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‘In the Heights:’ A Musical Visit to New York's Hispanic Neighborhood

This image released by Warner Bros. Picures shows Anthony Ramos, foreground left, and Melissa Barrera in a scene from 'In the Heights.'
This image released by Warner Bros. Picures shows Anthony Ramos, foreground left, and Melissa Barrera in a scene from 'In the Heights.'
‘In the Heights:’ A Musical Visit to an Hispanic Neighborhood of New York City
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Lin-Manuel Miranda began writing what would become In the Heights as a university student. The musical play would launch him as a playwright and performer. Now, 20 years later, a movie version is in theaters for its first weekend.

Miranda said like other artists, he was driven by ambition – but also by something else.

“It was a lot of fear, honestly,” Miranda said in a recent interview. “I was 18, 19 and starting to study theater. The fear was: I’m going into a field that has no space for me, that has no roles for me. It was sort of that thing of: No one’s going to write your dream show.”

In the Heights opened on June 10. It celebrates many things: the Latino immigrant experience, neighborhood communities in New York City and life itself.

The movie was supposed to be released last June, but was delayed by the coronavirus health crisis. The film’s director, however, thinks the delay was not necessarily a bad thing. Moviegoers might be ready for some energetic music, singing and dancing after a year of restricted life.

In the Heights Director Jon M. Chu calls the movie, “a vaccine of joy.”

“On the first day of shooting, we all got in a circle and I was like: Let go of all the pressure. Let’s just entertain…these people,” Chu remembers.

On Wednesday, In the Heights played at the Tribeca Film Festival with showings across New York City. It has won praise from critics.

The filmmakers hope In the Heights can be for Latinos what Black Panther was for Black Americans and what Crazy Rich Asians was for Asian Americans. Hispanics are the largest minority in the United States. They make up an even larger percentage of moviegoers. But, the minority is underrepresented in Hollywood productions.

Chu said, in the end, it is moviegoers who decide. Crazy Rich Asians, which Chu also directed, was a surprise pop culture hit that led to changes in the movie industry.

“For the culture!”

In the Heights tells a story about a Dominican-American store owner Usnavi who dreams of returning to the Caribbean area. Miranda himself played Usnavi in the theater version. Actor Anthony Ramos, a native of New York City’s Bushwick area, performs the part in the movie.

Ramos said he experienced many of the things shown in the movie. “There are shots of the food that I grew up eating, the music that I grew up listening to,” he said.

A sense of responsibility weighed on Ramos during the filming in Washington Heights. Before shooting, Ramos would shout to the crew: “For the culture!” — a custom he learned from director Spike Lee while working on one of his movies.

“It meant that we are all here, in this moment, doing this film and telling this story for something that is way bigger than any [of] us,” said Ramos. “This is for everybody who had to sacrifice, who had to break doors open.”

Director: 'This is what we’re here for'

Many performers involved in the first In the Heights Broadway show appear in the movie’s final song and dance. Students from a nearby high school also can be seen in the film. The students had produced their own In the Heights show which the filmmakers watched and found moving.

“It just showed us: This is what we’re here for,” said Chu.

Others starring in the movie include Leslie Grace as Nina Rosario, a college student home for the summer; Corey Hawkins as Benny, a taxi driver; and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, a beauty salon worker trying to get her own home. Thirty-year-old Barrera said the part she plays as a young woman seeking a better future away from home — is basically herself.

Barrera was born in Mexico.

“I feel like I’ve worked really hard in my career but there’s always something, like, what is it that I’m missing?” said Barrera. “I was that girl. I left Mexico. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to become a performer in my hometown.”

When the film was early in development, there was an interest in getting famous singers to play some parts. But Miranda strongly believed that In the Heights should help grow the Latino stars the industry has been lacking. The creators also decided to include some current issues in the story.

“Once we decided on now, there was a lot of room to grow,” said Quiara Alegría Hudes. She wrote the screenplay and, earlier, the book for the theater production. “I live in Washington Heights. Part of how I write is by just walking around and listening.”

Miranda has seen many changes since the first 2008 Broadway performance. He noted that theater attendance numbers for Latinos went up in 2008, the year his musical was released. Then, he said the numbers decreased.

“In a lot of ways, time has caught up to In the Heights,” Miranda said.

I’m Caty Weaver. And I'm Dan Novak.

The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

ambition –n. a desire to be successful, powerful or famous

interview –n. a meeting between a reporter and another person in order to get information for a news story

role –n. the character played by an actor

entertain –v. to perform for other people by singing, dancing or doing other activities

careern. a job or profession that someone does for a long time

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