These Are The People In Your Neighborhood – In The Heights

This is the part of the program where I admit to something that, based on references I’ve made for the last few years, might come as a shock. I’ve never seen either of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musicals. It’s not that I’m not interested, just that opportunities are few and far between. The last time I went to a proper theatre was seven years ago. I took my mother to a touring production of The Book of Mormon (loved it!) in Connecticut in exchange for her help packing my shit to move out a few months later (my anniversary in Los Angeles is later this month). There haven’t been very many productions of In the Heights or Hamilton out here that I’m aware of, save for a run of the latter at the Pantages that required a lottery for the chance to buy tickets, and while I have no problem going to the movies by myself, the legitimate theatre feels like an experience that has to be shared, and I’ve not had the chance to go with someone else to a show since I’ve moved here.

It’s a shame, too, because now that I’ve seen the cinematic adaptation of In the Heights, I finally have a hint as to what I’ve been missing. I’ve had some exposure to Miranda’s work, largely through Disney with Moana and Mary Poppins Returns, but the core of his creative genius I have not encountered until now. Suffice to say, while the film has some very minor flaws (there’s no way it’s THAT bright outside at 5:30 in the morning, even in July), I finally get the rapturous joy that millions have already seen on display for years, and I’m sorry I waited so long.

Doing some research after the fact, I found some significant departures from the original stage show that are worth mentioning if you find this important. The largest of these is some rearranging of the main storyline to fit the film’s nearly 2.5-hour runtime. For example, the “Blackout” number that the film builds up to for a significant portion of the film is actually the close of Act 1 in the show, which means it should happen around the midpoint, but here it’s about 2/3 of the way through. To accommodate this, some songs are cut, while others are shifted around from their normal order. Further, the film is framed as Usnavi de la Vega (an absolutely magnetic Anthony Ramos) telling the story of Washington Heights to a group of children in the future, including his daughter, Iris (Olivia Perez), instead of a present-day narrative in the moment. Along that same line, Iris appears to be a new character added to the film, along with Cuca (Dascha Polanco), who forms a “salon lady” trio with Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Carla (Stephanie Beatriz, who I love). Meanwhile, the character of Camila Rosario has been cut out in order to shift focus to the other two major matriarchal characters.

There are purists who will look at these changes as betrayals of the original show, and in general, I understand the sentiment. This happens a lot in adaptation, and sometimes it can make something unrecognizable when compared to the source material. For example, I used to love the Grease movie as a kid, and I admit that I geeked out significantly when I moved to L.A. and found myself living a block from Venice High School, the exteriors of which stood in for Rydell High in the movie. But the original musical is vastly different from that film, and most of the best songs (“Grease,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “You’re the One That I Want”) were written for the movie. It turns out the show has been revamped several times, including revivals that retcon the original to include the popular songs and plot points from the film. Hell, right after I graduated, I did one last musical theatre class with my high school drama club that involved seeing a version of the show (starring Cindy Williams, squee!) where the Teen Angel basically serves as an on-stage omniscient narrator. As such, my love for the film has waned ever so slightly over the years. So if these changes to In the Heights aren’t for you, I totally get it.

But in this case, it didn’t really bother me, apart from one bit of production design that I won’t get into because it’s basically a spoiler for the end of the movie. Having never seen the show, Camila’s absence doesn’t register at all with me, because I don’t know her role. Cuca is a superfluous add-on, but I can’t deny that the salon ladies are a fantastic group, so what’s one more if she doesn’t actively stall or detract from the proceedings?

And as far as the film’s narrative framework, I think it really helps sell the sheer joy of the story. The film is directed by Jon M. Chu, who broke through a couple years ago with Crazy Rich Asians. The best parts of that movie were the moments that felt like they were out of a stage musical, with that perfect mixture of thematic poetry and grounded visual spectacle. That wedding scene still gives me goosebumps. Chu translates that sense of vision here by having Uznavi tell the story as if it’s a stylized fairy tale. There are embellishments that work because there’s just that small hint of an idealized fantasy world to it, giving the entire movie a slightly larger than life feel despite the small-scale setting, and lending that sense of wonder and magic that warms the proverbial cockles.

The basic story is about a group of friends and neighbors of the largely Latin community of Washington Heights in Manhattan’s upper west side. Uznavi, an immigrant who’s lived on “the block” most of his life, runs a bodega and dreams of making enough money to buy his father’s old business and move back to the Dominican Republic. His cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) works the shop with him. Uznavi harbors feelings for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a hairdresser and aspiring fashion designer looking to set up shop downtown. Currently, she works for Daniela. Meanwhile, Nina Rosario (a fantastic Leslie Grace) is returning from her first year at Stanford, where she’s become jaded about the larger world and regrets the sacrifices her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) makes for her education. She also rekindles a relationship with Benny (Corey Hawkins’ finest performance since Straight Outta Compton), a cab dispatcher who works for Kevin. The whole group is an interconnected, extended adoptive family, with Abuela (Grandmother) Claudia as their collective source of moral support and wisdom. She’s played by Olga Merediz, who originated the role on Broadway. Miranda himself cameos as a guy who sells “piraguas,” a Puerto Rican shaved ice treat.

Everything takes place over one exceedingly hot summer, where the temperatures get so high that the power grid overloads and and a blackout ensues. Part of me wonders if this was inspired by that massive outage that happened in New York in 2003. It was so huge that most of the Northeast lost power. I was working in a warehouse in Lyons, NY (upstate and about 300 miles away) when the lights went out. Parts of Ontario were even hit. But that’s neither here nor there, I’m just rambling.

Anyway, the plot is intentionally thin, to focus more on the interpersonal relationships, the cultural identities of the characters, and the music. The only real threads revolve around Usnavi’s ambitions, a mysterious winning lottery ticket sold at the bodega, and how the residents can maintain their binding ties as the neighborhood slowly succumbs to gentrification. The story exists more as a series of vignettes than a true A-to-B-to-C narrative, which can be problematic in less capable hands, but here it works absolutely because it’s framed as a fantastical time capsule.

And these vignettes are dazzling in the extreme. The combination of hip-hop, Latin music, and standard Broadway fare is some of the best I’ve ever heard, and it’s only enhanced by the absolutely insane choreography, camera work, and editing. Sprawling ensemble numbers like “96,000” and the show’s title track are gorgeous feasts for the eyes. They’re manic, bouncing around from one verse to another or one character to another like a musical pinball game, but they’re so perfectly paced that you never feel left behind or confused. There are tons of large cast films that leave you in the lurch repeatedly when it comes to figuring out who’s who and what their motivations are. Chu makes sure to keep the focus on people just long enough to firmly establish them, while at the same time making sure they have a look, sound, or moment of musical physicality to instantly lock them into your memory. For example, the opening was so effective at introducing the majority of the cast that a second-tier character like Carla was fully registered in my brain before I even realized it was Stephanie Beatriz playing her. That is no small task! I was able to understand everything about her as a piece of this puzzle before the camera could actually hold on her long enough for me to recognize the actress. That’s amazing.

But even the more intimate scenes have their magic. Benny and Nina dance on the side of a building. Miranda gets a “Mister Cellophane”-esque number about his rivalry with an ice cream truck that outshines anything he did in Poppins. Abuela’s soliloquy of “Paciencia y Fe” keeps her centered (both thematically and literally in the frame) while stunning yet subtle choreography and visual effects surround her. No matter the scale of the song, Chu finds the exact perfect way to draw you in.

The acting here is also top notch. Anthony Ramos has fully realized the potential shown in smaller films like Monsters and Men. Gregory Diaz absolutely blew me away as Sonny, and this kid was only born two months before the show premiered in 2005! But the absolute star is Merediz. She either owns or steals every moment she’s on screen as Abuela Claudia. She’s sweet, funny, earnest, and endearing, and genuinely got me choked up on more than one occasion. This is a nomination-worthy performance if I’ve ever seen one.

But what really sells this grand spectacle is in its relatability. I have no Latin roots. I’m whiter than bread, but the experiences shared by these people are nearly universal. Nina feels the pressure to be the one who “got out” of the lower-to-middle class circumstances of her surroundings, only to step foot into a world that immediately looks down upon her due to her social and economic status, to say nothing of her race. In every aspect but the racial, I’ve certainly been there, and her inner conflict is palpable. While the actual production of the “96,000” song is a wonder in and of itself, the reason it sticks with you is because anyone who’s ever been anything but filthy stinking rich has participated in that “what if” fantasy with friends and family. The fact that it’s over a prize amount that would do little more than pay a year’s rent in Manhattan after taxes is both tragic and inspiring, because it’s just enough to dare to dream about something better. Uznavi’s ambitions are the American Dream laid bare before the world, wonderfully made ironic because they involve leaving the country that can no longer realistically make them happen. Carla’s long-winded genealogy list in “Carnaval del Barrio” that ends with her smirking, “But I always say I’m from Queens” is not only hilarious, it’s emblematic of the melting pot that makes this country great, a truth too often ignored. All of us, even European-descended mutts like me, have a national identity as Americans and a cultural one for our roots, and that moment is a perfect example of that beautiful dual sentiment.

In the end, that’s what this musical is all about, people finding their people, in whatever manner that might manifest itself. There are no villains, but differing and equally valid perspectives. And everything comes back to the loving aplomb with which this diverse cast finds its collective sense of self and community. Two years ago, Anthony Ramos introduced Lin-Manuel Miranda at the Oscars by cheekily noting that In the Heights would win Best Picture the next year. Well, the pandemic put the kibosh on that plan, but after seeing this joyous exercise in civic and personal pride, filled with tremendous performances, music, and creative direction from Jon M. Chu, I wouldn’t be the least bit upset if his prediction just happened to be a year off.

Grade: A

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you seen the stage show, and if so, what do you think of the changes made for the movie? Piragua or Hawaiian Shave Ice – who you got? Let me know!

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