There were two long waits that had to be endured before Lin-Manuel Miranda and playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes could bring their Tony-award-winning musical “In the Heights” to the screen.
The film’s release has been delayed for a year by the pandemic. It finally opened in theaters Thursday and airs on HBO Max.
And, as Miranda notes, it’s been half a century since the last hit musical about Latinos in America. (Steven Spielberg’s remake of 1961’s “West Side Story” is set to hit theaters in December.)
“In the Heights”, directed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) is based on the award-winning musical by Tony in 2008 with music and lyrics by Miranda and the book by Hudes, who is also the screenwriter of the movie.
Its story takes place in the predominantly Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City over three very hot summer days. Usnavi, a bodega owner played by Anthony Ramos, finds himself in a life-changing moment, with mixed feelings about closing the store and returning to the Dominican Republic after inheriting a fortune from the grandmother of the district.
Miranda, who co-produced the film, said her own life journey is inextricably linked with “In the Heights,” which includes childhood memories and family experiences from her childhood in Washington Heights in the 1980s.
The film is a love letter to the essence and sense of belonging of the bustling neighborhood, where people lean into each other while dreaming big and fighting against gentrification and environmental racism.
Miranda said he viewed his own small role, as the neighborhood piraguero, as “a love letter to my Abuelo Wisin,” who died shortly after the release of “In the Heights” on Broadway. “I wear all of her (stuff) in the movie. I wear her e’pejuelo (glasses) around my neck.… I wear my socks rolled up. When my wife saw my costume for the piraguero, she said, ‘They’re t ‘let your grandpa’s cargo shorts wear to the movie?’ “
“In the Heights” is also “a lot of the DNA” of Philly, he says, thanks to the Philadelphia-born Pulitzer Prize winner Hudes for his drama “Water by the Spoonful.”
“She was relying on her cousins, her family (Puerto Rican and Jewish) and her community to write this,” says Miranda. “It’s not autobiographical, but there are so many details that are taken from my life, from Quiara’s life.”
Compared to his hit “Hamilton,” he says, “Heights” is the most personal work, but it’s also “a giant reminder that we are the next American story and that we all come from all over the place”.
Its pandemic delay only makes the film’s arrival more poignant. “I feel really good about the movie that’s coming out now,” Hudes said. “I just hugged my mom safely for the first time in over a year. I’m not alone, and this year, my God, it comes at a price. It was heartbreaking for her not to kiss his grandchildren in complete safety.
“In this movie, people gather in Abuela’s house, play chalupa, bingo. They gather in the alley to dance on the hottest day because the air conditioners are down, they are in the pool. community and have a dance party at the dance club. It will remind us of what it is – because I honestly believe we forgot – to be together in a space with your neighbors, with your friends. “
Hudes, who now lives in Washington Heights, said growing up in a very diverse but separate city like Philadelphia gave him the vision to create the narrative arc of certain characters and their relationships.
She said Philly had shaped her understanding of the “many invisible walls that create separation” in American society, which informed the relationship between film character Nina (Leslie Grace), a Boricua who grew up in Washington Heights and is a freshman at Stanford, and his father, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), a businessman who moved from Puerto Rico to Washington Heights.
“Even though it’s New York City and you’re exposed to a lot of culture, she kind of grew up in that bubble. She had so much support that culturally understands her that it’s very strange for her to come out right away. ‘a hit in a very white space like Stanford,’ explained Hudes.
“So Nina has to navigate separate spaces and is – in some ways – unprepared, because her grandpa came from Puerto Rico to another Latino community and so he didn’t really enter the white world of the same way he expects from Nina. “
The screen adaptation of “In the Heights” lasts almost two and a half hours, with 24 songs. It’s a very energetic film from start to finish, with little details that underscore the intention of the filmmakers to design a production for Latino audiences that would showcase the things that give them joy: the jelly jar of Vaseline on Abuela Claudia’s nightstand, fireworks at night, hand embroidery and street art graffiti everywhere.
Mexican singer and actress Melissa Barrera plays Vanessa, a hairdresser (and Usnavi’s sweetheart) who dreams of leaving the changing neighborhood to become a fashion designer and live downtown. She said many would see themselves reflected in Vanessa for her ambition and desire to make her dreams come true.
“I left my hometown of Monterrey to go to college because I wanted to do musical theater and be on Broadway,” she said. “But every time I go back to visit my mother and my sisters, I say to myself: this is my home, this is me, this is what gave me all the inspiration and the material that I needed to build the dreams in my head. “
Although Washington Heights is a more US-born and more Latin American neighborhood these days, “In the Heights” focuses on the experiences of first-generation immigrants as a way to summarize the unique but relevant experience of Latinos in the United States, Miranda said.
He said “In the Heights” offers only a slice of the diverse Latin American experience, as no production can encompass all of the stories. He said the production celebrates the bond that exists within all of these communities.
“There are millions of other stories where it came from, millions of specifics that we can’t capture – and that’s OK,” he said. “The goal is for the next Latin musical not to come out in (expletive) 50 years.”