For the second time in just one year, a musical by Lin Manuel Miranda has provided me with the sole motivation to sign up for an entire streaming service. Last July, it was Hamilton and Disney Plus; this time, it was In The Heights and HBOMax.
The stage version of this work by Miranda first premiered on Broadway in 2008, a production I was lucky enough to have the chance to attend myself. The film incarnation debuted on June 10, its original 2020 release having been delayed a year due to the pandemic.
Both the nostalgia factor of revisiting a musical that I’ve long loved, and the fact that I have experienced the adaptation of this feel-good show – just as our societal year-plus of viral crisis was coming to its end inevitably colored my experience of it. That is to say, I went in far more eager to enjoy than to appraise.
There was certainly plenty of enjoyment to be found, starting with the opening number “In The Heights,” which introduces the show’s titular Washington Heights setting and its scrappy cast of characters. Protagonist Usnavi, played with an understated charm byAnthony Ramos, runs the neighborhood bodega with his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV).
Customers that stroll through include Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the woman who is not really his abuela but “practically raised him” after his parents’ death; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), his crush, a beautiful artist seeking an escape from the Heights and her stifling job as a hair stylist; Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who owns the local taxi cab company and is awaiting his daughter Nina’s (Leslie Grace) imminent summer return from Stanford; and Benny (Corey Hawkins), Nina’s charismatic ex-boyfriend and Kevin’s trusty dispatcher.
It is Nina’s arrival that kicks off what an admittedly slim plot there is to be found in In the Heights, as conflict between her and Kevin rears its head when she informs him that she does not intend to re-enroll in college. The story also follows brewing romances between Nina and Benny and between Vanessa and Usnavi, a fateful lottery ticket, and Usnavi’s quest to return to his homeland, the Dominican Republic.
A mid-movie blackout leads to one of the story’s more somber moments, but it also catalyzes a community celebration in “Carnaval De Barrio,” a rousing anthem led by Daphne Rubin-Vega’s Daniela that pays tribute to the characters’ Latin heritage and their cultural history of overcoming adversity.
The energy of celebration is in fact one that runs rampant throughout the film, especially in its musical numbers: in “96,000,” which features choreography that overtakes a swimming pool; in the salon ladies’ cheery, gossipy “No Me Diga”; and in “When the Sun Goes Down,” where a stunning visual flourish means that two characters’ love lets them defy gravity.
Then there was “Piragua,” a light ditty that featured Miranda himself as the intrepid peddler of the shaved-ice treats and a mightily amusing cameo by Hamilton’s Christopher Jackson as his ice-cream truck driving rival.
Despite the infectious enthusiasm of the whole endeavor, the mosaic approach that worked onstage felt a little more narratively formless in film. To add, the matter wasn’t helped by some confusing changes from In The Heights’ Broadway version and the removal of one of its weightier subplots.
This would be Kevin’s disapproval of Benny’s relationship with Nina due to the fact that he is black and they are Latino, an issue that ties into the rather public criticism the film has faced due to its supposed lack of sufficient Afro-Latina representation.
As a white woman, it may, of course, not be my place to weigh in on this particular controversy. However, where I think these criticisms miss the mark is the fact that the film version of In The Heights already does a step better than the stage show by including the Afro-Latina actress, Leslie Grace, in the lead role of Nina and acknowledging that identity in-script.
There’s also the fact that the film originally went into production in April 2019, before our cultural reckoning with race took on the significance that it did in 2020. This makes it easier to believe that the decisions made by Miranda and the rest of the movie’s creative team could have been mere oversights rather than reflecting their ambivalence to the issue.
So while the lack of Afro-Latina representation in cinema as a whole is a very real issue, I can’t help but feel that a film that already has a far more diverse cast than most, shouldn’t be crucified for its demographic imperfections. Miranda has already proven his willingness to push past barriers in the name of inclusion with the incredibly diverse casts he brought to the stage in In The Heights and Hamilton. This time he has done so once more by bringing a movie with an almost entirely Latin cast to the mainstream screen. He’s already acknowledged his mistakes with the castingof In the Heights and promised to do better in his future projects, and I for one will trust for now that he means it sincerely.
For it would certainly be a shame to have to “cancel” a movie which was not only a frickton of fun but that, in its visceral rendering of the characters’ struggles, sacrifices, and love for one another, actually brought me, more than once, to tears. Numbers like “Paciencia Y Fe,” Abuela Claudia’s reflection on her bittersweet life story, “Alabanza,” in which the community must reckon with unexpected loss, and even “Champagne,” Vanessa’s heartfelt eleventh hour plea to Usnavi, all brought out a surprising amount of waterworks.
Maybe my heart is still a little raw from the past year of isolation and uncertainty, but maybe, too, the story’s emotional core is strong enough to outshine any of its flaws. So whether you choose to stream it in the comfort of your own home or venture, at last, back to the flesh and blood cinema, I don’t think surrendering a few hours’ to In the Heights’ gleeful and sentimental songscape is something that you’ll truly regret.
Ilana Jael earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA in Writing and Psychology from Florida Atlantic University’s Wilkes Honors College. She also served as co-founder of the student theatre troupe “Theatre in the Raw.” She has been dabbling in both playwriting and acting since high school. A few favorite roles include Rebel in Columbinus (Bob Carter’s Actor’s Rep), The Fearful One in The Cave (G-Star School of The Arts), and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie (Theatre In The Raw). Her one-act plays Goodbye, Karma’s A Bitch, Certainly Not About Him, and Open Heart have also been previously performed at Actor’s Rep and/or at Florida Atlantic University. More recently, Ilana appeared in and created the original musical ZeeZou’s Stardust Extravaganza with Area Stage’s Miami Queer Theatre Collective. Her short plays have been produced virtually by New City Players, Theatre Lab, and Femuscripts. She is also a current company member of New City Players, and you can check out her theatre blog at ilanaintheatreland.com!