In New York’s Washington Heights, a young Dominican man is shutting down the corner store where he has labored for years to return to the island of his birth. A budding young fashion designer prepares to ditch the neighborhood for swankier digs downtown. The local hair salon is being priced out and has to relocate to the Bronx. The neighborhood is changing — facing issues of gentrification and displacement — and at risk of losing its Latin soul.
When Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” landed on Broadway in 2008, it brought a desperately needed blast of Latino culture to the Broadway stage, where the number of roles that go to Latino actors generally hover in the single digits. (For decades, anything Latino in musicals has pretty much been relegated to Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” — which debuted in 1957 — and Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit,” which premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978, then landed on Broadway the following year.)
Now “In the Heights” is set to do for the movies what it did on Broadway: Bring the stories of present-day, everyday Latinos to life. And not a moment too soon. A lot has changed in Hollywood, it might seem, since #OscarsSoWhite in 2016. Black films and filmmakers were pushed to the fore and scored box office and critical success with films like “Get Out” and “Black Panther.” Asian and Asian American filmmakers also bounded into the mainstream with Oscar-winning films like “Parasite” and “Nomadland.” Latinos, with rare exceptions — think: Disney’s animated hit “Coco” or Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” — remain far from a semblance of parity.
The film version of “In the Heights” was placed in the hands of Jon M. Chu, director of the hit rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians,” who brings his sumptuous, cinematic style to Miranda’s Latin music inflected musical. For Miranda, it’s a blast into the past: “In the Heights” was the key precursor to his 2015 Broadway smash, “Hamilton.” It was a harbinger of other theatrical success too: The play’s book (and the film’s screenplay) was written by Quiara Alegría Hudes — who went on to win the 2012 Pulitzer for drama.
So how does “In the Heights” meet this moment in Hollywood? Times culture writers — a Mexican, a Chilean Peruvian and a Cuban Belizean — gathered for a virtual screening and discussed.
SUZY EXPOSITO: When the show first opened on Broadway, I was a college student in New York City — but too broke and too punk for theater. That said, within the first minute of this movie, I could just smell the burnt bodega coffee, which is a good sign.
CAROLINA A. MIRANDA: I did not see it on stage. But I was living in New York when “In the Heights” came out. And I remember the ripple of excitement when it landed — for the story, for the music and for the fact that it was about everyday people in a very Latino corner of the city.
DANIEL HERNANDEZ: I have to say up front that I get Lin-Manuel Miranda and admire his arc tremendously, but his style of musical is not 100% my taste — this frenetic rap-opera vibe that always feels like you’re just trying to catch your breath: So New York, right?! However I’m here for New York Latin Urbanism as a baseline setting of anything. For Lin-Manuel this is like his pre/post-“Hamilton,” if you will, and I’ve always been curious.
MIRANDA: I do really appreciate the quotidian aspects of the landscape he zeroes in on. This is not skyscraper Fifth Avenue New York. It’s where working people live — the people who make those other parts of New York hum. It’s the corner bodega serving too-sweet coffee, the car service dispatch office, the local Caribbean joint. It’s the sweaty apartment party with its steaming pots of ropa vieja stew and arroz con gandules (a.k.a. pigeon peas). Right after watching the film, I’ll confess that I went to the supermarket and bought some gandules.
EXPOSITO: As someone typically averse to showtunes but a huge fan of salsa, this musical was not nearly as insufferable as I thought it would be. But I guarantee that if you visited present-day Washington Heights, you’d be hearing more dembow and drill music in the streets than salsa.
MIRANDA: Right? I was sorry that the show didn’t feature more specifically Dominican music — merengue or bachata — given that the lead character, Usnavi de la Vega, is Dominican (though he is played by Anthony Ramos, who is Puerto Rican).
HERNANDEZ: Ramos is great, magnetic.
EXPOSITO: I’m also thrilled to see Leslie Grace, a bachata singer, playing Nina, but the musical itself lacks Dominican sounds, which undeniably make up the sonic DNA of Washington Heights. Instead, the score is dominant in hip-hop, salsa and boleros, with the occasional reggaeton flourish. I did clock a couple references to New York’s Proyecto Uno — a band that advanced merengue-house fusion in the ’90s — and their song, “El Tiburón,” in the chorus of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “When You’re Home.” ¡No pare, sigue sigue!
HERNANDEZ: The musical idiom of “In The Heights” is rather standard contemporary Broadway musical stuff in composition. I honestly expected zero bachata or merengue. This is all about lots of sung out exposition, sung out plot building, and barely a trace of any melodies you can hum to yourself later. But it’s … fine! It’s Broadway!
EXPOSITO: This may be the Cuban in me, but the salsafied showtune “Paciencia y Fe,” or when Abuela Claudia recounts her migration from Cuba to New York City, brought me to tears. The visual transition from modern-day straphangers to Cuban country folk in guayaberas and flowing white dresses, marching out of the subway and into the snow. … This is what it looks like when both the magic of Hollywood and the magic of Broadway alchemize into one.
MIRANDA: One of the best sequences, in my mind, was around the song “96,000,” which not only had a great beat, it was also presented in a very cinematic style — featuring an entire dance choreography that takes place in a swimming pool and feels very Busby Berkeley.
HERNANDEZ: The pool number is pretty phenomenal. What a feat for editor Myron Kerstein, my goodness — so much is going on, how do you choose? And then sound designing it? The choreo? WOW!
MIRANDA: Yes! In that song, Usnavi and his friends are trash talking each other as they simultaneously fantasize about what they would do if they won $96,000 in the lottery. The character of Sonny (very deftly played by the young Gregory Diaz IV) raps: “Yo, with ninety-six thousand, I’d finally fix housin’ / Give the barrio computers with wireless web browsin’ / Your kids are livin’ without a good edjumication / Change the station, teach ’em about gentrification.”
Lyrically, it’s Miranda at his best: loose and funny but touching on real social issues. (At his worst, he can hit us with heavy-handed metaphors, like the song “Blackout,” whose unsubtle chorus goes: “We are powerless!”)
EXPOSITO: I think using the salon as the epicenter of gentrification was well done. When salon owner Daniela (played by the resplendent Daphne Rubin-Vega) has to convince her clients to visit her new locale in the Bronx, it’s clear that people don’t just lose their homes and businesses to gentrification, they lose community. Sure, they were talking pure bochinche in “No Me Digas,” but never underestimate a hairdresser’s ability to flip a gossip sesh into political discourse faster than El Alfa can say “La Mamá de La Mamá.” To quote Daniela: “Our people survived slave ships. We survived Taíno genocide. We survived conquistadores and dictators. You’re telling me we can’t survive the D train to the Grand Concourse?”
HERNANDEZ: On the question of the leads, who had to translate some difficult Broadway roles to film, what can we say about Melissa Barrera as Vanessa? In the TV show “Vida,” set in Boyle Heights, Barrera played the sexually liberated Lyn with poise; but the Monterrey-born actress seems like an uncomfortable fit for “In the Heights.”
MIRANDA: She didn’t quite capture the New York Caribbean vibe, which is very specific: the inflection of the language and the musicality of the slang.
EXPOSITO: Caribbeans gotta have that swing, and that’s hard for outsiders to imitate. (Unless you’re Becky G!) That said, Vanessa is written as a manic pixie dream Latina — we never learn her background in the movie — so which audience is Barrera beholden to? And if the burden on this film is to represent Washington Heights — a historically Black and brown neighborhood — does it fall on any one actor, or on the casting director?
MIRANDA: The film is a little flabby in parts (cut 20 minutes!), but it embodies some really important issues. The first is that it’s a damn relief to watch an entire movie about Latinos that isn’t centered on gangbangers and that features Latinos of many distinct physical types.
HERNANDEZ: That’s important and you’re right. This film is hitting all the most prominent and palatable notes of pan-Latin boosting while being rooted in the Dominican American experience of Usnavi and Upper Manhattan. I see this María Hinojosa cameo at a “Dreamer” rally. The “Carnaval del Barrio” number and its focus on each relevant flag to contemporary New York. Lin-Manuel popping in here and there as the piragua man. The meeting with the immigration lawyer. It’s like a fever dream of mainstream Latinidad for international audiences.
MIRANDA: “In the Heights” also does a good job of exploring some of the conditions related to migration. So much of the way we talk about immigration in this country is specifically connected to policy. But the film explores its psychology through Usnavi, who longs to return to the Dominican Republic even as he remains emotionally and physically linked to Washington Heights. It captures that mental in-between state. It also addresses the false nostalgia that so many immigrants can feel for their homeland.
EXPOSITO: It also debunks the false narrative sold to many immigrants before they get to the States — they say those who work hard enough can ensure upward mobility for their children. Yet not every sacrifice buys a fast track to success. In Nina’s case, she makes it all the way to Stanford, only to get racially profiled for being the mixed girl on campus. It’s when she decides to use her brains to help immigrant kids like Sonny that her father says, “This is the moment you do better than me — you can see a future that I can’t.” If only all immigrant parents saw it that way!
HERNANDEZ: On that point, I have to say that this vision is a bit romanticized and polished at this point. It’s so Miranda. His themes are all about collecting loot, collecting clout, fulfilling an ambition, “making it.” A lot of times when we talk about “complicating” representation, for some of us that means longing for stories that break all those molds — all of them — about what are acceptable pursuits for us as immigrants or children of immigrants. Relationship to the homeland is one of those.
Throughout the whole film, Usnavi is waxing about the D.R. and his mission to relocate there, and, frankly, as someone who made a version of that romantic journey to Mexico, it’s never as rosy as it looks when the most you know of the home country is from college courses or the pictures of your parents.
MIRANDA: That is also partly due to the form. In musicals, sassy protagonists often face heartache and struggle with jazz hands.
EXPOSITO: In the homeland, they’d struggle with mosquitoes.
MIRANDA: Now that would be a good dance number! But, to Daniel’s point, I think Miranda’s work has functioned as a reaction to anti-immigrant sentiment and his stories seem a very pointed way of articulating the ways in which immigrants contribute. He has also given some really talented actors a literal stage. I want a future with more Anthony Ramos in it.
HERNANDEZ: Ultimately, Jon M. Chu does something amazing here. The Latinas really take the whole show, the dancers, the picture overall, and that gravity-bending duet on the classic New York fire escape ends so lovingly. But overall I get why so-called Middle America finds Miranda’s musicals so palatable to their idea of what Latinos or “others” can and should do in their movies: dance, sing, achieve, do “good.” Is that the right message for 2021 and beyond? I’m not sure. But this film is in the record now and it will ultimately help move the needle effectively in some way.
Now everyone go watch or rewatch “Raising Victor Vargas,” which might be the inverse of this film in genre, production values and in its borough’s geography — but a worthy equal in emotional impact.