Years before “Hamilton” debuted, it was a musical titled “In the Heights” that introduced the world to its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. It was his first Broadway hit, winning the 2008 Tony Award for best musical and putting him on his path to critical acclaim.
While it didn’t explode on the same scale as “Hamilton,” it shares a lot of similarities. Those familiar themes and the kind of heart you’d expect from Miranda have successfully transitioned from the stage to the silver screen with the newly adapted movie of “In the Heights.”
Filmed as a traditional movie musical, not a stage recording, it’s a love story to New York. More specifically, it’s an ode to the tight-knit, largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights. The story centers around Usnavi, who is telling a group of children his story. He is played by Anthony Ramos, who “Hamilton” fans will remember as John Laurens and Philip Hamilton. Usnavi has his sights set on returning home to the Dominican Republic, where he remembers the best times of his life taking place.
The role of Usnavi was originally played by Lin-Manuel Miranda on the Broadway stage. Miranda takes a minor role in the movie as Piragüero, also known as “Piragua Guy.” Several other familiar faces fill the cast. “Hamilton” alum Christopher Jackson, known for his George Washington, shows up briefly as an ice cream man. Stephanie Beatriz of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” fame and Dascha Polanco from “Orange is the New Black” are a pair of sassy hairdressers.
Most of you will have seen “Hamilton” first, and you will quickly recognize familiar themes that were also prioritized by Miranda years prior in his creation of “In the Heights.” In it, you’ll hear an orphan immigrant lead singing with his pals about the sacrifices made to make a better life in New York.
The hip hop songs have that familiar Miranda cadence and delivery, and even some of the same phrases (rapping about King George’s spending spree in “Hamilton” and Benny rapping that he wouldn’t go on a spending spree if he won the lottery “In the Heights”).
The similarities between the musicals are notable, but what sets apart “In the Heights” is the Latino culture highlighted within Washington Heights. This is the real star of the show. Latino music along with massive, flash mob-style dance numbers energize and separate yet another immigrant American dream story. The Latino culture’s emphasis on community and family is present throughout, giving meaning to the phrase “Home is where the heart is.”
It doesn’t blow us all away quite like “Hamilton,” but “In the Heights” is a heartfelt portrait of the immigrant trying to make a better life. While the American dream has us always wanting more, the musical serves as a reminder that there’s much love and joy to be found in our community, so long as we’ve surrounded ourselves with the right kind of people.
“In the Heights” is available on HBO Max.