How Choreographer Christopher Scott Helped Bring In the Heights to the Big Screen

June 7, 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., it wasn’t long before Christopher Scott got a call from Jon M. Chu. The release of In the Heights, the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakout Broadway musical, was being delayed. “My gut instinct was: This is the right thing to do,” says Scott, an Emmy-nominated choreographer best known for his work on “So You Think You Can Dance.” Both he and Chu, the film’s choreographer and director, respectively, felt strongly that this was a film people should see in theaters, and at the time it was unclear when movie theaters would reopen.

Warner Bros. ultimately pushed the film’s theatrical release back by a whole year, from June 2020 to June 2021, and announced plans to simultaneously make it available for streaming on HBO Max. With that date in sight, Scott is “even more excited now for people to see the film,” he says. “It’s like we’ve had this little secret we’ve been holding that we finally get to tell people.”

A love letter to Miranda’s native Washington Heights (a neighborhood in New York City), In the Heights was a smash hit when it debuted on Broadway in 2008. It was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, and took home four—including one for Andy Blankenbuehler’s original choreography.

For the film, Scott worked alongside Chu, the blockbuster director behind Crazy Rich Asians and two films in the Step Up franchise. “I just played the soundtrack on loop, over and over again,” says Scott. “In the car, at home while I was cleaning. After I knew the music like the back of my hand, I sat with Jon and we went through everything, top to bottom. It ended up being all-new choreography to serve the new circumstances and new direction. All the stuff that you can’t do onstage, like some of the bigger ensemble dance scenes, we wanted to make sure we could get on film.”

Christopher Scott, in a plain black t-shirt and jeans, clutching a cup of water in one hand, looks intently at a stretching dancer as he demonstrates a movement. Behind him, crew members set up cameras.

Choreographer Christopher Scott on the set of In the Heights

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Miranda’s music helped Scott find a deep connection to the project. “It’s a very special musical,” he says. “If you dance too much through it all, you’re not taking in the content of the lyrics Lin wrote. You have to pinpoint when to let the music be the star of the moment and really just tell the story. I was in the car with some friends and listening to ‘Carnaval Del Barrio.’ And I remember it hitting me how powerful that song is. It kind of sums up the whole representation of Washington Heights.”

Large-scale dance numbers filmed on location in summer 2019 presented their own set of challenges. “We’d be shooting dance numbers in alleyways,” Scott says, “and there’d be a big crack down the middle, but then there’s the thought of: This is the place. This is in the Heights!”

In the Heights
opens nationwide June 11, 2021.