Hanna Flint (BBC, Culture) reviews musical film In the Heights, stating that “it could be just the start of a major new era for the genre.”
Actor-composer Lin-Manuel Miranda has become an international star over the last few years thanks to his seminal musical Hamilton, but a big-screen adaptation of his debut show In the Heights has been in the works since 2008. However only now, 13 years after its Broadway premiere, is this Latin-American story of camaraderie and community in New York’s Washington Heights neighbourhood finally making it to the big screen. It couldn’t have arrived at a better time. With cinemas now open again in the US, the UK, and many other countries, the musical – adapted for the screen by original book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes and Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M Chu, with Miranda serving as producer – might just be the spoonful of sugar the world needs after a tumultuous 18 months contending with a global pandemic.
Musicals have long been considered perhaps the most purely joyful genre in the cinematic library and over the last decade there has been a real influx of offerings onto the silver screen – from those featuring original music like La La Land (2016) and The Greatest Showman (2017); jukebox musicals like Sunshine on Leith (2013), Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018), Yesterday (2019) and the Pitch Perfect franchise (2012-17); and an increasing number of musical biopics such as Get On Up (2014), Jersey Boys (2014), Rocketman (2019) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). [. . .]
Soon, the big screen will boast film adaptations of stage hits Everyone’s Talking about Jamie and Dear Evan Hansen, and a West Side Story remake from Steven Spielberg. Upcoming, too, are Annette, a musical romance from French auteur Leos Carax starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, with original music from synth-pop duo Sparks, and Miranda’s feature directorial debut Tick Tick… Boom. These films will arrive right in time for awards season consideration where the genre has historically done well. All in all, the musical hasn’t been this popular since its Golden Age during the mid-20th Century. In a world where, pandemic or not, we can feel increasingly disconnected from each other, Hudes believes their resurgence has come because they are offering audiences a real human touch.
“A musical gives an audience permission to relax, imagine and not have to pay attention in such a rigid way because music does something that words alone can’t do,” she tells BBC Culture. “We’re humans, we need music. It’s one of our most basic instincts. Our hearts beat in rhythm. I don’t know what can be more essentially human than rhythm and song. Musicals have staying power because they are not just their own subgenre – they incorporate contemporary and different genres of music that’s only to the benefit of audiences.”
The power of In the Heights
The music of In the Heights takes its cues from the diverse Latin community it represents, infusing hip-hop, salsa, merengue and soul music into the score and with lyrics about love, life, community and the American dream. Chu has taken visual and choreography cues from the films of Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams while casting an all-singing, all-dancing array of established and emerging actors from the Latin American community including Anthony Ramos, who appeared in the original 2008 production of Hamilton, Broadway veterans Daphne Rubin-Vega and Olga Merediz, who is reprising her role of community matriarch Abuela, and small screen stars Melissa Barrera and Stephanie Beatriz.
Straight Outta Compton’s Corey Hawkins plays the only non-Spanish speaking character, Benny, who helps run the taxi dispatch owned by Mr Rosario (Jimmy Smits) the father of his love Nina (Leslie Grace), a Stanford University student who wants to drop out because of the financial strain on her dad and the racial microaggressions she experiences on campus.
The film is stacked with interesting characters: Ramos’ Usnavi, a Dominican bodega owner with dreams of returning to the Republic, is the musical’s narrator and ostensible lead but the creators always envisioned the ensemble cast as their collective protagonist. “The notion of one central hero, philosophically, feels at odds with the story that I wanted to tell, which is, in a community, there is no single hero or protagonist,” says Hudes. “We rise and fall together. The community is the lead character.”
That’s a sentiment that feels especially pertinent right now given the way humans have come together to help each other during the pandemic. However, depictions of Latin American community, in particular, have rarely been afforded space in Hollywood films let alone in the musical genre. In fact, when Hudes was brought on by Miranda to write the In the Heights book in 2004, to accompany his music and lyrics, they agreed it was vital their show avoided the pitfalls of past musicals featuring Latinx characters, such as West Side Story (1961), The Capeman (1998) and Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1990), which featured gang violence or other negative stereotypes. “In The Heights was a piece of activism from the beginning,” says Hudes. “[Our] decision to make a piece that is about Latin joy, celebration and resilience might not seem political, it might seem like we’re going for palatable entertainment but it was such a conscious and strategic political choice. Joy is political in that context.”
Their Washington Heights community is populated by first, second and third-generation immigrants from across Latin America who have left their culture but found their home in the uppermost part of Manhattan. The characters, from store owners to an Ivy League student, hairstylists to vendors of the Puerto Rican iced dessert piragua, have thus formed bonds often thicker than blood to keep their culture alive while embracing new dreams. In portraying this tension between tradition and modernity, Hudes took inspiration from the 1964 Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, about a Jewish family in 19th-Century Russia. “In Fiddler, modernity is freedom but it comes at a cost when Teyve’s daughters [reject arranged marriages],” she explains. “They’re in love, they gain freedom and independence, but they also lose a connection to their mother and father.”
Hudes and Miranda present that lost connection through Usnavi and Abuela especially: while the former yearns to return to the Dominican Republic, the latter expresses her feelings of estrangement from her own homeland of Cuba in the song Paciencia y Fe. “That is a real cost so we related to that in In The Heights,” says Hudes. “[However] the journeys that all of our characters take, they gain so much, they find community on this block in Washington Heights by a bodega, a car dispatch and a salon. That’s their family.” [. . . ]