‘In the Heights’ brings awareness through musical genre

By Marilyn MacLaren, Staff Writer

“In the Heights” (2021) is a musical drama adapted from the stage production of the same name. Directed by Jon M. Chu, the film stars Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, who dreams of moving back to the Dominican Republic and leaving behind the poverty and lack of opportunity in his Washington Heights neighborhood. The film also stars Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace and Corey Hawkins as a diverse cast of characters each working to achieve their own dreams of success, only to find what they have been looking for has been there all along.

One of the songs that best represents the individual struggles each character faces in the scope of the societal limits of their upbringing and cultural background is “96,000.” The lyrics shift between upbeat hopes about what each character will do if they win the $96,000 lottery to depressing realities of how much this money means to the community and how it can benefit further positive development. The song even explicitly addresses the lack of awareness for lower-income neighborhoods like Washington Heights having less access to resources, mentioning gentrification and education. 

“In the Heights” was originally a Tony Award-winning musical based on various concepts, music and lyrics by Lin Manuel Miranda, who wrote the production during his sophomore year in college in 1999. The official off-Broadway production debuted in 2007 and was followed by a three-year Broadway run and numerous international productions, the most recent of which was in 2019. 

Considering the 22-year development of the musical, the attention to detail of the film adaptation and careful translation from the stage to the screen show how seamlessly the plot integrates this new medium. Scenes of specific musical numbers that fans will recognize take advantage of special effects and unique camera angles to capture the scene and reinvent it for new audiences. Miranda even makes a cameo as the character Piraguero, waving a Puerto Rican flag during the “Carnaval del Barrio” sequence.

Arguably one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film is a musical sequence that features Abuela Claudia, played by Olga Merediz, reflecting on the challenges she has faced throughout her life. Merediz previously played the character in the stage production of “In the Heights,” and her passion and dedication to the role shine throughout the film.

Growing up in New York as an immigrant family from Cuba, Abuela Claudia sings in heartbreaking detail of the struggles she and her mother faced moving to a new country, finding work, and overcoming the language barrier. In the question, “Are you better off than you were with the birds of La Vibora?” she reflects, measuring the price of her dignity for a place in American society. It’s a very real, raw internal conflict that brings depth to Abuela Claudia’s character and her place as a matriarchal figure in the Washington Heights community.

A bit clichéd at times is to be expected from any musical film adaptation, yet “In the Heights” prevails in presenting current social issues and promoting awareness in creative ways that speak to a larger audience through a diverse cast of Latinx representation.

 

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