'Deja Vu?' Five Musicals That Influenced 'In The Heights'

Sunday June 13, 2021

If some moments of "In The Heights" may have that "deja vu" feeling, it was likely the intention of director Jon M. Chu, who, like Damien Chazelle did in "LaLa Land," referenced moments from previous musicals in homage. With host Dave Karger on Turner Classic Movies on Friday night, Wu addressed with film geek enthusiasm his admiration for the Hollywood studio system and the musicals that influenced him.

Chu joined Karger in introducing two films — "Million Dollar Mermaid" and "Royal Wedding," explaining how they influenced "In The Heights." But watching "In The Heights," available to watch at theaters or streaming on HBO Max, it is also easy to see how the shadows of some other musicals cast on his film. Here are five movies referenced in the film's musical numbers, including the two Chu introduced.

Million Dollar Mermaid

For "In The Heights," Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes added a new number — "96,000" — in which everyone in the neighborhood visits the local outdoor pool and fantasizes about what they would do with the lottery winnings from a ticket bought at lead Anthony Ramos's bodega. For the number, Chu evoked a pair of numbers from this 1952 musical biography of Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman with Esther Williams.

At that film's climax, the director Mervyn LeRoy turned to Busby Berkeley, the dance director who revolutionized musicals in the 1930s with his surreal dance routines, to design some equally imaginative water routines, this time in Technicolor. Chu said of Berkeley/Williams collaboration: "I just thought they did have a view of dance and movement and shapes, unlike anyone before them and that a scale that only the cinema could provide." For this film, he staged Williams ascending to a great height above a pool filled with male and female dancers gyrating into various geometric designs until she falls into the water. It proved so dangerous that she broke several vertebrae in her back.

"I knew I always wanted to do to throwbacks to some of the old classic musicals because to me, seeing this community do those kind of numbers with as much joy, and as much passion and as much skills as, as they had been done, show that they could have done it, given the opportunity back then," said Chu of the what inspired him.

Royal Wedding

This 1951 musical, directed by Stanley Donen, is best remembered for the incredible moment when a lovestruck Fred Astaire defies gravity and dances on the walls and ceilings of his hotel room. It was an effect achieved with the room placed in a huge, rotating drum with the camera in sync with the drum's movement. In "In The Heights," Chu achieves a similar effect with the lovestruck couple Leslie Grace and Corey Hawkins also defy the rules of gravity and dance on the side of their apartment house.

This number, Chu explained on TCM, came from his feeling that musicals can do what other genres can't: to allow characters to use songs to express "what dialogue could never express. It's getting us to feel what these characters are feeling in that moment, no matter what it takes to get there."

The idea for the staging of "When the Sun Comes Down" came from "the idea that when you're in love and all the gravity can go away." To achieve it, Chu looked back to the techniques used in Astaire's memorable routine. "What we learned from Fred Astaire is that you have to show the audience that you're doing the trick. You can't cut away, especially nowadays," Chu explained.

The filmmakers built a huge contraption — the side of an apartment building that would move — on which Grace and Hawkins would sing and dance and effortlessly move in and out of gravity. "They can walk on the side and then also slide all the way down the wall, and I did a magic movie before, so I also know that audience needs to see you doing it to prove it."

West Side Story

With its upcoming Steven Spielberg-Tony Kushner remake coming out at the end of the year, this classic urban musical will be getting quite a bit of attention this year. And though not acknowledged by Chu, there are moments, especially in an impromptu dance number in an alley, that recall the "Dance at the Gym" number in which the rival gangs square off. No such rivalry here, but it is the reference, intentional or not, is here. As does the idea of escaping the neighborhood to a better place, which is the subtext of both stories and is expressed in "West Side Story" with "Somewhere."

Bye Bye Birdie

At the onset of "96,000," Usvani, Benny, and their besties sing about what they would do with the lottery winnings. And as they walk, they accent their words with clever animation — doodles-of-sorts. The last time anyone doodled on screen in a musical number was when Dick Van Dyke did so to cheer up Janet Leigh in the 1962 film version of this surprise 1960 Broadway hit. It, like "In The Heights," marked the Broadway debut of new songwriting talent — the team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams; and, like "In The Heights," "Bye Bye Birdie" won a Best Musical Tony.

"New York, New York" (or any musical with a dream ballet)

The dream ballet has been a musical theater staple since "Oklahoma!" At MGM during the heyday of the film musical, this elongated, stylized number became the highpoint of such musicals as "An American in Paris" and "The Band Wagon," both directed by Vincente Minnelli. Then, in the late 1970s, Martin Scorsese teamed with Liza Minnelli, Vincente's daughter with Judy Garland, for his dark homage to the MGM musical, "New York, New York," which culminated with a lengthy dream sequence, called "Happy Endings," in which the story of the film was refracted in a spectacular musical montage.

In "In The Heights," that dream ballet moment is found in a song — the powerful "Paciencia y Fe" in which the film's matriarch, Abuela Claudia (played by Cuban-American actress Olga Merediz), sings of her family's emigration from La Vibora—"the Washington Heights of Havana"—to the hard life in New York where the only employment for women was as domestics. Chu stages her journey in a dream-like fashion on a New York subway in which Cuban immigrants blend with everyday subway riders. Chu explained to TCM that he came up with the idea of Claudia, whom he described as "the motherly figure of a block," would "dance about coming to America through the subways of New York City through the history of the subway system." He saw it as "almost like an art installation right into the streets of Washington Heights, not cutting to somewhere else."