“In the Heights” opens with Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) on a beautiful beach, as he begins to tell a group of children the story of Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Northern Manhattan where everyone carries their own sueñito, Spanish for “little dream.” Then, suddenly we are whisked away to a colorful musical number, where Washington Heights residents flood the streets, dancing and singing in the blazing New York summer heat.
“In the Heights” releases in theatres and HBO Max on June 11 (the original release date was pushed back a year due to the pandemic). This joyous movie musical is centered on themes of community and connection — something that seems timely coming out of the pandemic.
“This is a movie about people singing and dancing and hugging and kissing in the streets after a year and a half where we’re all kind of squinting and walking into the sun for the first time,” says Lin Manuel Miranda, who co-wrote the original Broadway musical with Quiara Algería Hudes and is a producer for the film.
The film’s primary cast consists of all Latinx and Afro-Latinx actors (with the exception of Corey Hawkins, who is African American). Many members of the cast point out the importance of positive and authentic depictions of communities of color within Broadway and Hollywood. Melissa Barrera, who plays Vanessa, recalls her experience seeing the Broadway production of “In the Heights” for the first time.
“It was the first time that I sobbed in the theatre out of pride because I had seen a Mexican flag on that stage, because I had seen people who looked like me on a Broadway stage with rhythms that felt like they were a part of my blood,” she says.
Miranda started writing this musical when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan University. The formation of “In the Heights” stemmed from Miranda’s desire to see a musical on a Broadway stage that represented his Latino experience. As a Puerto Rican from Washington Heights and an avid musical fan, Miranda recalls the lack of diverse, authentic stories on Broadway that he saw growing up.
“I loved musicals. I loved West Side Story. West Side Story is a masterpiece of musical theatre that in no way reflects my lived experience, “ he says. “I just wanted to write what was missing.”
While “In the Heights” may be less well-known in comparison to Miranda’s “Hamilton,” it remains a Broadway success story. In 2008, the musical premiered on Broadway, ran for nearly 1200 performances and received four Tony awards. It was also named a finalist for a drama accolade from the Pulitzer Prize committee.
The movie “In the Heights” follows several residents of Washington Heights as they navigate life in their neighborhood — a community that is rooted in love, support and resilience despite the impacts of gentrification. In Washington Heights, everyone has a dream, also known as a sueñito. For Usnavi, the film’s main character, played by Anthony Ramos, his ultimate sueñito is to reopen his father’s bar in the Dominican Republic. Other sueñitos in the film include going to college, gaining a green card and pursuing a fashion career.
Jon Chu, the film’s director, known for his work in “Crazy Rich Asians” sweeps audiences into the vibrant musical atmosphere of Washington Heights. The film’s large group musical numbers such as the opening number “In the Heights” and “96,000” are where Chu’s directorial skills shine. He is a master at creating expansive scenes that highlight the musical’s commanding score with elaborate set designs and show-stopping choreography.
But the bread and butter of the film lie in its cast: a mix of newcomers, Broadway veterans and Hollywood stars. Olga Merediz, who played the original Abuela Claudia on Broadway, gives a warm but heart-wrenching performance as Washington Heights’ quintessential matriarch. Corey Hawkins, known for his role as Dr. Dre in “Straight Outta Compton,” smoothly dances and belts down the blocks of Washington Heights, often accompanied by his romantic interest Nina, played by Afro-Latina singer Leslie Grace in her first movie role. Along with her powerful vocals, Grace invokes Nina’s emotional dilemma, as she decides whether to return to Stanford despite the financial burden placed on her father (played by Jimmy Smits), after she experiences a series of microaggressions.
While Anthony Ramos is not a complete stranger to the big screen, (he had minor roles in “A Star is Born” and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”), many Broadway fans know and love him from his dual roles of John Laurens and Phillip Hamilton in Miranda’s “Hamilton.” However, Ramos’s portrayal as Usnavi could be the star’s “breakout role.” He brings a charismatic intensity to this beloved role — originated on Broadway by Miranda himself — as the musical’s script and songs take perfect advantage of Ramos’s strengths as a rapper, singer and performer.
Though Miranda wrote the script to “In the Heights” in 2005, its themes around race, immigration and gentrification are even more relevant today as the Biden-Harris administration and the American public reckon with the aftermath of restrictive immigration policies and racist rhetoric from the Trump presidency. At one point in the film, characters Sonny and Nina attend a Dreamers protest, a scene that was not in the Broadway musical. Quiara Hudes, who wrote the adapted screenplay, says she wanted to make sure the film’s script was still timely.
“When I kind of doubled down on that story about immigration and then our release got pushed a year, you know we were nervous. Is this going to be irrelevant?” she asks. “But history shows that this is not going to get less relevant, and in the miraculous circumstance that it does, great! I would have loved for this to be an irrelevant plotline by the time it came out.”
For Miranda, he notes that there are lines in the original script that ring even more true today. He particularly points out a line in “96,000” when Sonny raps: “racism in this nation gone from latent to blatant.”
“You almost want to say…oh 2008 Sonny you have no idea how worse it’s going to get,” Miranda says.
But “In the Heights” is so much more than a story of struggle. It is a bold tale of resilience and joy — told entirely through a cast of people of color, which seems like a small revolution of itself.
“The Lantix community has always been forgotten and we were only depicted in a very certain, very negative light usually,” says Barrera. “It’s all about dreams and dreaming big. People are going to have this reference from now on and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Regardless of your identity or musical theatre knowledge, this film’s message is universal. Whether viewers decide to head to the theatre or stream the film in their homes, I have a feeling that many people (like myself) will walk away with a renewed sense of energy to chase their own sueñito, whatever it may be.