Director: Jon M. Chu
Writer: Quiara Alegría Hudes
Music by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Starring : Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits
Based on the Tony Award winning musical of same name
Streaming now on HBO Max or in theaters
Adapted from the Tony Award winning musical of the same name, In the Heights tells the story of Usnavi de la Vega (played by: Anthony Ramos) and his neighborhood of Washington Heights. Usnavi runs a small bodega with his cousin, Sonny (played by: Gregory Diaz IV) and lives with Abuela Claudia, not “really his abuela, but she practically raised him” (played by: Olga Merediz). Usnavi pines for the lovely Vanessa (played by: Melissa Barrera), who works at a beauty salon, dreams of moving downtown and becoming a fashion designer. Kevin Rosario (played by: Jimmy Smits) runs a taxi company that employees Benny (played by: Corey Hawkins). His intelligent daughter, Nina (played by: Ariana Greenblatt), returns for the summer from Stanford with the reality that what she thought she might want might not quite be as great as she imagined it to be. All of these characters are part of the larger story of Washington Heights and the reality that maybe home is right where you are and you don’t need to go anywhere else.
From Stage to Screen
Every year, I watch the Tony awards to keep my connection to all things musicals. In 2008, I remember seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda for the first time, he took the stage and performed “96,000” with the cast of In the Heights; even then, I could tell it was something special. If you have never seen his acceptance speech for Best Original Score, please go watch and you won’t be disappointed (Link here). The musical went on to win four Tony awards that year including Best Musical.
I was lucky enough to see this show when it came to Houston. It was an experience to say the least. When I heard the rumors of a movie, I was elated. Miranda has gone on to other projects like Hamilton, a little show I think some of you might have heard of, but this movie adaptation has been in the works for some years now.
From the opening number of the movie, “In the Heights” the absence of Nina’s mother, Camila, to me was a shock and heartbreak. “Enough” was one of my favorite numbers and moments from the stage production. Overall, the musical and the movie adaptation are driven by a story of home and what it means to find and be home. Camila helped to convey that message and her presence was missed.
This musical also has love at its core focusing on two relationships Usnavi and Vanessa and Benny and Nina. The first is intact and explored a bit more for the movie adaptation, yet a bit of the tenderness from the latter is missed. “Sunrise” is another song that has been removed from the musical for the screen and it was one of the numbers that most highlighted the love between these two characters (Benny and Nina).
Fans of the original musical production, will note the swap up of song arrangement and introduction of new storylines as well. Although I am not a person of Latinx heritage, the message in Miranda’s words jumped off the stage and conveyed something universal. Many of his the numbers “In the Heights”, “96,000”, “Blackout” and “Carnaval del Barrio” are full of life and celebration. A packed theater cannot resist the urge to stomp their feet or clap their hands with the performs and get lost in the elation of joy and celebration found in feeling comfort in your skin and feeling like you belong. The production, words, music, everything for this musical came together to not only reach those of a culture, but everyone who listened and opened their hearts to the magic found within it.
On the Screen
This production, from lights up, gives audiences a bit of a different take. This story is a telling of a history for future generations, but this re-imagination of the production has Usnavi (Ramos) literally telling his story to children (future generations). The movie cuts back and forth from flashbacks to present time, which gives a few cute and tender moments with these children.
Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) took on this production and brought his unique eye and touches to it. The screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who also wrote the book for the original musical production, adapts her work with some modern updates. Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda are also adjusted for this movie from the original, but his heart and masterful skills with lyrical storytelling is still what makes this production shine.
Ramos stepping into the lead role of Usnavi, originally played by Miranda, does so seamlessly. Ramos has that wide-eyed, hunger, ability to wear his heart on his sleeve that this character needs to succeed. Audiences will find themselves cheering, crying, and all around rooting for this young bodega owner as he tells his little story about life. From the opening, “In the Heights” audiences see the range of Ramos and sets audiences up for the over the top, grand spectacle of this production.
He is not alone on screen and just like the stage production; the ensemble cast around him is just as strong. Olga Merediz reprising her role as Abuela Claudia is a rare treat for audiences. She is phenomenal and is the beating heart of this production. Melissa Barrera as Vanessa dazzles with her flawless vocals particularly shining in her song “It Won’t Be Long Now”. Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny has all the spunk and charism to play this witty, charming and at times troublesome youngster.
“Benny’s Dispatch” is a perfect way to get a fill for his character and actor Corey Hawkins. He has that clam, go with the flow of life that suits Benny. Leslie Grace as Nina has great vocals and that is highlighted in multiple numbers like her tender number “Breathe”.
A personal note for me, Mr. Piragüero (Miranda), was a favorite from the stage production and I loved the dynamic he had with his rival, Mr. Softee Truck Driver (Chris Jackson). I loved that Miranda stepped into the Mr. Piragüero part, although I was a bit sad that his two songs were spliced into one, but this was still a highlight of the show for me.
This musical is truly a celebration of home and life and this movie can realize that in even bigger ways than the stage production. The cinematography by Alice Brooks for many of these numbers is something from the pages of a Gabriel García Márquez novel. The magical realism of the fabric filling the sky at the end of “It Won’t Be Long Now” or Benny and Nina dancing on the side of the apartment during “When the Sun Goes Down” is something to behold and made possible by the magic of cinema. It makes these already joyful show stopping numbers that much grander.
I hope the ladies out there are already musical lovers so this was one that you had on your list. This year there are some great movie musicals coming to the screen and I hope this is just a preview of things to come with Dear Evan Hansen and West Side Story slated to come out later this year. You will find yourself getting lost in the grandeur, celebration, magic, heart, drama, life of this production. There is so much story to tell both joyful and heartbreaking, yet audiences will find themselves lost in the magic of this production.
The Final Take
I’ve always said, “Life would be better if it were a musical.” Watching this movie again just makes me realize that, because no matter how heartbreaking or hopeless things might seem, maybe if we all just got together and broke out into a song like “Carnaval del Barrio”, it would help remind us to celebrate even through our struggles. I feel that this is what musicals, unlike any other genre do right, no matter how hopeless, heartbreaking or tragic the situation, there is nothing that a few lyrics or a dance number can’t bring a smile to your face and lighten your heart. I personally fell in love with this musical long before Hamilton and I am glad that fans of his will now be introduced to this because it is truly a masterful piece of work. Guys tend to shrug off musicals, but Miranda has a way to reach everyone young, old, male, female, come one, come all and there is something for you here. I can guarantee that more than a few of these numbers will have your feet tapping and will make you want to jump out of your seat.
Final grade: A