Whereas Hamilton humanized our nation’s founding fathers, In the Heights reminds us we are all part of one human race. Perhaps in that regard, In the Heights is even more profound and heartful than its successor.
Like the stage play, the film adaptation of In the Heights centers on a neighborhood in the uppermost part of New York City, Washington Heights. It is an area where immigrants, like my grandfather, settled down to start businesses, raise families, and dream about a better tomorrow. But like many neighborhoods in America, gentrification threatens its community and culture.
Lin Manuel-Miranda says having Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, with whom he collaborated on writing the Tony Award-winning show, gave filmmakers a homecourt advantage in adapting the musical for the screen. Hudes wrote the screenplay for the film and made what Miranda calls some smart and bold changes to the story, which include extending the timeline from a few days to a couple of months, shuffling around the placement of a few musical numbers, and eliminating a supporting character from the script. And while some of those changes might rankle some die-hard fans of the show, perhaps a small consolation are several cameo appearances by many of the original Broadway cast members.
Another homecourt advantage for the film is the fact that it is shot on location in the Washington Heights neighborhood in which both Miranda and Hudes lived.
“There’s nothing more gratifying than writing songs about a neighborhood you love so much and then actually getting to stage them in the neighborhood you love so much,” says Miranda.
He adds that he and Hudes walked the film’s director Jon M. Chu around the neighborhood early in the process to show him the areas of the Heights that were important to them as residents, including the Highbridge Pool, in which the seminal musical number 96000 is filmed. Miranda calls the pool “virgin territory” since no other movie has ever filmed there prior to this one.
Chu, it seems, was born to bring this musical to the big screen. Yes, he has experience directing some other musical, dance, and concert films, including the Step Up sequels, but it is his instinctive cultural consciousness as a director, as demonstrated in the lush book-to-screen adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians, that is palpable here. He has an innate ability to identify the time-honored rituals, traditions, and beliefs that are abstractly woven into the very fabric of a community and then capture that essence and joie de vivre on film.
Speaking of joy, some of the dance sequences in this film have a kind of grandeur akin to the movie musicals of yesteryear, like Singin’ in the Rain, which Miranda himself has called a perfect film. Here, however, choreographer Christopher Scott manages to infuse a modern sensibility into the movement that feels neither forced nor corny, but purposeful, natural, and apropos.
There has been much buzz made about Anthony Ramos’ performance as Usnavi in the film, the role originated by Miranda onstage. And while Ramos is deserving of all the praise for his unfeigned and dewy-eyed performance, this film belongs to two other Broadway veterans, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Olga Merediz.
Rubin-Vega plays Daniela, the owner of the neighborhood hair salon. Her spirited, assertive portrayal, along with her showstopping performance of Carnaval del Barrio, cements her place as a formidable star and gives the film the oomph it needs early in its third act to steer it to its strong resolve.
Olga Merediz’s performance as the matriarchal Abuela Claudia, the role she originated on Broadway, anchors the film from the get-go and reminds audiences that at its core, this film is about family, both biological and chosen.
And that is the genius of this adaptation of In the Heights and what truly makes it not only relatable but the right story for right now. Yes, the film is a celebratory start to the summer and toast to some semblance of normalcy, but more importantly, it is a tell-tale testimonial post-pandemic that we are all interdependent on each other for survival. And hopefully, it is that message of resiliency, unity, and humanity that will stick with audiences long after the piragua has melted.
In the Heights premieres on HBO Max and in theaters on June 10th. On Sunday, June 13th, Theatre Raleigh is hosting a free industry-night screening. For more information visit the Facebook Event Page.