In the Heights 19 June 2021

With the announcement that In the Heights would be showing for a month on HBOMax, I thought that was where I would watch. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see it on a big screen. I never got to see West Side Story the way it was meant to be seen, so this time would be different.

There has been some controversy about the film, which I will address. As my cousin said – let us celebrate what they got right and address where they missed the mark.

During the movie I cried often. Because, again, representation matters. People who look like me celebrating their family and friends.

Lin-Manuel Miranda originally wrote the musical when he was in college. It was an answer to why has there not been another Latinx musical after West Side Story. No musical is going to satisfy everyone and until there are more Latinx behind the scenes there will not be more of our stories. This is only one story.

But this story is not only a love song to Washington Heights but a love song to NYC – our story of how we came to be and how we change but still stay the same. How the new people fight to be accepted. There is a mention of the Irish immigrants who were there before the Latinx moved into the neighborhood. And now the Latinx are being pushed out by those with more money, so the neighborhood people hustle and educate themselves so that they too can be the people with more money.

Like all composers, LMM references himself, so you may hear some riffs that you recognize from Hamilton. And he also references other musicals. The club dance sequence immediately brings to mind the dances at the gym in both West Side Story and Grease. And, of course, all the dancing in the NYC streets makes you think of West Side Story. And the ballet on the side of the building is not only a tip of the hat to Fred Astaire but it also references every musical that has a ballet sequence in it.  

In the opening song, LMM references a Puerto Rican melody (le lo lai) and again in “Carnaval del barrio.” Since these melodies are Puerto Rican and not Dominican, that made me smile. And during the “Carnaval del barrio” he references “Qué bonita bandera,” which is a Puerto Rican song celebrating our flag. (The Puerto Rican flag was outlawed in Puerto Rico from 1948-1957 because it was seen as a symbol of independence so that song and celebrating your flag – no matter the country – is something Puerto Ricans celebrate.)

When first written the musical was a bunch of songs in search of a plot. Quiara Alegría Hudes took those songs and wrote the book, making sense of the story. She, along with others from the original Broadway cast, are in a blink and you will miss them cameo in the “Finale.”  (Also, stick it out until the credits are over to see a reprise of “Piragua” and see LMM and Chris Jackson do a bit.) The first cameo I noticed was LMM’s parents in “Breathe.” I am sure there were others that I missed. Local neighborhood people were also in the movie and their photos were the ones shown during the end credits. It was nice to see the neighborhood through their eyes.  Visual cameos. Vocal/musical cameos. One musical bit I missed that I was told to listen for (hold music on phone) because I was so into what was happening. I thought the song sounded familiar but could not quite place it.

A few things – I do not know any Latina mother who would be doing her kid’s hair in the kitchen. And when they all walked into the apartment for the party for Nina, there should have been a chorus of “Bendición” from each person to Abuela.

Abuela’s story was so similar to that of different people in my family. And the wicker seats on the old train – I still remember those.

Seeing Nina go to the salon to change her hair from straightened back to its wavy natural self.

After the movie was released, Latinx Twitter blew up. Many people said they refused to see the movie because of the colorism. How do you make a movie about Washington Heights and not a single lead Latinx actor is Black? That was a huge error.

LMM apologized and addressed it on Twitter. But if things are to change, there need to be more Latinx making the decisions. I was delighted to see so many Latinx names in the credits. But they were not the decision makers. This story about Gina Torres is a good read also.

Something else is that on Broadway, Nina’s father does not approve of Benny because he is Black. That was taken out of the movie. So again, colorism in our community was not addressed.

All the leads – Anthony Ramos (Usnavi), Melissa Barrera (Vanessa), Leslie Grace (Nina), Corey Hawkins (Benny), Olga Merediz (Abuela Claudia), Jimmy Smits (Kevin Rosario), and Gregory Diaz IV (Sonny) are excellent. As are Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, and Dascha Polanco in supporting roles. Marc Anthony always blows me away and he does so again in a small role. Jon M Chu does a fabulous job of opening up the play and taking advantage of the neighborhood, which another character in the film.

This is a musical that celebrates NYC but can speak to anyone who comes from an immigrant background. Or anyone who has to fight to be heard and seen. It is fun and big. And it speaks to everyone.

By Carene Lydia Lopez