Before Hamilton, there was In The Heights. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other musical isn’t about the origins of the United States of America, but it’s just as interested in identity, immigrant stories, and banging hip-hop songs – this time centred around the predominantly Latin-American inhabitants of New York’s Washington Heights district, facing the pressures of gentrification and rising rents amid their hopes and dreams for love and success.
In The Heights is set to hit the big screen in 2020 courtesy of a film adaptation by Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu – a filmmaker who knows a thing or two about joyous, diverse, culturally-specific stories that sing on a universally-relatable level. Empire caught up with the director to break down the film’s dazzling first trailer.
Beyond The Heights
At the centre of the story is bodega owner Usnavi, played by original Hamilton cast member Anthony Ramos. In a new addition for the movie, he’s seen telling his story to a group of kids on a beach somewhere that looks decidedly unlike New York. “That’s a new framing device,” Chu confirms. “We’re in a different era. Washington Heights is past gentrification. It’s happened. It’s less about, ‘Let’s fight the mayor and make sure we stay in our building’, and more about, ‘The change happened, so what are the most important things to pass forward?’ Our ancestors came here with bags in their hands. So what are we putting in our bags to pass on to our kids? I loved this idea of having an older Usnavi looking back on his life. It was really helpful for us in the structure of the movie.”
Good Morning, Usnavi
Back in the main thrust of the story, Usnavi is running his bodega – and introducing himself to the audience via the show’s opening number. “He lives with Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who’s not really his abuela (grandma), but she’s sort of the matriarch of the block,” says Chu. “She did not have kids, so she’s adopted all the kids on the block, basically.”
The legendary Jimmy Smits steps into the bodega as Mr. Kevin Rosario. He runs his own cab company from the neighbourhood, but faces heartbreak when his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) returns from Stanford University for the summer having secretly dropped out. “We are so lucky to have him,” says Chu of Smits. “What Michelle Yeoh brings in Crazy Rich Asians, he brings here – this gravitas, experience, his protective nature. Even though he is in opposition to his daughter of what he thinks is right for her, it’s so much out of love. It’s really hard for the audience to be on Nina’s side, when you have that kind of love.”
The Loveliest Girl In The Place
Ah yes, the classic knock-a-box-of-Graham-Crackers-on-the-floor flirting technique. This is Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works in the local salon – and who Usnavi is trying to build up the courage to ask on a date. “Vanessa has a dream of moving downtown and becoming a fashion designer, which is new to our movie,” reveals Chu. “She wanted to move downtown in the show, but we didn’t know why. Usnavi’s always had a crush on her.”
Playing With The Boys
Usnavi isn’t alone in the bodega – his precocious young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) helps him run it (“He’s figuring out his life,” Chu says). Plus, he has frequent visits from friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works at Mr. Rosario’s cab company – and has a burning desire to strike up a relationship with Nina. Each character has their own wants and desires, whether it’s to try and stay in the neighbourhood despite the escalating rents, to move elsewhere, or to chase some other ambition. “Everybody has dreams, everybody has hope, everybody sees the changes in different way,” says Chu. “Some people are rebelling with it, some people survive and take advantage of it, other people complain about it. There are all these different perspectives of how you deal with change in a community.”
The Main Man
Here he is – Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. He has the small but important role of ‘Piragua Guy’, who serves refreshing shaved ice to the locals. “Piragua Guy was always the most fun place for Lin,” Chu explains. “It’s the spiritual centre of the block, the representation of the struggle, just scraping by. And yet he has this unending positive engine in him. No matter what Mr. Softee’s doing, no matter if they have power or not, every day he brings joy to that block by giving them that ice. That’s what Lin does.”
The College Dropout
Here’s Nina, Mr. Rosario’s daughter, who carries the shame of having dropped out of college, and the fear of having to tell her nearest and dearest. She’s staring out at the George Washington Bridge, which connects right to the heart of Washington Heights. “The GWB is one of the biggest presences in the neighbourhood – you can see it, you can feel it, everyone’s coming in or leaving the city” says Chu. “Someone like Nina has grown up with this bridge looming over her. This idea that you can do anything, go anywhere – that’s the way out, the yellow brick road. When you go out into the world and you come back defeated, that shadow continues to loom and haunt you.”