Thirteen years after its Broadway premiere, In the Heights, the musical that launched Lin-Manuel Miranda’s career, was released in theaters and on HBO Max, a cinematic adaptation for the streaming era. Miranda wrote the music and lyrics for the original production, and he starred as the story’s young and restless narrator, Usnavi. This was Miranda’s first Broadway musical, nominated for 13 Tony Awards and winning Best Musical several years before Miranda debuted his magnum opus, Hamilton. Miranda plays a minor part—a singing piragüero—in this new movie version helmed by Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu. But his signature is emblazoned all across this story about his adopted hometown, the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. It’s been a year or so since New York City looked so alive.
Just as in the theater production, Usnavi de la Vega—now played by Hamilton alumnus Anthony Ramos—owns a bodega in the area but considers moving to the Dominican Republic to take over his late father’s business. In the meantime, Usnavi introduces us to his neighbors; he’s more narrator than protagonist. This is very much an ensemble drama, and the story unravels into loose threads with tight choreography, bright music, and low stakes. There’s a neighborhood frenzy to track down a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000. There’s also a sweltering summer blackout that sends everyone dancing into the streets to keep cool.
In this story, there’s the core intergenerational tension between the local elders and the young escapists. The old, glowing matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) watches over the neighborhood, and the proud, entrepreneurial father Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) insists on putting his daughter Nina through college despite her demoralizing freshman year at Stanford. Usnavi plots his great escape to the Dominican Republic, and his dream girl Vanessa struggles to finalize her own ambitious relocation downtown. The younger characters are all struggling in some form or another to find their place in the neighborhood.
If you enjoy Hamilton, you may well enjoy In the Heights. If you loathe Hamilton, you may still enjoy In the Heights since at least this musical doesn’t require you to humor a rapping federalist. Here the actors aren’t so overburdened by Miranda’s cornier hip-hop sensibilities; the variety of the music tracks the diversity of the neighborhood. The actors snap back and forth between hip-hop and bachata; between popping and mambo. The splashiest musical number, “96,000,” performed as a pool party, spans “Deep Cover” and water ballet. But there’s no shortage of standard ballads more so distinguished by the visual splendor. In “When the Sun Goes Down,” Nina and Benny (Corey Hawkins) dance across the side of a building overlooking the George Washington Bridge.
The movie runs two hours and 23 minutes, overstuffed with so many different perspectives in an admittedly dense neighborhood. And yet Miranda and Chu have faced criticism for casting so many light-skinned actors to dramatize a neighborhood that’s largely Black and Dominican. “In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short,” Miranda said a couple days after the movie opened at the box office. The release of this feel-good movie musical has gotten rather acrimonious.
This backlash against the casting for In the Heights might have landed a bit softer if Miranda wasn’t otherwise so emphatic about the profound power of racial representation in his work. It’s this relentless sentimentality as well as the sociopolitical significance implied in so much of the praise he receives—more than any particular fault in Hamilton or In the Heights—that tends to turn people against Lin-Manuel Miranda. In popular entertainment he’s a star, but in political discourse he’s a caricature: a bougie liberal nostalgic for Barack Obama who in recent years has become radicalized, but only in the most ridiculous sense of the word, by Donald Trump.
The Hamilton cast confronting Mike Pence on Broadway a couple weeks after Trump’s election was Miranda’s last fashionable moment in politics; he now strikes many critics, and even the progressives in his own fandom, as a living memento of the corniest pop culture under Obama. He’s a champion for racial diversity in entertainment but also a testament to the limits of that mission in the grand scheme of things. It doesn’t surprise me to see him now buckling under the inevitable disenchantment.
It’s hard to think of a popular entertainer who’s suffered a starker whiplash in critical regard over the past decade. Miranda hasn’t just apologized for the casting for In the Heights; he’s also recently expressed some regret, in response to long-standing criticism, for glossing the Founding Fathers in Hamilton—criticism now echoed loudly in corners that once muted these complaints during the original run on Broadway. More than anyone else in Hollywood, Miranda embodies the ungainly tension between progressive praxis on one hand and popular entertainment on the other. His earnestness bolsters his work but then doubles back to undermine and embarrass him on his own terms. He’s doing too little and too much at once.
But that’s the classic condition of theater kids, I suppose, and Miranda just so happens to be the biggest theater kid of them all. In the Heights may have sagged at the box office, bewildering critics who mostly raved about the movie, but I can’t imagine Miranda and his musical sensibilities falling out of commercial favor any time soon. Hearing Sonny slip into Big Pun’s “Little Italy” cadence at the community pool, I know I’m hearing the new vernacular of musical theater as only Miranda can write it. He’s quaint, but he’s catchy. He’s cringe, but that’s Broadway, baby.