Coming in simultaneously with Lin-Manuel Miranda's recognizable score, some of the first sounds audiences will hear in at the beginning of In The Heights are the noises of a neighborhood waking up: a lo-fi radio, a car horn, children stirring. NYC is coming to life before our eyes—but it's our ears that catch the first signs.
Even the background music has a role to play. "We all felt a strong obligation to get it right, to be authentic...to the neighborhood of Washington Heights itself," says the film's music supervisor Steven Gizicki. "Anyone that has been [there] knows that the streets are indeed 'made of music,' as Usnavi says in the film. There’s this amazing cacophony of music and sounds drifting over every corner. It’s completely unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman [even] composed little bits of musical source material to lay in, all contributing to the sonic fabric of this very unique and special place."
To find out even more about how the sound of In The Heights goes beyond the score, Playbill chatted with supervising sound editor and re-recording artist Lewis Goldstein.
How did you get involved with In the Heights?
Lewis Goldstein: I originally got involved through one of the producers, Anthony Bregman, who got me a video interview with Jon Chu, the director. I’d never done an interview like that before—and this was pre-pandemic. I had worked on a big musical a year or so before (The Greatest Showman), so I got this appointment with Jon, and we had about an hour-long chat about the film, and about other movies, and it was just a phenomenal call...I can’t say enough about Jon. As a person, director, creative. He’s overall so talented, knows what he wants, and knows how to get it creatively and in other areas otherwise.
How did your previous experience affect your approach to this project?
Goldstein: I’d worked on a bunch of different musicals that were all very different. I worked on a film many years ago called Notorious about Biggie Smalls, where you had singing in studios, singing in concerts, and it was much more reality-based. I did a film called Cadillac Records with music taking place in studios and clubs. I did one called Begin Again which was more about people singing in the streets in New York. Some of it was live and some of it was pre-recorded. All of these film experiences felt like they were in situ, with all actors singing in the original space.
In the Heights was very much like that where these weren’t singers singing, these were people singing in situations, but really the movie is about people telling a story and being very emotional with these stories. Most of it’s told by song in very specific places and environments—they aren’t singing into microphones on camera or in a recording studio. They’re telling a story through song and music. Those earlier films I had done gave me insight into how I would approach this film, and what Jon’s viewpoint was. We decided that these weren’t music videos or musical numbers. These were people in a movie telling a story that happened to be by song, and that’s how the placement of the vocals and how our characters sounded. People were just walking around and started singing.
Can you explain how you worked on the NYC soundscape for the movie?
Goldstein: We did a lot of listening, especially up in Washington Heights. I spent some time on set, and the great thing about the Heights is that there’s always music playing. We tried to do a lot of recording atmospherically. We were up there at one point talking to a producer, and he commented that music—not from our film—was all around us. No matter where you are, there’s music at all times. As he was saying this, this guy on a bicycle rode by with the biggest speaker I’ve ever seen on the back of a bicycle, blasting music. We tried to build that energy for the film, and there’s points in the mix where there is much more ambiance. We scaled it back at points so it wasn’t as distracting when we did go into our songs. We did end up adding a significant amount of recording in the film.
What was a day-in-the-life of like for you while working on In The Heights?
Goldstein: On that film, I think I watched that movie from top to bottom more than any other film I’ve worked on. Both Jon and editor Myron Kerstein were constantly working and refining the film. I would go to the editing of the movie quite often and watch the cut. We started building the film early on so we were in a place where they could start presenting it to small audiences and producers. We were working constantly on things, always trying to keep it in a place of being very presentable at all times. We were delivering different sound effects, cleaning things up, and trying to deliver material that we could put into Avid (a film editing software) to start fleshing out how the movie would come together sonically. I had a small crew that would slowly help building up as we were getting closer to being full force on the film. All of the sound had to be recorded, and very early on it was a lot of organization of material, and making sure the material we were working on was always keeping up with Jon and Myron’s work being done on the picture. We saw the movie in many different stages. On a film like this, it never really changed too drastically. They really zeroed in on what the film really was.
For more coverage of In The Heights, check out our behind-the-scenes video with the cast and creative team.