Before the record-breaking cultural phenomenon Hamilton hit broadway (and eventually Disney+), came Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first full-length musical – In The Heights. Miranda first began to write the music and lyrics for the show whilst attending college, inspired to bring better cultural representation to the largely stereotypical productions in musical theatre. In The Heights opened at student theatre company, Second Stage in April 2000, before moving to Broadway in 2008, subsequently scooping four Tony Awards. The vibrant production combines hip-hop and salsa, celebrating the hopes and dreams of the tight-knit Latinx community, close to where Miranda grew up.
Directed by Crazy Rich Asian’s Jon M. Chu, In The Heights centres on charming bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) who works night and day, saving up for a ticket to return to the Dominican Republic to reopen his father’s old beach bar. Along with Usnavi, we follow other members of the community as they strive to reach their dreams whilst navigating highs and lows including a blackout during a heatwave, gentrification of their neighbourhood, along with the exciting news of a mysterious winning lottery ticket which could change everything for the community.
Much like Hamilton, In The Heights is a wonderful cultural celebration of aspirational and hard-working multi-generational immigrants and their families striving to achieve their dreams and make their mark on the world. Bursting with infectious energy and brimming with life, the adaptation features plenty of heart and toe-tapping musical numbers which, after a year of numerous lockdowns with no live musical performances, is a real treat for the soul. With a number of wonderful central themes explored, Chu and Miranda have perfectly captured the uplifting spirit of community, legacy and family through a heartfelt and emotional tale so well rooted in the sights and sounds of New York. Clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes, you do begin to feel the runtime towards the third act, mainly due to the sheer amount of character development and relationships which evolve and intertwine throughout.
Hamilton co-star Anthony Ramos absolutely shines as the effortlessly charismatic and hugely charming Usnavi, excellently stepping up to Miranda’s previous leading role. Corey Hawkins’ Benny is equally as likeable thanks to his cheeky dispatch raps and supportive nature, guiding Leslie Grace’s Nina through her struggles with university, along with helping her father (Jimmy Smits) run his business. Miranda entertainingly pops up from time-to-time as the Piragua Guy, along with Hamilton’s Christopher Jackson in a fun cameo, however it’s Olga Merediz who lovingly steals the show as Abuela Claudia – her warmth and caring approach to the members of the community completely radiates on-screen, watch this space for a Best Supporting Actress nomination. The hugely talented supporting cast come together to form a rich, fully realised neighbourhood full of real people with real struggles – who you instantly root for, particularly young Sonny’s (Gregory Diaz IV) journey.
Chu captures the vibrant atmosphere of the close-knit neighbourhood, bursting with a riot of colour and energetically choreographed musical numbers, complete with impressive dance sequences, set to Miranda’s signature combination of hip-hop, rap and salsa music. Big set pieces include the dynamic opening song “In The Heights,” with one particular exquisitely framed shot reflecting the dancing in the window of Usnavi’s bodega, as the owner raps along to the action. The sheer size and scale of the staging for “96,000” is mind-blowing, with a number of extras and supporting cast perfectly assembled in multiple overhead and sweeping shots in the local swimming pool, creating a real musical spectacle. Ballad “When the Sun Goes Down” is also excellently choreographed as a sweeping love letter to the bustling city and it’s young lovers, with Hawkins and Grace defying gravity and gracefully dancing across the skyline.
In The Heights is an absolutely joyful cinematic experience, full of impressive musical numbers and important representation – this is the perfect film for Summer and the return to the big screen. I haven’t stopped listening to the soundtrack since!