The Simple but Significant Plot Shift of In the Heights

Spoilers for In the Heights (play and film) follow.

The excellent Broadway musical In the Heights received a film adaptation this summer and, like most such adaptations, it went through some changes from stage to screen. Character arcs shifted slightly, some numbers got cut, and a few items got added to make the show more topical. But one particular change left me really thinking, and I feel that it subtly alters the tone of the entire story.

The Winning Lottery Ticket

Both the stage musical and the film adaptation have a pivotal moment where Usnavi discovers that somebody bought a winning lottery ticket from his bodega. In the play, he learns fairly quickly that Abuela Claudia bought the ticket and intends to use the money she gives to him to return home to the Dominican Republic. In the film, the person who bought the winning ticket remains a mystery until the story’s final act; Usnavi had already saved up enough money to buy his father’s business back home after it had been ravaged by a hurricane.

In the end, the story closes out the same way, with Usnavi remaining in Washington Heights after realizing that home is more than just a matter of where you were born. But the shifted location of the lottery ticket, and indeed of Abuela Claudia’s death, changes the paths taken to reach that conclusion, sometimes in significant ways.

The why of the change is a mystery to me. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the stage play, had a significant hand in the film and almost certainly signed off on the change (if he didn’t make it himself). But, despite being a very verbose person who is all too happy to answer fan questions about his works, he has yet to comment on the reasons behind this change…at least to my knowledge.

As a result, the actual motive behind the change is a matter of speculation, at least until the unlikely day that I manage to pin Miranda down and have a few drinks with him. However, a look at how the alteration shifts the tone of the movie may provide some insight. By changing the circumstances around the winning ticket, here are the ways in which the movie version of In the Heights alters the arcs of the story’s principal characters.

Abuela Claudia

The most obvious change comes from Abuela Claudia’s storyline. In the play, she passes away after revealing to Usnavi that she has the winning lottery ticket. This sets up hopes for the future, which then get thrown into disarray by her unexpected death. In the film, her death moves to the first night of the blackout and her winning ticket goes unrevealed for months until just before Usnavi plans to leave the country.

Timing aside, perhaps the most significant change in the tone of Claudia’s story comes near the end of her big number “Paciencia y Fe.” In the stage production, she refers to “her dreams coming true” in response to the sudden winning of more money than she’s ever seen before:

And ay Mamá, what do you do when
Your dreams come true?
I’ve spent my life inheriting dreams from you
What do I do with this winning ticket?
What can I do but pray?
I buy my loaf of bread
Continue with my day
And see you in my head
Imagining what you’d say

By contrast, the film keeps the winning ticket hidden and focuses on Claudia watching her chosen family gather together in the blackout with a smile on her face. This shifts the “dreams coming true” line from being explicitly about the ticket to being about the sense of community that she has brought to her neighborhood. Her death at the end of the song also casts this moment as a culmination of a successful life; she dies happily, seeing her extended family united together:

What do you do when
Your dreams come true?
I’ve spent my life
Inheriting dreams from you
I made it through
I survived, I did it
Now do I leave or stay?

Personally, the film version plucks at my heart strings more because it mirrors the way my own mother died (right after a family gathering where everybody in the extended family was together for what has so far been the last time). But without making any value judgment, the change to Claudia’s story does two major things. First, it removes the lottery ticket as the game-changer that it is in the play. Second, it presents Claudia’s life more explicitly as a life complete. This has several knock-on effects for other characters in the story.

Usnavi’s Decision

To Usnavi, the story’s protagonist, the winning ticket kicks his plans to leave New York and return to the Dominican Republic…at least in the stage musical. With that money out of the picture until late in the film, Usnavi needs another motivation to leave. In this case, it comes in the form of his father’s old business in the Dominican, totaled by a hurricane, and rendered low enough in price as a result that Usnavi is able to buy it early on in the movie.

This changes the tone of Usnavi’s first act story. While the play paints him as a person who feels stuck in Washington Heights and is watching the block disappear, the movie makes him part of that change in the neighborhood. Moreover, he spends time during the first act trying to lure Claudia and Sonny away with him. Both show hesitance, and Sonny outright refuses. As we see in Claudia’s final number, the move south runs counter to her dream; she is happy to have a community and reluctant to move on after she and her mother worked so hard to earn their place in New York.

Usnavi’s story resolves in much the same way, with him ultimately realizing that Washington Heights is his home. The catalyst changes slightly, though. In the play, Graffiti Pete paints a mural of Claudia on the bodega, leading to Usnavi’s epiphany. In the film, Vanessa has Pete paint a mural that celebrates both Claudia and pays homage to the Dominican. This moment also serves as a resolution to Vanessa’s storyline, as her shiftlessness and quest for inspiration is more of a focus in the movie.

Ultimately, while Claudia is a motivating factor for keeping Usnavi in New York, it’s less explicit in the film. In the stage, she is both the enabler of Usnavi’s departure (through the winning lottery ticket) and the reason he stays (through the mural). In the play, she is less of a direct push in both directions, but her spirit and the sense of community that she embodies ultimately brings resolution to the story.

Nina’s School Experience

Nina’s time in Stanford already changed even before factoring in the effects of the lottery ticket alteration. In the play, her need to work herself to the bone caused her grades to drop, putting her at risk of being expelled from Stanford. In the film, she opts not to return to the university because of the racism she experiences there. In both versions, Claudia provides counsel and advice for Nina, but only in the play does she directly influence Nina’s decision to return to college.

In the play, Claudia’s death prompts reflection from Nina, which in turn inspires her to return to Stanford. In the film, after Sonny discovers that he can’t go to college as an undocumented citizen, she comes to see Stanford as an opportunity for her to help others in her friend’s situation.

This seems like an unrelated change to the lottery ticket, but I would suggest that moving Claudia’s death to the end of the first act (a decision likely tied to the ticket revelation) affects Nina’s story. In the play, Nina’s decision is a direct response to Claudia’s death and comes in the immediate aftermath. Doing the same in the movie would mean resolving Nina’s storyline much earlier, giving her less to do later in the film.

Through this change, Nina’s story becomes more intrinsically tied to Sonny’s, and it is he who sees perhaps the biggest change due to the decision to hide the owner of the winning ticket…

Sonny’s New Character Arc

Sonny, a young man already focused on social justice in the play, gets more of an emphasis on the modern political scene in the movie. In the play, he goes to Graffiti Pete to convince Usnavi to stay. With that changed in the movie, he needs something new to provide him with resolution. This comes in the form of a revelation to Nina: he is an undocumented immigrant and therefore is denied basic amenities available to US citizens, including the ability to go to college.

It is near the end of the play the Claudia’s winning ticket turns up, and Sonny is the direct beneficiary. He begins the path to citizenship, knowing that it will be a long, hard fight and that he may not get there at all. Rather than leave Sonny with a portion of the money, as in the play, Usnavi leaves him with everything, giving him the whole $96,000 to bankroll his fight for citizenship, with any remaining funds going into a trust.

The change to Sonny’s character arc doesn’t dramatically alter the resolution of the play, but it does rearrange the reasons for some things. Changing his actions near the end of the film allows Vanessa to have a resolving moment with Usnavi and gives Nina a different reason to return to college. It also means that the winning lottery ticket has a very tangible purpose beyond just allowing Usnavi to return to the Dominican Republic. In this case, it is essentially Sonny’s salvation and the opportunity for him to pursue a better, safer life than what Abuela Claudia lived.

What Changes a Community?

The alteration of details when it comes to the winning lottery ticket, and the effects that it has on the rest of the story, shifts the focus of In the Heights in a significant way. In both versions, Abuela Claudia’s contribution to her community is profound and felt most significantly after she dies. In the play, she is essentially the foundation upon which other major decisions turn; both Usnavi and Nina, in particular, make their decisions because they are inspired by her memory.

This remains true in the movie to a certain extent, but the film presents numerous other factors that help influence the characters’ decisions. Ultimately, though, In the Heights is a story about a community that Claudia built through hard work and compassion. Her legacy is not only a block of people who take her lessons to heart, but the possibility that others such as Sonny will be afforded a life of less toil that she could only dream of.

Images: Warner Brothers

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