In New York’s Washington Heights, a young Dominican man is shutting down the corner store where he has labored for years to return to the island of his birth. A budding young fashion designer prepares to ditch the neighborhood for swankier digs downtown. The local hair salon is being priced out and has to relocate to the Bronx. The neighborhood is changing — facing issues of gentrification and displacement — and at risk of losing its Latin soul.
When Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” landed on Broadway in 2008, it brought a desperately needed blast of Latino culture to the Broadway stage, where the number of roles that go to Latino actors generally hover in the single digits. (For decades, anything Latino in musicals has pretty much been relegated to Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” — which debuted in 1957 — and Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit,” which premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978, then landed on Broadway the following year.)
Now “In the Heights” is set to do for the movies what it did on Broadway: Bring the stories of present-day, everyday Latinos to life. And not a moment too soon. A lot has changed in Hollywood, it might seem, since #OscarsSoWhite in 2016. Black films and filmmakers were pushed to the fore and scored box office and critical success with films like “Get Out” and “Black Panther.” Asian and Asian American filmmakers also bounded into the mainstream with Oscar-winning films like “Parasite” and “Nomadland.” Latinos, with rare exceptions — think: Disney’s animated hit “Coco” or Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” — remain far from a semblance of parity.
The film version of “In the Heights” was placed in the hands of Jon M. Chu, director of the hit rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians,” who brings his sumptuous, cinematic style to Miranda’s Latin music inflected musical. For Miranda, it’s a blast into the past: “In the Heights” was the key precursor to his 2015 Broadway smash, “Hamilton.” It was a harbinger of other theatrical success too: The play’s book (and the film’s screenplay) was written by Quiara Alegria Hudes — who went on to win the 2012 Pulitzer for drama.
So how does “In the Heights” meet this moment in Hollywood? Los Angeles Times culture writers — a Mexican, a Chilean Peruvian and a Cuban Belizean — gathered for a virtual screening and discussed.
SUZY EXPOSITO: When the show first opened on Broadway, I was a college student in New York City — but too broke and too punk for theater. That said, within the first minute of this movie, I could just smell the burnt bodega coffee, which is a good sign.
CAROLINA A. MIRANDA: I did not see it on stage. But I was living in New York when “In the Heights” came out. And I remember the ripple of excitement when it landed — for the story, for the music and for the fact that it was about everyday people in a very Latino corner of the city.
DANIEL HERNANDEZ: I have to say up front that I get Lin-Manuel Miranda and admire his arc tremendously, but his style of musical is not 100% my taste — this frenetic rap-opera vibe that always feels like you’re just trying to catch your breath: So New York, right?! However I’m here for New York Latin Urbanism as a baseline setting of anything. For Lin-Manuel this is like his pre/post-"Hamilton,” if you will, and I’ve always been curious.
MIRANDA: I do really appreciate the quotidian aspects of the landscape he zeroes in on. This is not skyscraper Fifth Avenue New York. It’s where working people live — the people who make those other parts of New York hum. It’s the corner bodega serving too-sweet coffee, the car service dispatch office, the local Caribbean joint. It’s the sweaty apartment party with its steaming pots of ropa vieja stew and arroz con gandules (aka pigeon peas). Right after watching the film, I’ll confess that I went to the supermarket and bought some gandules.
EXPOSITO: As someone typically averse to showtunes but a huge fan of salsa, this musical was not nearly as insufferable as I thought it would be. But I guarantee that if you visited present-day Washington Heights, you’d be hearing more dembow and drill music in the streets than salsa.