Before Lin-Manuel Miranda became “the man behind Hamilton” he wrote the music and lyrics for Quiara Alegría Hudes’s book In the Heights – a production that showcases the vibrant Dominican and Latino communities living in the New York City neighbourhood of Washington Heights.
Originally staged in 2008, the story has now got a second life after capitalising on Hamilton’s success, widening the reach of its immigrant-based narrative.
Anthony Ramos (Hamilton, A Star is Born) is Usnavi de le Vega, a second generation immigrant who owns a small bodega (grocery store) on a local block. He saves every hard-won penny hoping to move back to the Dominican Republic, singing and dreaming about the better life he would have returning to his roots.
His crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) frequents the store, and when Usnavi finally gets the courage to ask her out, his plans to move away may come undone.
From the opening number to the rhythm of the dialogue, fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda will hear his voice all over In the Heights.
There’s an excitement and energy that fills every note, and the choreography is infused with colour and passion that celebrates the characters’ heritage and makes for an absolute musical feast.
Sold as a “fiesta”, the party feel of the movie is to be expected but its real beauty is in how it deals with the idea of “a dream” and the tensions that can exist around our pursuit of it.
Usnavi longs to return to his hometown where he remembers having “the best time of his life”. He wants to restore his dad’s old restaurant and bring pride to his family name. Vanessa wants to be a designer and move to Manhattan (or at least be accepted by the upper class), and their friend Nina is struggling to stay connected to her culture as she nervously carves an uncharted academic path.
It may sound like a familiar narrative: teens come-of-age while trying to chase their dreams in the big city, but In the Heights is slightly more imaginative.
When we think of our “dreams” so often they’re seen as things we can achieve if only we lived/moved/worked somewhere else. They call us “out there” and stir us to go beyond our present boundaries.
This musical tweaks that perspective and makes you wonder, ‘What if instead of pursuing “your dream” you pursued growth?”.
It’s the foundation for our next step, not something to escape.
“Dreams” can make the present feel like a bug-bear or a weight to overcome, but if growth is our goal our immediate reality is a platform to get there. It’s the foundation for our next step, not something to escape.
In the Heights has been criticised for the lack of diversity in its cast, but that really undermines what is a vibrant cultural celebration. Aspects of it may be seen to be incomplete, but the critique pulls focus from the movie’s positive age-inclusive casting and its unashamed acceptance of all shapes and sizes and how they choose to move.
In the Heights is in cinemas now. Rated PG