Washington Heights is that multicultural neighborhood just north of Harlem in New York City. I’ve been there many times and noticed its slow gentrification. I went there again this week with a new movie, a joyous musical called “In the Heights.”
At various times the Heights has been home to German Jews, Greek Americans and Russian Americans, but throughout the 1960s and ‘70s white residents began to leave the neighborhood for nearby suburbs as Blacks and Latinos moved in. Today, the Heights is a tapestry of Latino cultures — Dominican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican, among others. But little by little, as Manhattan real estate prices have increased, whites are returning, squeezing out the same populations that squeezed them out back in the day.
Famous residents of Washington Heights have included calypso singer Harry Belafonte, opera diva Maria Callas, actor Laurence Fishburne, baseball greats Lou Gehrig and Alex Rodriguez, sportscaster Vin Scully, comedian Freddie Prinze, rock ‘n roller Frankie Lymon, actress Leslie Uggams, comic book king Stan Lee and rapper Cardi B.
Oh yes, also Lin-Manuel Miranda. He grew up in Inwood and the adjacent Heights neighborhood.
You know Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer and star of the mega-hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.” He has received a Pulitzer Prize, two Laurence Olivier Awards, three Tonys, three Grammys, an Emmy, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a Kennedy Center Honor.
“In the Heights” was his first Broadway play. He wrote the first draft of this lament against gentrification while he was still a student at Wesleyan. In 2008, it made its way to Broadway, racking up 1,185 performances during various runs.
Now, with the clout of Miranda’s “Hamilton” success, his well-tuned partnership with screenwriter and playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes and helmed by director John M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), “In the Heights” is heading to the silver screen today in Greenville at the Regal and well as showing on HBO Max.
At its heart, “In the Heights” is a time capsule, a vivid example of cultural memory. This is “the story of a block that was disappearing” — and the people who call it home.
This exuberant musical explores the meaning of belonging.
The streets are “made of music” in this visit to Washington Heights, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mixology of rap, hip-hop, salsa, merengue, samba and even R&B, perfect when combined with Christopher Scott’s propulsive Busby Berkeley-style choreography.
Here, the story is told by Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos of “Hamilton”), a bodega owner in Washington Heights who has big dreams of reopening his father’s beachside bar in the Dominican Republic. “A dream isn’t some sparkly diamond, there’s no shortcuts. Sometimes it’s rough,” says Usnavi. “But there’s a chance —right?”
Hope resonates throughout the entire story. Instead of feeling sorry of themselves, the people on the block sing praise of their culture. They take pride in where they come from while integrating their myriad past cultures into the Heights.
But f or now, Usnavi runs the corner store with the help of his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), a cheeky teenage activist. Most of the neighbors are introduced to us as they stop by the bodega for a cup of coffee.
YDuring the film’s 2 hours and 33 minutes, song and dance fills the streets, overflows into a community pool, invades a swinging nightclub, follows a dreamy candlelight vigil. While the songs are perhaps not as memorable as Miranda’s more mature work in “Hamilton,” you’ll still be bowled over by the show-stopping celebratory “Carnaval del Barrio” (featuring Marc Anthony) or “Breathe” (featuring Rubén Blades) or find yourself humming “Home All Summer” (along with Anthony Ramos and Leslie Grace).