How the In the Heights Film Compares to the Original Musical

Spoilers ahead.

For fans who’ve been advocating for a film adaptation of In the Heights for years, the movie version of the popular musical couldn’t come sooner. Yet even the most avid theater aficionados will be surprised by some of the major differences between the Jon M. Chu–directed film and the original Broadway musical, which was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes.

The baseline plot of the movie is the same: In Washington Heights, a majority Latinx-neighborhood in New York City, a tight-knit community fights for their dreams while contending with the ways its area is changing. In both the film and musical versions, there’s Usnavi de la Vega, a bodega owner who longs to move back to the Dominican Republic; Sonny, his ambitious cousin who works alongside him at the store; and Vanessa, who aspires to move out of the neighborhood. Nina Rosario, who returns to the community after leaving Stanford University, also features prominently in both versions, as does her father, Kevin, who owns a taxi service, and her boyfriend, Benny, who aims to run his own business. And, of course, there would be neither an In the Heights musical nor film without Abuela Claudia, the matriarch of the community who began looking after Usnavi after his parents died.


However, some parts of the original production don’t make it into the feature film. Nina’s mother, Camila, is written out of the movie, and there’s little to no contention between Benny and Kevin in the movie, unlike in the musical. Vanessa’s story also changes: On the screen, she has big dreams to be a fashion designer and isn’t struggling with her mother’s alcohol dependency, as she does in the musical.

For many viewers, In the Heights will mark their return to the theater after a long hiatus. Whether you’ll be heading to the cinema or streaming from home, watch out for these major differences between the film and musical.

There are fewer songs in the movie than in the musical.

Though the In the Heights movie is more than two hours long, some songs didn’t make the cut. These songs include “Inútil (Useless),” a solo by Kevin about the difficulty of providing for his family, and “Sunrise,” a tune that involves Nina teaching Benny Spanish. “Hundreds of Stories,” a duet between Usnavi and Claudia, and “Enough” from Camila are also omitted.

U.S. immigration policy is a major theme of the film.

The In the Heights musical touched upon immigration by virtue of the fact that many people living in the community left their native countries to pursue better lives in the United States. As Claudia recalls in the song “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith),” moving to the States from Cuba was difficult and involved “sharing double beds, trying to catch a break, struggling with English,” and “scrubbing the whole of the Upper East Side” as a maid.

However, the film tackles the country’s immigration policy more explicitly. In the movie, Sonny discovers that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for him to attend college because he’s undocumented. In one scene, he and Nina attend a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) rally alongside esteemed journalist Maria Hinojosa, who has often reported on immigration issues. Usnavi also uses his earnings from a lottery win to help Sonny pay for a lawyer so he can begin the years-long process of becoming a U.S. citizen.

The Broadway musical does not tackle these issues, as it was released in 2008, years before former president Barack Obama announced DACA policy in 2012. “The movie gave me an opportunity to explore some things I didn’t get the chance to the first time around, so I really wanted to take advantage of that,” Hudes, who wrote the In the Heights screenplay, told Broadway.com.

Nina changes her mind about returning to Stanford University at different points in the musical and movie.

In the musical, Nina returns home to Washington Heights after failing out of Stanford University, because she was working multiple jobs to afford tuition and lost her scholarship. Yet in the movie, Nina, who’s the first person in her family to go to college, initially decides to leave Stanford because she is discriminated against for being Latina. She reveals to her father that she was accused of stealing by a classmate and her parents, and was assumed to be part of the waitstaff at a formal event by wealthy attendees.

In both the movie and musical, Nina’s father, Kevin, sells his car service so that he can help Nina afford tuition, but Nina initially refuses to accept his help. In the film, she changes her mind after attending the DACA rally for Sonny and seeing him worry about obtaining an education without documentation, whereas in the stage version, she changes her mind after Abuela Claudia’s death. By the end of both the film and musical, Nina returns to Stanford.

There’s more LGBTQ+ representation in the film.

Though Carla and Daniela, who work at the local salon together, are depicted as friends in the musical, the film shows their relationship as more romantic. In the movie, Carla, who’s played by Stephanie Beatriz, and Daniela, who’s portrayed by Daphne Rubin-Vega, are partners who live together.

There’s a significant difference in the film’s mural that convinces Usnavi to stay in Washington Heights.

Usnavi has always dreamed of returning to the Dominican Republic and spends the majority of the film and musical plotting to do so, but in both versions he abandons this dream after seeing a mural by Graffiti Pete at the bodega. In the musical, Graffiti Pete paints a mural of Abuela Claudia, which reminds Usnavi of the relationships and community he has in Washington Heights.

In the film, however, Graffiti Pete paints a mural of a beach in the Dominican Republic, allowing Usnavi to have a piece of home in the bodega. Viewers are led to believe throughout the whole movie that Usnavi has left for the Dominican Republic, because it begins and ends with him telling his children a story on the beach. However, it is revealed at the end that Usnavi, who has since married Vanessa, is telling them the story of Washington Heights from his bodega, with the beach mural as the background several years later.

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