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'In The Heights' making Latino history on stage and screen

Miranda may be a household name today thanks to the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Hamilton. But fans of the Puerto Rican actor, composer and lyricist know it all started with In The Heights.
11 Jun 2021 – 06:00 PM EDT
Lin-Manuel Miranda behind the scene of the movie In The Heights. Crédito: Warner Bros

Fans flocked outside of New York’s United Palace to catch a glimpse of Lin-Manuel Miranda and other stars of In The Heights as they walked the red carpet at the landmark theater.

Miranda, smiling, hopped on a barricade and waved to them as people held up their cell phones to capture the moment: a mainstream film about Washington Heights making its world premiere in the heart of the same neighborhood.

After being delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, In The Heights kicked off the opening night of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival on June 9.

Miranda may be a household name today thanks to the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Hamilton. But fans of the Puerto Rican actor, composer and lyricist know it all started with In The Heights.

The story follows Usnavi, a Dominican bodega owner, as well as his family and friends in one of New York City’s predominantly Latino neighborhoods, as they navigate community struggles and strive toward personal dreams.

Miranda, 41, was a 19-year-old student at Wesleyan University when he penned the first version of the hit musical in 1999. In The Heights premiered on Broadway in 2008 with Miranda in its lead role. That year, the show went on to win best musical at the 62nd Annual Tony Awards. It also served as the start of Miranda’s relationships with his most well known collaborators, including with playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, musical director Alex Lacamoire, and director Thomas Kail.

“I want to thank all of my Latino people!” Miranda said during an emotional acceptance speech on stage at the Tony’s.

Watch this week's episode of Real America with Jorge Ramos, featuring an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda: Click here

Now, In The Heights is not just making Latino history on stage but on screen with a new movie adaption of the hit musical directed by Jon M. Chu, director of the movie Crazy Rich Asians.

“Only five notes made it from the original version I wrote,” Miranda told Real America with Jorge Ramos. “Everything else has changed. What hasn’t is the spirit of the Latin music and writing Latin hip hop. I wanted it to sound like a block in Washington Heights," he added.

Singer and actor Anthony Ramos, who also worked with Miranda in Hamilton, plays Usnavi in the film and leads the screen adaptation’s mostly Latino cast. They include a mix of well-known names and newcomers including singer Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera ( Vida), Jimmy Smits ( The West Wing), Dascha Polanco ( Orange Is The New Black), and Stephanie Beatriz ( Brooklyn Nine-Nine).

“I’ve never seen anything where there’s 75 Latinos in the middle of the street singing and singing about pride where they come from,” said Ramos about the movie.

The film was shot primarily on location in the iconic uptown Manhattan neighborhood. According to the NYU Furman Center, nearly 70 percent of its residents identify as Latino. It is home to Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, as well as other Hispanic groups through the years.

“To be able to shoot the movie in Washington Heights, the place where I wrote my original love letter, was very special,” said Miranda, who still lives there with his wife and two children.

Another personal touch to the film is reflected in Miranda’s on-screen character, the piragua vendor. With a cart full of mamey, he makes various appearances throughout the movie’s storylines and serves as an homage to Miranda’s late grandfather.

“My grandfather passed away one week after In The Heights debuted on Broadway. He was my best friend in our family. And he was the only one who wasn’t there to see the success of the show,” said Miranda. “So I wore my grandfather’s glasses in the movie. I also wore his shirt and carried the Western books by Estefania that he always had tucked in his back pocket. It was my way of honoring my grandfather in this movie.”

In The Heights was praised as being ahead of its time politically when it brought the issues facing communities of color, such as gentrification, systemic racism, and immigration to a mainstream audience in 2008.

"What about immigration, politicians be hatin'. Racism in this nation's gone from latent to blatant” sings Usnvi’s younger cousin in 96,000, one of the show’s most popular musical numbers.

However, Hudes and Miranda worked on making other re-writes to the film that better reflect the nation’s current Latino community, including references to Dreamers facing deportation.

“You know, we always talk about the timing of In The Heights. But it’s timing was in 2008. It’s always a good time to represent Latinos because we’re the fastest growing population in the country,” said Miranda.

"It’s a reminder we’re the next chapter of the United States. In 10 years, or in 5 years, I want people to say what was such a big deal about ‘In The Heights’ because there are so many Latino movies coming out." he added.

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