When stage musicals get turned into movies, they face a variety of challenges. How do you effectively translate a production so that it doesn’t feel “stagey”? Do you stay true to the original order of songs, or do you mix them up to give the story clarity in the context of a film? Which songs are worth keeping and which are expendable? Do you tell the story exactly as it was upon its debut, or change it up to reflect societal changes?
All of these questions and more are addressed in spectacular fashion in In the Heights, finally getting its release after a year’s delay due to the pandemic. The film, directed by Jon M. Chu, written by original book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes, and with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, stays true to the stage musical’s story, but veers off in significant and important ways that somehow make it even more impactful than the production that won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Anthony Ramos, who played John Laurens and Phillip Hamilton in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton, stars as Usnavi, who runs a bodega in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Over the course of a few days, he interacts with multiple other people in his close-knit community, including Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), his younger cousin who works with him; Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works as a dispatcher at a car service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits); Nina (Leslie Grace), Kevin’s daughter who’s back home from college at Stanford; and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works at a salon owned by Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), but dreams of becoming a fashion designer.
Dreams are a big thing for almost everyone in the story. Usnavi dreams of returning to his native Dominican Republic, and also of working up the courage to ask Vanessa out on a date. Kevin dreams of Nina becoming a bigger success than he could ever be. Benny dreams of taking over Kevin’s business one day. Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her role from Broadway) dreams of everyone in the neighborhood achieving their dreams, doing her best to help them in any way she can. And the filmmakers include a subplot about the Dreamers, aka those affected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, that updates and improves the story in a remarkable way.
From minute one, Chu and his team achieve such a sense of place in the film that you can’t help but feel as if you’re a part of the community yourself. Much of the movie was filmed on location in the actual Washington Heights neighborhood, immersing the audience in the big and small details that make it what it is. One particularly noteworthy scene involves virtually the entire population of the neighborhood going to the local Highbridge Pool, a location Chu makes amazingly cinematic with a Busby Berkeley-esque dance sequence for the song “96,000.”
On stage, the impact of the songs’ lyrics can sometimes not be felt completely, especially if an audience member is not fluent in Spanish, as the lyrics are often a hybrid of English and Spanish. The film not only gives everyone a front-row seat to the song sequences, but it also offers up subtle — and sometimes not-so-subtle — visuals that aid the understanding of the songs immensely. And even if you can’t fully follow Miranda’s dense lyrics, the high energy of the dance sequences helps get across the meaning of the songs.
The whole film has an air of relentless positivity, although it never ignores the difficult realities facing its characters. The story notably excises some negative subplots from the stage production, likely in order to keep the optimistic dream theme going. It also has the byproduct of giving viewers an up-close-and-personal look at the experience at this particular group of Latinos, an always-welcome reminder that the diversity of the United States is a good thing.
The cast of the film is uniformly great, from the somewhat known quantities of Ramos and Hawkins, to veteran actors like Smits, Rubin-Vega, and Merediz, to relative newcomers Barrera and Grace. Dasha Polanco (Orange is the New Black) and Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) do fantastic work in smaller roles, and Diaz brings big humor and emotion to his key part. Fans of Miranda’s work will enjoy not just his small role as Piragua Guy, but also cameos from key players from the Broadway show and elsewhere.
The film version of In the Heights differs from the stage musical considerably, and instead of detracting from it, it improves upon it in immeasurable ways. It is a joyous and moving celebration of life, love, and community that deserves to be a top contender at next year’s Oscars. It’s also a movie that deserves to be seen in theaters, so if you’re comfortable going to one, that is the way to see it.
In the Heights is in theaters and available on HBO Max.