I’ve been waiting for this day for years––literally years. Since 2016, actually, when it was announced that Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was the toast of Broadway with his blockbuster Hamilton, would co-produce a movie version of his first musical, In the Heights. There were a few detours along the way; it was originally going to be produced by Harvey Weinstein of #MeToo shame but was eventually got picked up by Warner Brothers instead, and then, of course, there was COVID. But today the movie opens to the public, and I’m SO EXCITED. I haven’t been in a movie theater in 16 months, but there is no way I’m watching THIS movie on my computer.
The movie is a paean to the heavily Latinx-American community of Washington Heights in Manhattan. It celebrates not “Hispanic culture,” but the specifics of such things as Dominican-American culture, Cuban-American culture, and that special blend of so-called “nuevo riqueños” or people of Puerto Rican descent who live and grow up in New York City (such as Jennifer Lopez and Miranda himself). And it does it with the exuberance and optimism that is a trademark of its author’s own personality.
Here is a trailer for the film:
I saw it on stage, and it was fun, uplifting, heartwarming, and authentic. But to be honest, it lacks the absolute genius of Hamilton. You can hear Miranda’s voice and his clever wordplay and the mixture of music styles, plus it absolutely touches on some of the themes explored more deeply in Hamilton. But it is a much more conventional musical plot, centered around a couple of love stories as well as the question of who or what or where is home––a much-beloved Broadway subject. And the songs and stories lack the sophistication of his best-known work.
However, I think there would not have been Hamilton, at least in the brilliant form we have now, if Miranda had not gotten In the Heights to Broadway first. In the Heights was a necessary first step in the development of Hamilton, not just artistically, but practically.
First of all, In the Heights was fairly unusual because it had a predominantly Latinx cast. While there had been a number of African-American musicals, or traditional musicals with an all-Black cast (I remember seeing the black version of Guys and Dolls, which was really good), Hispanic-American musicals were much rarer. Miranda said that one reason he wrote the show so that there was something on Broadway in which he could actually perform:
I started to write it as a sophomore at Wesleyan University, because I loved the art form and didn’t see any roles for me in it, besides Bernardo in West Side Story and Paul in A Chorus Line. And you and I both know I don’t dance well enough to play either of those roles. And that’s it for Puerto Rican dudes.
Secondly, investors were very nervous about the mix of song elements in this show. Incorporating salsa was bad enough, but they thought that hip-hop would be the kiss of death for traditional Broadway audiences. So the marketing materials and promotional interviews and such just talked about the show incorporating “contemporary” music rather than mentioning specific genres. The PR wanted people to think of “updated West Side Story” rather than Jay-Z and Kanye West.
Fortunately, In the Heights was a hit, albeit nothing like the level of success of Hamilton. But it paved the way for Miranda to push his ideas about multicultural, diverse, and unknown casts drawing audiences, as well as acknowledging the hip-hop influence proudly upfront.
Anyway, I’m really looking forward to seeing it, although that won’t be until a weekday matinee next week. I’m so glad it is getting great reviews. The film reviewer at The Washington Post called it the “first genuinely cheerful, splashy, life-affirming movie of the summer,” and the review at The New York Times said it was “an exuberant and heartfelt party.” And really, don’t we all need that right now?
Just being able to go see a movie in a movie theater is a great celebration of our lives returning to our pre-pandemic activities. But having the first movie I see be one of such energy and positivity and color and life will really push it over the top!