better storytellers, all of the above. We just now have a deeper well to draw from. So that’s a very rare opportunity, to revisit stuff that you were a part of, and can now augment and bring in your own life experience to make what we think is a deeper and richer thing for us. And I would say the same goes for Lin and Quiara, and the skills they have amassed as writers and creators in that time.

As you prepared to pre-record the songs, did you have discussions with Lin about what changes, if necessary, might have made it better for film?

Sherman: Very rarely in life do you get the chance to try something three or four times, especially in the entertainment world. We always said that this was going to be the 2.0 version of whatever we had done previously. It was working with different producers who were specific to hip-hop and specific to reggaeton, or specific to Latin music. And then the background vocals: Instead of the 12 people on stage, it was 40 people. What used to be synthesized strings was now a 40-piece orchestra. So it was bigger, badder, louder. Better! And we just kept on striving: how can it be a thing that lives on the screen? And also, what was interesting is bringing in another voice. When Jon Chu came to the table, he already had a bunch of ideas, where he wanted to go, but he was uber-respectful of what we had already accomplished.

We’re always like, “Sure, we’ll try anything. You want to try to do that? We’ll try that. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.” What Tommy Kail, the original off-Broadway/Broadway director said was, “The best idea in the room always wins.” So we would throw out ideas with Jon, and he’d be like this, and Lin would be like that – and it sort of felt like we were going back to when we were in our early 20s, workshopping a thing and doing it again.

Talk about working with Jon M. Chu and with some of the other collaborators new to the team.

Sherman: Chu wanted different things. Like, in “When the Sun Goes Down,” he wanted this big, epic dance thing on the side of a building, right? So it was like, “Okay, what’s that going to sound like?” And we had a couple of ideas. We had this one thing that kind of sounded like rock, and then he was like, “No, no, I want it to sound like Gene Kelly, like a big, extravagant, dancing thing.” And we were like, “Okay.” And Lac took a melody that we had had previously and sort of put it in there. It’s a melody from “Sunrise,” which is a song that’s not even in the movie. And we put that in and turned it into this grand gesture. That was really cool, and nothing that we ever would have thought of.

Then with “96,000,” for example, it was a matter of “What didn’t we do? What could we do better?” And let’s bring on Mike Elizondo, the great hip-hop producer, to make the hip-hop tracks really great. Let’s bring on Truco, the great reggaeton producer, to make the reggaeton section sound amazing, and sort of mush all of the stuff together and make this 2.0 version of the thing.

The actors clearly need to emote and be in character while they sing. And yet, months later, during the shoot, maybe what worked in the studio is not working so well on screen. Do you try to anticipate everything possible before the recording, and then do the best you can when you get to the shoot?

Lacamoire: It’s always a goal when you do pre-records. Yes, you want the song to sound good, but you need to make sure that the story is being told. And even though the actors are in what could be seen as a very sterile environment, you still want to make sure that the essence of the moment is coming across. And what’s beautiful is that with a score like “In the Heights,” Bill and I know the show so well, and we know Lin’s intentions so well, we know where these songs came from, that the goal was always to strive to have the actors convey that meaning, and that story was being told through the lyric. And Lin’s music is so rich with meaning and interpretation and metaphor, all of those things. It’s a wonderful playground to be in.

But you are right. You do that with the hope that once you get on the shoot day that everything’s going to be as you imagined it. And I would say, by and large, most of the things did work well. But there were definitely moments that they wanted to leave open for the push-and-pull that singing live on the day demands.

How often are your actors actually singing live on set?

Lacamoire: Case in point, the very top of “When You’re Home.” It’s an introduction of these two lovers, just talking to each other intimately. We allowed the actors to lead, and there’s a pianist playing into their headphones, to guide them. But they were in charge. Same thing for Abuela Claudia at the top of “Paciencia y Fe”. She was singing at her own pace, and the music was following her, versus the other way around. So you want to leave room for that kind of flexibility and that kind of surprise for the moments where you know you want there to be that kind of flexibility.

Sherman: All of “Champagne” is live, because we figured we weren’t going to be able to have them have those emotions, have that moment, if it was prerecorded. And then other spots throughout. What was very important to Jon’s vision is that it was all based in something real. So when two people are talking to each other as they do in musicals, and all of a sudden they erupt into singing, he wanted that to feel completely seamless. And so we took a lot of chances with people trying things live. And sometimes there was so much background noise it didn’t work. But it was fun to take those chances.

I’m curious to know how different the arrangements are. If people who know the show will go to the movie and say, “Yeah, that sounds like what I heard on Broadway,” or if maybe you needed to reconceive every number.

Sherman: I wouldn’t say that we reconceived every number. The good part about it was we had something to start with. We had this musical, this cast recording, all of these things to at least have a basis. And we knew that, in some ways, they worked. Whatever we couldn’t execute on Broadway, in sort of the magnitude of it all, we could super-execute on a film. So when we had a string pad on a keyboard, we could have a string section. When we had two percussionists [in the show], we could have as many as we wanted [in the movie].

Arrangement-wise, Jon had a lot of places where he wanted to put dialogue in, and breaks, or spread out one of the songs over a large scene that kept on changing places. So that was an interesting task. Making these little sections that go from piece to piece, adding music and making everything feel as organic as possible without feeling outside of the song. And then just some of the dance break-y things, that are just added bars on “96,000,” for example. “Blackout” was the one that definitely is very different from the original, because it follows so many people in so many places, and visually goes to so many different places that we had to use a lot of middle stuff to get us from point A to point B. Putting all of those puzzle pieces together was definitely an interesting challenge.

We haven’t talked much about Lin’s role in all of this. Are you in touch constantly? Are you consulting with him?

Sherman: We’ve been working with him for decades, and we can sort of anticipate him a little bit. But then there are some times, we’ll sort of look at each other, and if we’ve taken something too far, we’re like, “Oh, we should call Lin.” And we’ll call Lin, and we’ll play it for him over the phone, or we’ll sing it to him, and he’ll be like, “No, yes, no, yes.” We’ll go back and forth. But then sometimes we’ll totally whiff. I mean, there are times where we’ve been like, “This is awesome!” And we’ll play it for Lin, and he’s like, “No!” But that’s very rare.

There were moments where it felt like old-school theater times, where we’d be in a room and we’d play “this dance break needs to be that,” and Lac would play something, and Lin would be like, “What if it’s this?” We revisited that dynamic, which was this thing that sort of propelled us when we were on off-Broadway and Broadway, was we’d all be in a room just throwing out ideas. And the best idea in the room would win. We got back to that, which was very heartwarming, and an incredible moment. A full-circle situation.

How different was this from turning “Hamilton” into a movie?

Lacamoire: It could not be more different. Because the “Hamilton” movie was a capture of a stage performance, right? Those of us on the stage during “Hamilton” didn’t do anything different to make the movie. We did our show, and there just happened to be cameras around while we did our thing. This is a movie where things were placed ahead of time, with big, specific planning to make a movie. So I think that’s the big difference.

The end-title song is new, right? Was it written for the movie, or might it have been something written for the show long ago and never used?

Sherman: Lin wrote that song for the movie, and it features Anthony Ramos and Leslie Grace and Marc Anthony. And it’s an amazing song, and it’s the perfect sort of anthem for the summer, for our show, and it’s fantastic.

Do you view “In the Heights” as authentic to the sounds of Washington Heights, or is it a kind of fantasy rooted in the real music of that part of New York?

Lacamoire: There are certain rules to Latin music, and “In the Heights” tends to break them a lot. And that’s because it’s its own thing. No one said out loud, “We’re going to make an authentic salsa musical.” It’s a musical. It’s told through the vocabulary of salsa and hip-hop and merengue and bachata and all of these things, and they all come together to create this thing. So all I know is that we always set out to honor the styles as best as possible, while still telling the story that needs to be told. And at the end of the day, that’s paramount. All of this music is serving a greater purpose, and that is the story, and the lyrics that are being told through this story.

Sherman: Lin and I, after college, lived on 212th Street and Broadway, which is not Washington Heights, it’s Inwood, but still. On Sunday nights, when “The Sopranos” was still doing original episodes, we would walk to his parents’ house to eat dinner, because it was the only time that we would actually be able to eat dinner because we didn’t have any money. So we would walk from our apartment at 5000 Broadway to his parents, which was like 10 blocks away.

And if you just listened to the sounds… this thing coming from this bodega, this bachata from here, this merengue from here, this thing whooshing by, reggaeton in a car. “In the Heights” had to sound like those 10 blocks. As Lac said, we definitely have a hybrid situation. All of those sounds are in there, and I think that we sort of took the ones that worked for the show, and mushed them all together and created our own thing. And I think that that’s what’s interesting about “In the Heights” is, it sounds like all of those things. It’s not one thing. You can’t pigeonhole it. That’s what I’m most proud of. It’s so undefinable — which I think is always the most interesting things that you see or experience, things that people can’t really describe that well.

Why do you think this show connected with people on Broadway, and why do you think it will connect with people at the movies?

Lacamoire: I always said that “In the Heights” is a classic musical theater piece, told with a very contemporary vocabulary. It used a vernacular that was not common… Up until Lin-Manuel, you didn’t find hip-hop as part of the narrative being told so expertly, both in terms of honoring the style of hip-hop and conveying the story.

So I think the music hooked a lot of people, and the fact that it was just so fresh and so contemporary sounding, and done so well. I think the movie will resonate with people. On top of that, I think there’s also this really special group of people that are going to be seeing themselves on a big screen in a way that I know I hadn’t seen prior to this film.

I have these daydreams about watching “In the Heights” on the big screen with my entire family in the theater, and everybody watching and hooting and hollering when they see their flag on the screen. You know, that doesn’t happen very often. Not in a way that is celebratory, in a way that is just fun, and is communal.

Here we wear our Latin-ness with pride and with joy, and with celebration. And I contend that a lot of people are going to connect with that, and it’s going to resonate. You’re not going to have to be a Latinx person to get it. As Jon proved with “Crazy Rich Asians,” it didn’t matter where you came from. Everybody loved that movie because in the specific comes the universal.