Friday, July 16, 2021

Going Wide-Screen with “In the Heights”

Lin-Manuel Miranda seems one of those rare Americans who can do no wrong. He’s charming! He’s funny! He’s personally gracious and politically “woke”! Miranda took a serious political biography about one of our country’s founding fathers and turned it into a megahit Broadway musical, with himself in the leading role. (Now the video version of Hamilton – basically a well-crafted filmed play – is up for a remarkable 12 Emmy awards.) Naturally, Hollywood has taken an interest. Miranda has played a variety of roles and raked in an Oscar nomination for his anthem, “How Far I’ll Go,” which plays a key role in Disney’s Moana. And he’s turned to film directing as well, with the upcoming tick, tick . . . Boom! It’s a tribute of sorts to Broadway’s Jonathan Larson, who wrote an autographical play about a struggling young musical-theatre composer, then died on the eve of the triumphant debut of his 1996 play, Rent. So one apparent genius (yes, Miranda owns one of those MacArthur “genius” grants) pays homage to another.

 In 2008. seven years before Hamilton, Broadway playgoers saw another Miranda opus, In the Heights, one that reflected his own upbringing in Manhattan’s heavily Latino Washington Heights. The show, again with Miranda in a key role, won the Tony Award for Best Musical, in what admittedly was a sparse year for musical hits. (Ever hear of Passing Strange? Cry Baby? Xanadu?) I happened to see the original cast in action. While I loved the show’s Latin rhythms and couldn’t fault the performers, I found the story lackluster at best. Yes, it was interesting to see ethnic Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants to New York City reveal their challenges and their longings, but the specific characters on whom the plot focused seemed thinly drawn. In the stage version, In the Heights concentrates mostly on a Romeo and Juliet romance between the academically successful Nina and a young African-American named Benny, who works for Nina’s father’s car-service company. This schmaltzy clash of cultures as well as education-levels is complicated by Nina’s struggles as a homesick freshman at faraway dream-school Stanford.

 When it came time to make the movie,  Miranda and company smartly shifted the story’s chief focus from Nina and Benny’s forbidden (and not all that convincing) love to another of the play’s couples. On stage, Usnavi— the owner of a local bodega but one who longs to return to his native land -- was played by Miranda himself, mostly as a rap-happy narrator for the proceedings. Now, in his forties, he’s given himself a much smaller but still colorful role as a seller of piragua (shaved ice) who’s caught in a quiet battle with the local Mr. Softee vendor. (Don’t miss the Easter Egg at the very end of the credits, showing who is the victor in their long-term rivalry.) Meanwhile Usnavi, now played by the fresh-faced Anthony Ramos, becomes one of the film’s romantic leads, as he yearns for the affection of the ambitious, artistic Vanessa.

 It’s a smart re-think of the story, though the still-present Stanford subplot strikes me as sloppy and bogus once more. (Here’s a great take-down by an actual Stanford graduate from a background similar to Nina’s.) But I chose this film for my return to the cineplex because I wanted to see its musical numbers in all their glory. They are indeed glorious, if perhaps overwhelming after a while. Everyone sings and dances – young kids, abuelas – on the streets, in the public swimming pool, up and down the sides of tenement buildings. Perhaps this feel-good film is just what we need right now.





  1. Did you really think the stage play focused mostly on Nina and Benny? I thought it was more or less even. (As we discussed, in the movie they killed Nina's mother but also took out the plotline of Nina's father disliking Benny. They also deleted a kind of sweet song where she teaches him Spanish.) I agree that the focus on Usnavi and Vanessa was good!

  2. I'm delighted you saw this, Hilary. It occurred to me belatedly that you might want to be thanked for coming up with the opinion-piece about your alma mater. So: THANKS! You seem to remember the stage version better than I do, but I do mostly recall the Nina/Benny focus. On stage Vanessa seemed a lesser character, and I couldn't make much sense of her wanting so desperately to move downtown.