Photo Credit: Cinematic Slant
In The Heights is a new movie musical by Hamilton star and writer, Lin Manuel Miranda. Set in Washington Heights, New York, it centres bodega owner Usnavi and his close-knit Latinx community. If you haven’t ventured to the cinema for a while, this uplifting, cinematic musical about togetherness may be just the pick-me-up you need. There have been changes made from the stage version, but I’ll be reviewing it from the perspective of most people, including myself, who haven’t had the chance to see it.
To me, musicals are about unapologetic displays of real, relatable human emotion. Any strong feeling turns into a song, and sometimes that song turns into a massive, often cheesy dance number. They’re not the understated, realistic dramas flooding our television screens, and yet they are often entirely immersive. Musicals don’t contain emotion in an effort to look cool, they let it all out in a way that is incredibly cathartic. The escapism of a movie musical can help in difficult times, and is best enjoyed with a large popcorn and mixed slushie. In The Heights is a cinematic experience, and does exactly what you would expect from a musical and more. It is complete with joyful, grand ensemble dance numbers complete with colourful costumes, love duets and conflicted coming-of-age solos. 96,000 particularly stood out as a show-stopper, creatively incorporating an outdoor pool into its choreography.
Without giving any spoilers, the themes of the show are characteristic of a coming-of-age tale. The characters face conflict in their romantic lives, other relationships and early careers which are easy for anyone to relate to. Protagonist Usnavi dreams of moving back to the Dominican Republic to re-open his late father’s beach bar. Supporting characters also have a ‘sueñito’, meaning ‘little dream’, and much of the plot revolves around this theme. Vanessa is technically the ‘love interest’ character, but is so much more than this with her own sueñito of becoming a fashion designer, whilst second female lead Nina discovers her purpose whilst rekindling a romance with high school sweetheart, Benny.
Dreams, crushes, and other classic musical theatre tropes drive the plot, but the true running theme of the show is community, particularly amongst oppressed groups. This is what really sets it apart. Most of the characters are not related, but stick together as a minority group and function as a chosen family headed by the matriarchal ‘Abuela’ (grandmother), who never had children and so took in the community’s young people as her own. Usnavi is presented from the beginning as one member of a family, but cared for as an individual. This is cleverly shown right at the beginning, not only by almost immediate individual introductions to a large cast, but by Usnavi not being centred in the first ensemble dance number, and instead being shown as part of a crowd. Ensemble numbers are frequent throughout, and draw the viewer in to feel part of the community as Usnavi completes his character arc of coming to value and protect it above all else.
Together, the residents of Washington Heights face unique hardships, from discrimination from white onlookers to the undocumented immigration status of a developed, lovable character. Telling these stories on the big screen is undoubtedly progressive, and bringing this perspective to the all-too-often white domain of the musical freshens the genre, with hip-hop and rap elements incorporated into its unique soundtrack. The film has rightly faced some backlash for colourism however, with a light-skinned principal cast. Disappointingly, In The Heights could have done better in this regard. Nevertheless, it marks one of many steps still to come toward diversity in film.
Aside from the issue of colourism, it is very well cast. Leading man Anthony Ramos seems to be a favourite of creator Lin Manuel Miranda, having now been cast in three of his projects. Ramos’ voice and dancing ability are expert, typical of a film star originating from Broadway, and do not falter. Ramos’ acting ability is just as good, as he brings some grit to the sympathetic, love struck dreamer of Usnavi. Many of the singing voices in this film, including that of Ramos, stray from the generic musical theatre voices we are used to hearing in classic shows, which are often barely distinguishable from each other. Refreshingly, some voices in the cast are more distinctive, but without forced vocal affectations or sacrificing the technique of classically trained musical theatre voices.
Everyone who sings or dances is highly skilled at it, and everyone suits their role, so it has clearly been cast talent-first as opposed to gravitating toward big names when making casting decisions. This came as a welcome relief given the tendency of modern movie musicals to break the audience’s immersion with the blatantly autotuned voice of a stunt cast A-lister. Built from the foundations of a popular stage show, and from the writer of cultural phenomenon Hamilton, In The Heights doesn’t need big names, and knows it. Theatre nerds such as myself will recognise writer and original Usnavi Lin Manuel Miranda in a small role, alongside original Benny, Christopher Jackson. Both are stage actors, and these appearances pay fan service without overpowering the musical as a whole. Others in the cast clearly originate from the musical theatre stage, or are skilled enough to appear as though they have.
In The Heights does all the things a musical is supposed to do and more, with a modern hip-hop twist that surprisingly works, and makes a great summer musical. If you need a cathartic escape from life, complete with sad cries and happy cries, I recommend you catch this one in the cinema to experience the full effect of its vibrant dance numbers.