All the Hidden Messages and Hamilton References in In the Heights

·5 min read
Photo credit: Macall Polay
Photo credit: Macall Polay

Lin-Manuel Miranda became a household name with Hamilton, the Tony Award-winning musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. But this week, Miranda's earlier Broadway show headed to screens big and small, as the In the Heights movie premiered in both theaters and on HBO Max. This show is quite different from Hamilton—set in the present day and based on Miranda's own life, rather than the first treasury secretary's. However, Miranda and director Jon Chu included a number of hidden touches to pleasantly surprise some eagle-eyed fans. These so-called Easter eggs relate to Hamilton, the original In the Heights stage production, and to Miranda and Chu's personal lives.

While we're sure there are still some clues left unknown, below, T&C spoke with Chu about his favorite secret messages sprinkled throughout the film. Plus, we added in a few of our own discoveries.

Piragua Guy

Photo credit: Macall Polay
Photo credit: Macall Polay

One of the most obvious Easter eggs is when Lin-Manuel Miranda appears in the film as Piraguero, the "Piragua Guy." Miranda sings the song "Piragua," while trying to sell the Puerto Rican shaved ice dessert by the same name. Also appearing alongside the "Piragua Guy" is "Mister Softee," the man who runs an ice cream truck competing with the piragua vendor. Mister Softee is played by Miranda's Hamilton cast-mate, Christopher Jackson, who starred as George Washington in the hit musical. Jackson also originated the role of Benny in the In the Heights stage production.

Another hidden component of the piragua scene is related to the history of the musical. "When Lin first conceived In the Heights, he drew a picture, and he drew a picture of the subway, scratched on his notebook in high school, I believe. And he wrote 'In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda,'" Chu says. "This picture, he showed me, and I was like, 'That is crazy that this is where this all started.' We carved that image into his piragua cart. In the closeup of the cart, you can see it carved in, his initial. It's like the flux capacitor, and it's in the movie."

Finally, the book Miranda reads while he is in character was also distinctly intentional. "Even the book that he's reading as piragua guy is what his grandfather used to read him, and it took us a long time to clear that," Chu says. "So many times, the studio was like, 'Can we just replace the cover so we don't have to find this obscure writer and find the thing?' I was like, 'No. It means so much. This is a nod to his grandparents. We have to get it.' And so we got it."

So-Called Background Music

Photo credit: Macall Polay
Photo credit: Macall Polay

There are a few situations throughout the movie where viewers think they might just be listening to random hold music or background vocals. However, many of those seemingly inconsequential musical interludes have hidden meanings. First, the hold music heard at Kevin Rosario's (as played by Jimmy Smits) cab company is manipulated Hamilton music.

A similar occurrence happens at the dry cleaners, according to Jon Chu. "Mandy Gonzalez [who played Nina off-Broadway] is the voice of a doo-wop version of the song on the record in the dry cleaning when [Abuela Claudia] goes to the guy to get napkins cleaned," Chu says. "It's Mandy Gonzalez, who was the original Nina, and we got her to do this really funny doo-wop version of that song. I'm not sure people would know that."

Finally, in Usnavi's bodega, the music on the radio was extremely intentional. "In the bodega, when Usnavi is asking Vanessa out, or Sonny's asking Vanessa out for him, there is this muzak playing, or this old song, and that's actually Lin, [music producers] Alex Lacamoire, and Bill Sherman, who are all the music guys on this [movie]," Chu says. "They're singing this funny made-up song that they did together as an old group. You can hear that."

The Sets Got Personal

Photo credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Photo credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Some of the movie's sets were existing landmarks in New York's Washington Heights. For example, the pool used in the musical number "96,000" was just a neighborhood swimming pool. But, with the sets built for the movie, Chu and his colleagues added a few personal touches.

"My mom's name [Ruth] is in Daniela's storefront when you see it. Nelson Coates, our brilliant production designer, put her name as if it was the store that was there before, so you can see the outline, the sunburn it," Chu says. "A lot of the names of the things—Willow Amelia for the rental company is my daughter's name."

That Lottery Ticket

Photo credit: Macall Polay
Photo credit: Macall Polay

The movie hinges on a lottery ticket, which earned one lucky character $96,000—the premise of the song by the same name. In choosing that lottery ticket's number, Chu could have picked a random assortment, but naturally, he added a hidden message in the numbers. However, the numbers he chose caused him a bit more stress than he anticipated.

"We had to come up with the numbers, and it was like, all right, I'm going to do my wife's birth month, five. That's May. I'll put five. And then I'll do my daughter's birthday, 7/16. And then my son, who wasn't born yet, but was supposed to be born on our anniversary, which is the 26th. We put 26, because we already had the seven. And then my favorite number, 33. And I was so proud," Chu says.

He continues: "And I showed my wife after we shot for the day. I said, 'Look. Do you recognize these numbers?' I walked her through them. And she's like, 'Jon, you know our anniversary is the 27th, right? The baby's due on the 27th.' And I was like, 'Oh, gosh. This is the worst thing. Forever, we're going to [have this] number, and it's going to haunt us.' However, a month later, our baby boy was born on the 26th, so he saved my ass."

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