“In the Heights, it gets more expensive every day.”
That’s the message from the fictional residents of the real community of Washington Heights in New York – the focus of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s latest release.
Already synonymous with the record-breaking Hamilton (which is about to hit Broadway and West End stages again), Miranda’s first musical, the Tony-winning In The Heights, highlights the struggles – and joys – of living in this mostly Latino community in the Big Apple.
It first ran on Broadway in 2008 – but now 13 years on, the unique issues that community faces remain the same – a reflection on society in the real world.
In just two hours and 20 minutes, we hear about undocumented immigrants, ICE (Immigration Compliance and Enforcement) raids, racism, gentrification and poverty in this diverse neighbourhood – as well as the joy and excitement of a community that is talked about so little in mainstream cinema.
And it wouldn’t be a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical without his rap numbers, comic relief, big dance breaks and catchy pop tunes.
“It’s never a bad time to remind people of our humanity,” Miranda, who grew up in the real Washington Heights, told Sky News, when asked why now was a good time to bring this musical to the big screen.
He added: “It’s always going to be relevant.
“There’s such a meagre representation of Latinos in a positive light in mainstream media that it’s always going to feel like now is the perfect time because it’s always overdue.
“We filmed this in the summer of 2019 and the poignancy and power of seeing people in community together, like singing and hugging each other and kissing, dancing in the streets is the power of what we can do together, I think really radiates off the screen, and as the kids say, ‘it hits different’ now than it may have at an earlier time.”
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Miranda is one of the most in-demand people in showbiz – hot off the heels of his record and ground-breaking musical Hamilton, he has penned songs, acted in movies and voice characters for a number of projects.
And it doesn’t stop there – he is making his directorial debut soon with Netflix’s Tick, Tick… Boom and he’s on board for the live-action remake for The Little Mermaid.
In The Heights, which has a cast entirely made up of Latino performers and was co-written with Quiara Alegría Hudes, is centred around Usnavi (named after the time his father spotted a US Navy ship sailing by their home country of the Dominican Republic), who dreams of ditching his bodega (or corner shop to us Britons) and flying back to the Caribbean.
He’s played by Anthony Ramos, who UK fans might know, again, from Hamilton, where he played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton.
“Usnavi is a guy that… cares about his community,” he told Sky News.
“He takes care of his cousin, he takes care of, she’s not really his grandmother, but the matriarch of the block, if you will, and of the community.
“Both his parents passed away, he inherited a business that he didn’t ask for, but he does it with as much grace as possible.”
He adds that the character is relatable to everyone, saying: “Who hasn’t gone through that? Where you have days with some good, some not so good. It’s just it’s just a story about community and people in love, and family and music and culture.”
Ramos describes his character as the “invisible thread” that runs through the film as we meet the residents of Washington Heights trying to get through their lives – whether it’s the gossip girls from the salon, his cousin Sonny dealing with his immigration status or Abuela Claudia, who just wants to look after the block.
Sonny, Usnavi’s cousin and assistant in his bodega, is an undocumented citizen – a story that has grown in prominence over the last decade or so in the US due to fierce debates around border crossings – with an estimated 10 million people living in the country without the paperwork.
However, Gregory Diaz III, who plays Sonny, told Sky News that despite the problems sprouting from his character’s immigration status, he wanted to portray the good in his life.
He said: “Not wanting (his immigration status) to be something that defines him or something that holds him down – it’s something that both Sonny and I together want to elevate and really push forward those positive messages.”
And he gets his chance on screen, delivering a powerful rap during musical number 96,000, saying that if he won the lottery, he’d invest in education and technology, adding: “Politicians be hatin’, racism in this nation’s gone from latent to blatant, I’ll cash my ticket and picket, invest in protest, never lose my focus ’til the city takes notice.”
Elsewhere in the film, characters Vanessa and Nina also reflect on their experiences of living in Washington Heights – with both having to deal with racism at some point in the film.
Nina is the first of her family, and everyone she knows, to go to university (at Stanford none the less) with her family sacrificing the business to help her – but she drops out amid fears she is racially profiled by those around her, sharing a story about how she was wrongfully accused of stealing from her roommate on her first day.
Her father, Kevin, who is played by West Wing and Star Wars actor Jimmy Smits, secretly sells his cab company to a wealthy developer (who is slowly taking over the whole block, pricing out the local community) to get her back in – but it is Sonny’s story that gives her the drive to go back to California.
Vanessa dreams of being a fashion designer and has saved a deposit (in cash) for an apartment in Downtown Manhattan where she can work from – however when she goes to hand over the money, she’s told her credit isn’t good enough, despite having cash and rent upfront, before a seemingly middle-class white couple is welcomed into the property instead.
Melissa Barrera, a Mexican music and TV star, who plays Vanessa, told Sky News: “I think it’s a reflection of how a lot of things have not changed in a really long time and how certain communities continue to feel ostracised, especially in countries where they’re minorities.
“I think it’s about time to see their stories told in a positive light and to honour and acknowledge the contributions that communities like these have.”
Leslie Grace, who plays Nina, added: “I think it does reflect that on lots of things we still have a lot of work to do… but it also is aspirational in the sense that we can do it.”
Completing the ensemble we have:
• The salon girls, who share gossip about the Heights in their beauty parlour (Brooklyn 99 fans will spot Stephanie Beatriz ditching the no-nonsense, gruff-voiced attitude of cop Rosa, for the excitable and bouncy hairdresser Carla).
• Benny, played by Walking Dead actor Corey Hawkins, the film’s only black character who works for Nina’s dad and is Usnavi’s best friend, dreams of going to business school. He is worried about the Heights becoming too expensive for the long-standing community there.
• Abuela Claudia, the community matriarch played by Olga Merediz, who performs an emotional number on how her family came from Cuba, lived in relative poverty and didn’t stop working until her parents passed away.
Merediz, who also originated the role of Abuela Claudia on Broadway in 2008, told Sky News: “I want everybody to see us and to see that we are just like everyone else.
“We have dreams like everyone else. We are focused on family, and that we have our nannies or our grandmothers, the rocks of the of the family, the community, that we are hardworking, that we’re joyous, that we’re passionate.“
The person bringing this unique film together is director Jon M Chu, who is perhaps best known as the man behind Crazy Rich Asians.
He told Sky News that the movie shows how people deal with the issues presented to them, saying that “the world is changing and we cannot fight it”.
Chu added: “I’m not from Washington Heights and I’m not Latino, and yet it spoke to me so personally about what it feels like to be raised by your family – not by just your parents or by your aunts and your uncles – by your grandparents and the expectations they put on you and how that can be hard to deal with and finding your own path.”
But amid the political and emotional messaging, and the struggles in the community – the film is bursting full of singing, rapping and dancing.
At its heart, it is a movie musical with big ensemble numbers (96,000, shot at a swimming pool, is already a fan favourite, as is the colourful block-carnival scene), exciting dance breaks and impressive visuals – something which is sure to make it one of the summer’s biggest films.
Miranda sums it up, telling Sky News: “There’s a really specific kind of weightless goose-bumps feeling that only musicals give me. I remember feeling it for the first time in the movies when I saw the Under The Sea number in The Little Mermaid… just feeling like, ‘oh my God, this is a musical number under water!’
“I’ll never forget the feeling of being a little lighter than air walking out of that theatre – I hope people leave our movie with that same feeling.”
In The Heights is out in cinemas across the UK on 18 June, and tickets for Hamilton in the West End are on sale now.