In 2010, I went to go see the Broadway version of In The Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda in New York at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. With plays, it appeals to your kid-like sense of imagination. While confined to a stage show, the passion, and heart of the people of Washington Heights is something tangible to grab onto. A story of minorities who not only want to preserve the culture they grew up with, but to gain their own sense of the American dream. Knowing how the world is, there are roadblocks ranging from racism to gentrification. At the heart of In The Heights, there is struggle, but also an endearing sense of hope. Miranda initially wrote the play in 1999 while he was a sophomore in college. It’s a love letter to the Latinx customs and heroes that he’s known throughout his life.
The film adaptation, directed by John M. Chu begins with Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) as the audience’s narrator talking to a group of children. He owns a local bodega and aspires to return to the Dominican Republic, where his father used to have a bar. He’s on the cusp of going back to revive it. Within that dream, he tells the story of his Washington Heights neighborhood through song. We get to spend three humid summer days with a few characters as they pursue their own interpretations of what their dreams are.
Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a love interest of Usnavi works at a hair salon, but has aspirations to be a designer complete with an apartment downtown. Nina (Leslie Grace) has been the intelligent crown jewel of the neighborhood. She goes to college at Stanford, but comes back home distressed because she feels disconnected from her heritage. Benny (Corey Hawkins) wants to be the best taxi dispatcher he can. Also, he has a love for Nina and wants the absolute best for her.
Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the book adaptation) wrote the screenplay for the film. In the spirit of engaging with each person’s story, the movie keeps at a quick pace. Usnavi is our anchor, but everyone has their own place to shine. Even when it concerns the older citizens of the city. Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), Nina’s father, owns the local cab service and will do anything financially to help Nina through college. Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who loves to play the lottery is the matriarchal figure of this Washington Heights neighborhood. Both of their stories parallel each other, as they both came to the United States with hopes of a better life and opportunities. That same vigor manifests in the younger generation that they interact with.
In The Heights is even more applicable to this day and age. Neighborhoods in New York are undergoing extreme change because of properties being bought from outside investors. Thus, there’s the question of losing the heart and togetherness of the people who built them. Daniela’s (Daphne Rubin-Vega) local salon has to move to The Bronx because of rising rent. Kevin has to keep selling parts of his taxi service to afford to pay college tuition. Miranda himself plays a smaller role as ‘the piragüero,’ selling shaved ice rivaling a big Mister Softee truck. Despite the changing world, everybody is fighting to keep a piece of themselves. That’s a message that can be felt universally.
At its heart, it’s a Latin American story bursting with culture and both moving and melodic musical numbers. Chu uses the big screen in ways that invoke the same imaginary tools you would use seeing the play. For instance, when Vanessa sings “It Won’t Be Long Now,” after a rejection of her rental application, big spools of fabric come down from the sky. Benny and Nina have a moment singing about their love, where they are walking along the rooftops. Aspects like breaking away and romance don’t seem otherworldly, but they could be. As there’s a countdown to a blackout of the neighborhood, In The Heights deals with a very pressing issue. Usnavi’s cousin who works with him at the bodega, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) has undocumented status. It enhances the story of how to obtain what the American Dream is supposed to be with it’s inclusion.
Anthony Ramos’s performance as Usnavi is a delightful part of the film. He’s charismatic when he needs to be, unsure in telling his longtime crush how he feels, and emotionally torn knowing he’s about to leave the place he’s called home. It’s the foundation where Barrera, Grace, Hawkins, and more all get to feed off of. Everybody embraces their character fully in ways that feel authentic and sincere. There are parts of In The Heights where the film lags. It may concede to the romantic threads a bit more than one would think. However, any lull is quickly picked up by an engaging antidote or set-piece. In The Heights feels as if you are going to Washington Heights, complete with smaller stories and dialect to its own.
We are the guests of this block to hear these stories and get inspired by them. Not to change them or mold them. But, to see how immigrant communities stick together to keep their generational traditions alive. Manuel’s sueñito (meaning little dream in Spanish) started with this play. Now, it manifests into the dreams of those who get to see it on a grander scale.
Photo Credit: Warner Bros.