IT’S A FREEZING DECEMBER NIGHT in New York City, but uptown, at the 809 Bar & Grill in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan, it feels like a Caribbean Christmas party. Servers pass trays with tiny bowls of asopao de pollo; at the bar you can order a glass of coquito, the traditional Puerto Rican Christmas drink made with coconut and rum; and Bad Bunny plays through the speakers. A collection of journalists, industry professionals, and friends of the hundreds-strong cast have gathered to watch the premiere of the In the Heights trailer. The crowd is buzzing, even before the cast appears. When the trailer finally plays, people begin cheering—the kind of cheer that says, I was there, or maybe even, That’s my best friend onscreen!
“You’re going to hear the word magic a lot today,” the director, Jon M. Chu, tells the group. “There’s no other word to express what we felt shooting this movie every day.”
“It was the best summer of our lives,” adds Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and lyrics to accompany a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes.
A bit of backstory: In the Heights was first drafted by Miranda when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan University in 1999 and then staged by a-student-run theater group. After hearing about the production (and obtaining a CD of the music), Thomas Kail, a Wesleyan alumnus, approached Miranda with the idea of preparing it to be shown off-Broadway. For the next few years, Kail and Miranda worked on multiple drafts—eventually bringing in Hudes, a respected playwright introduced to Miranda in 2004, to work on the book, and an updated version opened off-Broadway in 2007. A year later the musical moved to Broadway, where it won four Tony Awards (including Best Musical), the Grammy for Best Musical Show Album, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009. It ran at the Richard Rodgers Theatre until 2011. “If you can imagine Do the Right Thing mellowing out, learning Spanish, and bursting frequently into song, you’d get near In the Heights,” began an early review in New York magazine. “This story could have been a simple screed against gentrification, but it’s not,” added the critic Jeremy Mc-Carter, calling it “an unusually subtle treatment of the force that’s remaking 21st-century New York.” In the Heights was bought by the Weinstein Company in 2016, but Miranda and Hudes managed to regain the rights before the production company went into bankruptcy proceedings in March 2018.
The musical tells the story of Usnavi (Miranda in the initial Broadway production), a young man who runs a bodega in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan but whose heart is in the Dominican Republic—and who dreams of returning to his family’s Caribbean home. Surrounding him is a chorus of local personalities, each resisting or becoming an agent of change. There is Nina, who makes it “out”—to Stanford University, where, unbeknownst to her proud father, she is struggling. Benny, one of the few non-Latino characters, works for the car-service company owned by Nina’s father while pining for his daughter. Then there’s Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest, an aspiring designer who longs for a downtown apartment, away from the gossipy, sometimes claustrophobic barrio in which she’s grown up.