Most people know Hamilton, it’s the biggest musical in the world, and has had such a wide reaching appeal beyond the normal scope of musical theatre. But before Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, alongside writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, made In The Heights, a musical about the New York neighbourhood of Washington Heights.
Now director Jon M. Chu directs the cinematic adaptation, with Hudes returning as the screenwriter, and Miranda as a Producer and performer. I never got to see the stage version of In The Heights, but what you can gather from the soundtrack and clips is the vibrancy and energy of the show, and that is what Chu really had to capture when translating the story for the big screen.
And that is In The Heights’ greatest strength. This film is an absolute feast for the senses. The musical numbers are often big and ballistic, packed with colour, brilliant choreography, and a real joie de vivre as they celebrate the culture of Washington Heights, and it’s principally Latin-American population. Alongside this the film has Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stunning soundtrack, with many of the brilliant musical numbers from the stage show, although some unfortunately do get cut to bring the run time down and tighten up the story. If you’re familiar with the rap influences in Hamilton, then it will not surprise you to learn that Miranda originated that idea in the music for In The Heights, on this occasion mixing it with all varieties of latin music.
And backing up this exceptional soundtrack are some great performances. Taking over Miranda’s lead role of Usnavi is Anthony Ramos, probably best known for appearing in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton, and he’s outstanding. He’s someone who shares a lot in common with Usnavi’s journey in the film, so he really understands the character on a deep level, not to mention the fact he’s a brilliant performer. On top of that you have a number of other brilliant musical performers like Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, and Daphne Rubin-Vega, who are all stunning, and some terrific actors like Jimmy Smits and Stephanie Beatriz. The big surprise though was Corey Hawkins, someone best known for appearing in action and drama films, but shows not only what a charming romantic lead he is, but what a singer as well.
I mentioned that there were a few cut songs, but they are not the only changes from the original stage show. In fact writer Quiara Alegría Huden makes a few changes, both to make the film flow a bit better for cinematic run time, to update the story a little for 2021, and to really nail some of the character arcs and dynamics a little better. And impressively the majority of these changes really work, although there are a couple that don’t. Most impactful is the moving of Abuela Claudia’s number ‘Paciencia y Fe’ to really become one of the emotional crutches of the film. The film also fleshes out the arcs for Sonny and Nina, to give both more direction or resolution. Sadly Benny feels like the character who loses out, which is a shame, because he was always one of my favourites, but on reflection I do understand why.
One of the biggest changes that struck me was the removal of in-fighting and discord within the community, instead focusing on external threats and issues. By this I mean the removal of one story line where Benny is excluded by another character for being black and not latino. Similarly a small change in the song ‘Blackout’ sees Sonny and Graffiti Pete focus on lighting up the neighbourhood for the community rather than to scare off looters. I love these changes because the film becomes about celebrating the community, and truly that’s what the In The Heights film is, a joyous celebration.