Washington Heights is that multicultural neighborhood just north of Harlem in New York City. I’ve been there many times and noticed its slow gentrification. I went there again this week with a new movie, a joyous musical called “In the Heights.”
At various times the Heights has been home to German Jews, Greek Americans, and Russian Americans, but throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s White residents began to leave the neighborhood for nearby suburbs as Blacks and Latinos moved in. Today, the Heights is a tapestry of Latinx cultures – Dominican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican, among others. But, little by little, as Manhattan real estate prices have increased, Whites are returning, squeezing out the very populations that squeezed them out back in the day.
Famous residents of Washington Heights have included calypso singer Harry Belafonte, opera diva Maria Callas, actor Laurence Fishburne, baseball greats Lou Gehrig and Alex Rodriguez, sportscaster Vin Scully, comedian Freddie Prinze, rock ‘n roller Frankie Lymon, actress Leslie Uggams, my old pal Stan Lee, and rapper Cardi B.
Oh yes, also Lin-Manuel Miranda. He grew up in Inwood and the adjacent Heights neighborhood.
You know Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer and star of the mega-hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.” He has received a Pulitzer Prize, two Laurence Olivier Awards, three Tonys, three Grammys, an Emmy, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a Kennedy Center Honor.
Not bad for a 40-something Puerto Rican-American from Washington Heights.
“In the Heights” was his first Broadway play. He wrote the first draft of this lament against gentrification while he was still a student at Wesleyan. In 2008, it made its way to Broadway, racking up 1,185 performances during various runs.
Now, with the clout of Miranda’s “Hamilton” success, his well-tuned partnership with screenwriter/playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, and helmed by director John M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), “In the Heights” is heading to the silver screen on June 11 – including Tropic Cinema – as well as showing on HBO Max.
Indie Wire describes it as “the kind of electrifying theatrical experience that people have been waxing nostalgic about ever since the pandemic began – the kind that it almost seemed like we might never get to enjoy again.”
At its heart, “In the Heights” is a time capsule, a vivid example of cultural memory. This is “the story of a block that was disappearing” – and the people who call it home.
With a nod to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a wink at “Fame,” and a thumb’s up to “West Side Story,” this exuberant musical explores the meaning of belonging.
One moviegoer called it “a sweet-natured film with a no-place-like-home ethic.”
The streets are “made of music” in this visit to Washington Heights, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mixology of rap, hip-hop, salsa, merengue, samba, even R&B, perfect when combined with Christopher Scott’s propulsive Busby Berkeley-style choreography.
Here, the story is told by Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos of “Hamilton”), a bodega owner in Washington Heights who has big dreams of reopening his father’s beachside bar in the Dominican Republic. “A dream isn’t some sparkly diamond, there’s no shortcuts. Sometimes it’s rough,” says Usnavi. “But there’s a chance – right?”
Hope resonates throughout the entire story. Instead of feeling sorry of themselves, the people on the block sing praise of their culture. They take pride in where they come from while integrating their myriad past cultures into the Heights.
But for now, Usnavi runs the corner store with the help of his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), a cheeky teenage activist. Most of the neighbors are introduced to us as they stop by the bodega for a cup of coffee.
You will meet Usnavi’s friend Benny (Tony nominee Corey Hawkins), an ebullient taxi dispatcher; Benny’s boss Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits); and Rosario’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who’s home for the summer after her first year away at Stanford. Nina’s dad has made sacrifices so his daughter can escape the Heights, but faced with bad grades and mean girls at college, she’s toying with the idea of coming home for good. And, encouraging that decision, she finds that Benny still has eyes for her despite her father’s disapproval.
As for Usnavi, he wants to move back to the Dominican Republic to open that bar (jumping ahead, we see Usnavi telling this story to kids on the beach), but his headstrong would-be girlfriend Vanessa wants to escape her job at the hair salon by moving downtown to join the fashion industry. They are a couple heading in opposite directions.
And what about those undocumented illegals, Dreamers looking to make a home in the Heights? “Time to make some noise,” decides Usnavi. (Note: This was a politically-inspired addition to the movie that didn’t exist in the play.)
Overseeing all of this is Abuela Claudia (“Grandmother”), an elderly Cubano who dispenses advice and facilitates relationships. Beautifully portrayed by Olga Merediz from the Broadway play. “Tell the world we are not invisible,” she says.
The neighborhood has a magnetic pull on all of them.
The film’s opening Spanglish number – the half-sung, half-rapped title track “In the Heights” – offers up a montage of people from all walks of life heading out to start their day. The sounds of the city — honking automobiles, clicking door locks, the spritzing of sidewalk water hoses – are incorporated into the energetic rhythm of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music. This 12-minute sequence “moves with the grace and purpose of someone weaving a community from the thread of a million separate dreams.”
The neighborhood around the 181st Street subway stop is awash with hairdressers and small-business owners, couriers and community workers, gossips and matriarchs, joggers and protestors. Folks like Graffiti Pete (Noah Catsla) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) and Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Mr. de la Vega (six-time Latin Grammy-winner Marc Anthony).
“On these streets you can’t walk two steps without bumping into someone’s big plans,” Usnavi tells us.
During the film’s 2 hours and 33 minutes, song and dance fills the streets, overflows into a community pool, invades a swinging nightclub, follows a dreamy candlelight vigil. While the songs are perhaps not as memorable as Miranda’s more mature work in “Hamilton,” you’ll still be bowled over by the show-stopping celebratory “Carnaval del Barrio” (featuring Marc Anthony) or “Breathe” (featuring Rubén Blades) or find yourself humming “Home All Summer” (along with Anthony Ramos and Leslie Grace).
Although Lin-Manuel Miranda starred as Usnavi in the original stage version, for the movie he has stepped aside for the younger lookalike (right down to the neat goatee) Anthony Ramos. But look closely and you’ll spot Miranda in a cameo as a street vendor selling piraguas, still claiming a foothold in the Heights.
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