It’s amazing to think how much the stage musical has had in forming the soundtrack of our culture over the last century. You may be listening to or singing a song that is omnipresent in our everyday lives, and not even know that it had it’s beginnings on Broadway. For many years, musical theater was the premiere form of entertainment until cinema came along. After the advent of the talking picture, musicals found a new venue, and it wasn’t long before Hollywood began pooling in talent who normally would be writing music for the stage. But, Broadway didn’t dissipate in the face of this change. Instead, it evolved and became even more ambitious over the years. And after a while, Hollywood began to take notice and spent millions to bring these blockbuster musicals to the big screen. These lavish musicals brought out the best in Hollywood, as it turned out to be a good way to promote these new technological advancements like stereo sound and widescreen. Through the 50’s and 60’s, it became a symbiotic relationship between these two coastal powers; Broadway would produce a certified hit on the stage and then Hollywood would bring it further to the masses on the big screen. And it propelled the people who made these musicals for the stage into household names: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe, Stephen Sondheim, Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and many more. Though the musical is resilient, it nevertheless has gone through many changes in order to survive the varying shifts in the culture. Sometimes that even includes compromising between art and commerce, such as favoring something with a built in audience over something experimental for investment. This has been the case when we see musicals brought to the stage that are either based on an already established franchise or are delivered by a major studio like Disney or Universal instead of an independent theater troupe. But still, each generation does see a gamechanger rise out of the industry and pushes the artform to a whole different level. And that man of the moment for the Broadway musical today happens to be a multi-talented performer named Lin-Manuel Miranda.
New York City native Miranda was raised in the shadow of Broadway all of his life and he’s certainly brought a lot of his own upbringing into his work. The son of Puerto Rican Americans who emigrated from one island to another, he was raised in a culturally diverse setting that exposed him to a variety of sounds that he would over time fuse together in very interesting ways. He was schooled in the melodies of the latin beat, hip hop, rap, and yes of course, Broadway show tunes. And being the unashamed nerd that he is proud to proclaim he is, he even cites stuff like Star Wars and Saturday morning cartoons as inspirations for his art. And all of it has made him one of the most exciting and innovate voices in the world of theater in a generation. Thus far, he has written and starred only two musicals for the Broadway stage, but both have been blockbuster hits, making him two for two for Best Musical at the Tony Awards. The latter of the two, Hamilton, in particular has been the show that has turned him into a household name. It’s ingenious mix of music styles (with a strong emphasis on hip hop) infused into a story about the American Revolution, and in particular it’s central figure of founding father Alexander Hamilton, just blew everyone away when it first premiered on Broadway in 2015. And even six years after it’s premiere, it is still a high in demand show, with post-Covid return dates already selling out fast. Miranda, of course, has not slowed down since. He immediately launched into a successful transition into Hollywood, gaining a strong collaborative relationship with Disney, writing new songs and even appearing on screen in stuff like Mary Poppins Returns (2018). And just this year, he’s got a whole bunch of new projects lined up, including his directorial debut, Tick, Tick…Boom (2021) for Netflix, as well as musical scores for two animated films, Vivo for Sony Animation and Encanto for Disney. But, what is eagerly anticipated right now is a big screen adaptation of the first musical that put him on the map, long before Hamilton. It’s the semi-autobiographical In the Heights, and people are eager to see if Lin-Manuel Miranda can successfully bring something he made for the stage to the big screen without it loosing any of it’s original charm.
Like Miranda’s own life story, In the Heights is a story about the people who live in the closely knit neighborhood of Washington Heights. The Heights as they call them sits at the very northern tip of the Island of Manhattan, across the Harlem River from the Bronx, and it has always been a traditionally immigrant neighborhood in New York City. In the few square blocks of the Heights, you’ll find people who have emmigrated from or are descendents of people from all over Latin America; Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans, etc., all hoping to achieve a piece of the American dream. But despite all the differences between them, the community acts like a family, all looking out for each other. At it’s heart is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) a bodega merchant whose store is a hub of activity for the neighborhood. His clientele, and extended quasi-family, includes his friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher for a local cab company; Mr. Rosario (Jimmy Smitts), Benny’s boss and father of Benny’s crush, Nina (Leslie Grace), who has returned home from attending college at Stanford; the salon girls Daniela, Carla and Cuca (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beritz, and Dascha Polanco) who work with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who Usnavi has a crush on; and finally, “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz) the neighborhood’s adopted matriarch. Though each of them are there for each other, the characters also have their dreams of moving beyond their hard-knock lives in a neighborhood that is increasingly starting to price them out through gentrification. For Usnavi, he is right on the verge of making his dream come true. He’s secured a lease on the old bar that his father used to run in the Dominican Republic in the hopes of revitalizing it and upholding the legacy his family had to put on hold in order to live in America. Within a matter of days, he’s moving out of the neighborhood and leaving the Heights behind. But a confluence of events with the people he loves and lives around makes him start to question his future. By the end, he must decide if El Suenito (or “Little Dream”) is more important to him than what he leaves behind in the Heights itself.
When watching In the Heights, you can definitely see the beginnings of what Lin-Manuel Miranda would later build upon in Hamilton. His mix of traditional Broadway and hip hop is a style that is uniquely him, and it’s definitely a major part of the musical make-up of In the Heights. The movie version of this releasing this year is certainly a wealth of riches for any Miranda fan out there, but it is interesting that it wasn’t originally set to release so close to everything else he has in the pipeline. This was one of those 2020 exiles that had to be pushed back because of the pandemic, and surprisingly in it’s place, we got an unexpected Lin-Manuel placeholder in the middle of that summer season. Disney+ pushed ahead a planned release of a filmed version of the Hamilton musical on stage to give everyone something exciting to watch while we were all stuck at home. This was both a blessing and a negative for the uprooted Heights, because one the accessibility of Hamilton now increased awareness of Lin-Manuel’s artistry and made that musical even more popular, but at the same time, it was raising the bar higher for a movie that was supposed to be seen first. Now that it is finally making it to theaters, in a hybrid release with HBO Max, does In the Heights hold up well to the hype. I’d say so, though I do feel like it falls short of all-time greatness. As an exercise in adapting a stage musical for the big screen, I’d say that it does it’s job spectacularly well. Director Jon M. Chu, who cut his teeth making music videos and dance movies like Step Up (2006) certainly knows how to stage a musical number and with a lot of panache. You can see inspirations from Busby Berkeley to Jerome Robbins throughout each show stopping musical number, which all works to the movie’s favor as it tries to translate what worked on the stage into something that will work on the screen (which is not as easy as it sounds). What’s more important is that it compliments Miranda’s music perfectly, matching the energy of the melodies with the flourish of the visuals. Even if there are things that the movie may fall short on, it at the very least remains entertaining. And there are plenty of moments throughout where the movie really does soar and takes your breath away.
Unfortunately, the musical moments may be a little too good in this movie, because it ends up minimizing everything else in between. Whenever the movie goes into dramatic, dialogue driven mode, it does kind of deflate, and you are just hoping that another musical number will bring it back to roaring life. The non-musical moments are not necessarily bad; they have some genuinely nice moments of humanity strung about. But, it becomes very clear that most of the effort in this movie went into the musical numbers. The in between moments don’t have a visual bombast that the musical numbers do. They are just filmed like a standard movie. It probably derives from the fact that much of the movie is shot on location, which is a plus, but it also means that it takes on a basic feel whenever the music isn’t filling the scene. It’s hard to know what they could have done better. Musicals of the past benefitted from the stylized, closed environments of the movie studios, like Mary Poppins (1964) and My Fair Lady (1964), or an amazingly picturesque place like Salzburg, Austria in The Sound of Music (1965). For In the Heights, whenever it’s not out in the streets, the movie is in the interior of someone’s rundown apartment, and it’s hard to bring visual excitement to that. Not that it can’t be done, but when you see the effort put into the musical moments in this movie, those interior scenes really do come off as an afterthought. It doesn’t ruin the movie as a whole, but it does seem to hold things back a bit. Overall, the movie is lively, but uneven. At least the heavy duty work is performed by the musical numbers, and they do carry the movie. Two numbers in particular, “96,000” and “Patience and Faith” may be some of the best musical sequences ever put to film. It’s in those musical numbers where you feel both Chu and Miranda really trying to match their cinematic predecessors and for the most part the movie does emulate the best of the movie musical. I really think that’s what most people are going to take away from this movie in the end, and they’ll be largely pleased by it.
It’s interesting how the movie chose to cast it’s characters as well. Lin-Manuel originated the role of Usnavi on Broadway, something he would later do as well when he played Alexander Hamilton at the center of his own musical, but for this movie, the part went to Hamilton alum Anthony Ramos. Clearly Ramos was someone who Miranda could trust in the role, and Ramos doesn’t disappoint. In fact he brings a little bit more to role than Lin-Manuel likely could’ve on film. Miranda is admittedly an okay singer, with his strength found more in rap. You can forgive him for being a little subpar in something since he excels in so many other fields. Ramos on the other hand not only carries every tune, he is accomplished at rapping and dancing as well. He may not spit fire with as much precision as Miranda, but he keeps up with the man’s complex beats pretty well. The movie’s ensemble is also perfectly suited in their roles as well. It even makes good use of Jimmy Smits, whose a bit of a novice to musicals. The general great chemistry with the entire cast particularly sells the idea of this community as a family, and you’ll find yourself hoping for all of them to find their happy endings. A special mention should go to Olga Merediz, whose Abuela Claudia is the musical’s beating heart. Her performance is absolutely going to knock people out in the theaters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she is shortlisted for a nomination at next year’s Oscars. Like the best Broadway musicals, it’s the strength of the ensemble that separates the great from the mediocre, and In the Heights has an excellent ensemble that does the musical justice. And those missing Lin-Manuel in the lead will be happy to know that he’s still present in the movie, playing the smaller role of Piraguero, who has his own pleasant story arc in the movie.
I also want to point out the incredible way that the neighborhood of Washington Heights becomes a character within the movie itself. Lin-Manuel, from the outset wanted to tell the story of his childhood home, and help the world discover this little slice of a New York that most people didn’t know that much about. Like I stated earlier, shooting this movie on location in the real Heights gives it this authenticity that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible on a studio lot. What is especially impressive is that the real locations are worked beautifully into the lavish musical numbers, and each helps to make the Heights feel like this special, magical place. The title number in the opening puts a chorus line of dancers in a busy intersection, “96,000” sets an epic dance routine in a community pool, and “Patience and Faith” in a subway car. You really do see an image of the world this neighborhood creates for itself that sprung from the childhood imagination of Lin-Manuel Miranda. And it does for on location shooting the same same kind of cinematic flourish that we saw in musicals like The Sound of Music and La La Land (2016). I’ve never seen the actual Washington Heights, and I’m sure that it’s probably not 100% like it is in this movie, but you can tell this is a story from someone who wants to give back to the place that reared him up, and it’s presented with a great amount of love. It pleases me that the effort to bring that to the big screen brought the filming right into the neighborhood itself, which I’m sure was a boon to the local economy. And in that respect, it does exactly what the best musicals always do, which is transport the audience into its own unique world.
The strengths of the musical, In the Heights, do outweigh the faults, but the shortcomings do bring the musical down a bit from all time heights. It is a long movie (2 1/2 hours) which is on par with most stage productions, but quite a lot for a cinematic experience. And the deflated dramatic moments do make you feel that length. At least when the musical numbers kick into gear the movie doesn’t disappoint. What I especially appreciate is the fact that director Chu was thinking about what would look best on the big screen when staging his musical numbers. Oftentimes, this is something that sinks most musical adaptations for the big screen, as the directors tend to think that you just shoot what worked on the stage. These are two different mediums entirely, and making musicals work for the big screen requires a different visual perspective. It’s something that other adaptations like The Phantom of the Opera (2004) and Les Miserables forgot and took for granted, and ultimately both of those musicals failed to live up to their stage bound counterparts. In the Heights thankfully understands what it’s supposed to be, and it even does a few things different to help it stand on it’s own. As a musical experience, it is interesting to see finally the musical that put Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map. It’s ambitious, but also a humble start, and something that he certainly would build upon when he moved on to his mammoth sophomore effort; the industry redefining Hamilton. I almost wish I had seen this one first last summer, so that I didn’t have Hamilton to judge it by. It’s a little unfair, considering Heights existed in a pre-Hamilton world and was never judged based on this before. Who knows, I may have been a little more forgiving of this movie. In any case, I’m happy this movie is finally out now, and it is very much well worth seeing, especially on a big screen. As Broadway and Hollywood begin to rebuild themselves in a post-COVID world together, it’s hopefully musicals like In the Heights that helps audiences remember what makes musicals so special in the world in the first place.