In the Heights (Review)

Amanda talks In the Heights, magical realism, and the importance of Latinx storytelling.

I saw the Tony award-winning musical, In the Heights, twelve years ago. It was 2009 and I was 16 years old. It was the first piece of media my parents and I could remember seeing that featured people who looked and sounded like us since West Side Story (1957, 1961).

My grandparents were born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York when they were barely twenty, so Lin-Manuel Miranda has become something of a hero to my family in the years since In the Heights opened among the likes of Grammy award-winner Marc Anthony and retired New York Mets outfielder Carlos Beltrán.

In the Heights is a story that knows exactly what it is, and it tells you so in the first ten minutes: “We’re takin’ a flight / To a couple of days / ​in the life of what it’s like / En Washington Heights.” To get to Washington Heights from Brooklyn, where I was born, you take the A train an hour uptown, get off at 181st, and take the escalator.

In the Heights follows Usnavi, a Dominican bodega owner working to survive as he puts his pennies away to hopefully make it back to his island one day. Everything changes for him, however, when he finds out his bodega sold the winning lottery ticket for a jackpot of $96,000 just before a multi-day blackout sweeps the streets of Washington Heights.

Along with Usnavi, there’s Abuela Claudia, the matriarch of the block they live on, who immigrated from Cuba in the 1940s; Nina Rosario, the first to go to college, who’s recently come home from her first year at Stanford with a big secret; Benny, who works at the car service dispatch Nina’s father owns and dreams of attending business school and making it big; and Vanessa, who works at the local beauty salon and is trying to move downtown, with little luck.

As with anything adapted from a popular source material, there have been some changes. Storylines have either been tweaked, condensed, or completely rewritten; familiar songs and some secondary characters have been changed or cut; and the actors’ interpretations of beloved characters (with their own stylized vocals) are much different from what the privileged few who have seen a stage production may remember.

Luckily, Lin-Manuel Miranda (producer), who wrote the music and lyrics for the stage production, and Quiara Alegría Hudes (screenwriter), who wrote the original book, joined forces with director Jon M. Chu to breathe new life into a story that—while timeless in its themes of family, community, and home—needed some updating.

Beyond a few lyrical changes that thankfully stepped away from cheap shots at other marginalized groups for the sake of a laugh (like the Tokyo joke in “96,000”, which was swapped for an Obi-Wan Kenobi pun), Hudes beautifully captures what it means to be Latinx in 2021, a stark contrast to what it meant back in 2008. Along with imbuing characters like Nina and Vanessa with some much-needed agency, Hudes introduces an issue left relatively unexplored in the stage production, but that still plagues Latinx communities to this day: being an undocumented immigrant in our fraught political landscape.

While I won’t spoil who this affects and how they work the storyline into the overall narrative, I will say that it’s an incredible and insightful addition to the journey of a character who, at the best of times, was simply considered comic relief.

Chu—who’s been tapped to direct the screen adaptation of Tony award-winning musical Wicked and who’s success with Crazy Rich Asians skyrocketed him into the public eye—brings his flair for the visually dramatic to Washington Heights, an already colorful neighborhood that they were lucky enough to film on location! But it’s Chu’s experience with the Step-Up franchise that serves him best here.

From its flashy, heavily-choreographed numbers like the titular “In the Heights”, “96,000”, and “Carnaval del Barrio”, to its more intimate and nuanced songs like “Paciencia y Fe” and “When the Sun Goes Down”, Chu doesn’t miss an opportunity to get up close and personal with his actors. All the while, he never forgets that this is a movie-musical adaptation, bringing with it its own set of expectations from newcomers and musical theater buffs alike.

What struck me the most about Chu’s interpretation, however, is his use of magical realism, a staple of Latinx storytelling. While the conceit of a movie-musical is magic in itself, there’s a special brand of magical realism inherent in all Latinx media (particularly its literature–shout out to Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez!) and Chu pulls out all the stops to make sure it’s represented on the big screen. Whorls of fabric unfurl over the rooftops of Washington Heights in Vanessa’s “It Won’t Be Long Now”; hip-hop and Graffiti Pete’s murals come to startling life in “96,000”; and Benny and Nina dance up the walls of their apartment block in “When the Sun Goes Down”, just to name a few breathtaking instances of movie magic.

And while every single cast member poured their heart and soul into this movie, Anthony Ramos—who takes up the mantle of Usnavi from Miranda himself—and Leslie Grace—who plays Nina Rosario—steal the show. Miranda himself has been quoted saying that Ramos is, and has always been, a movie star, and it’s a hard claim to deny. Ramos’ performance as Usnavi is explosive, magnetic, undeniably sexy—a trait the character of Usnavi has never been known for but that works exceptionally well here. A triple-threat if there ever was one, Ramos will have you on your feet.

Grace, in comparison, is a quiet, raw, and dynamic powerhouse as Nina, a character that seems to belong to many first- and second-generation immigrants bearing the weight of their families’ hopes and dreams on their shoulders. Her performance in “Breathe” will leave you speechless and the believability of her romance with Benny in the movie is, dare I say it… better than the musical.

I’d be remiss not to mention the absolutely stunning portrayals of Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Benny (Corey Hawkins), Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and Abuela Claudia, played by Olga Merediz, who originated the role on Broadway.

Miranda, who conceived of In the Heights when he was still in college and worked on it through his twenties, has proven himself as a creative force to be reckoned with. From his conception of Heights, to his blockbuster of a musical Hamilton, to his directorial debut adapting Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) for Netflix, Miranda continues to propel himself—and Latinx culture—onto the main stage.

I saw the movie, In the Heights, on opening night. It’s 2021 and I’m 28 years old. Very few of my family members still live in Puerto Rico, having evacuated here, to Nueva York, after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island back in 2017. I am a New Yorker. I am Latina. This show meant so much to me as a teenager and the movie is no exception.

I implore you to go see In the Heights, streaming now on HBO Max and in theaters. You will not regret it. Regardless of whether you’re coming to it as a fan of the stage production or are just looking for a good time, this movie is a grand spectacle that will leave you breathless—I know it left me cheering so loud and raucous, they could hear me across the bridge in East Secaucus.


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