In an effort to be one of the few articles about In The Heights that doesn’t start with “Light’s up on Washington Heights”, I’m going to start this article with a personal anecdote about this very important work.
I remember when In The Heights opened on Broadway in 2008. I remember when it won the Tony Award that year and being so proud that my friends and I could keep up with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant opening rap and feeling so beyond accomplished. Though I have not lived in the Washington Heights neighborhood, as a native New Yorker and theatre kid, I related to this show on a deep and personal level. I was fortunate enough to see it 3 times, once with the original cast (hashtag blessed). I have distinct memories of reading about its journey from a student hip-hop musical at Wesleyan University to the Great White Way. I remember watching the YouTube videos of creator, composer and lyricist, Lin-Manuel Miranda (now of Hamilton fame) rapping and improvising theatre references with co-star Christopher Jackson (who also makes an appearance in the film adaptation of In The Heights), Tommy Kail (Director of the Tony-Winning Broadway Show) among others in an effort to promote the show. And I remember thinking that they were the coolest, most relatable people I’ve ever seen in any form of entertainment.
Flash forward 13 years later and In The Heights is now a blockbuster Hollywood movie, which means a lot of amazing things — better representation, theatre and art can reach the masses, but most importantly, that you don’t need to be in New York to connect to this show. Don’t get me wrong, In The Heights is very much about the Washington Heights neighborhood in upper Manhattan, but the larger point is that at its core, it’s about community and finding home, wherever you are. We were fortunate enough to attend the fashion screening of In The Heights to celebrate its premiere, which was such an exciting experience for many reasons (just being in a movie theatre was a treat in and of itself) – we’ll take you through the night and reflect on what stars Melissa Barrera and Leslie Grace had to say about stepping into these iconic roles, the impact of fashion and the making of the highly acclaimed film adaptation.
Not going to lie, in what we’ll call “precedented times”, I usually dread going to Times Square if not to see a show, but this was different. It felt very special to get off the train and approach the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street, just blocks away from the Richard Rodgers Theatre (where In The Heights hosted its Broadway run and where Hamilton currently resides, well kind of…where it will resume its run on September 14th)
There was nothing but pure excitement rushing through our minds and bodies as we walked into this theatre to see this film…I mean, of course we were also beyond excited about getting movie theatre popcorn, OMG! It’s the little things, truly. I digress, the evening starts with Director Jon M. Chu coming out to say a few words about the making of the film, its relevance to today’s day in age and how special it is for this film to be seen in theatres.
Now for our feature presentation. In a few words, this adaptation was fresh and vibrant – paid respect to the stage version and the entire cast delivered immaculate performances. Special shout out to Anthony Ramos (Usnavi) and Olga Merediz (Abuela Claudia) who flawlessly reprised their roles from the Broadway show.
Picture this: the film has now concluded and the entire theatre (at 33% capacity, of course) is tearing up and applauding loudly. In walks Fashion Designer, Prabal Gurung and stars Melissa Barrera (who portrayed Vanessa in the film) and Leslie Grace (who portrayed Nina in the film) to discuss their experience making the film.
PG: How did you guys feel about making it (the film)?
LG: I mean, we all felt it was going to be life changing. We all felt that we were going to be a part of something historic…I just felt that I was going to be a part of something that paid homage to the people that raised me up because this story hit so close to home for me. I related to Nina in the sense that the community that I know is the community that my mom raised me up in – my mom is a real life salon lady. Her personal salon is a couple blocks away from where we shot all summer and I grew up being empowered by the women who walked into that place, by the women who worked in that place and also going out into the world and feeling fragmented because it didn’t always feel like that acceptance everywhere I went.
MB: It felt important while we were shooting it. I mean, I was a huge fan of the show since it was on Broadway, I went to school for musical theatre – like my dream was to be in that show. And so being a part of the movie for me is crazy – I’ll be honest with you. I used to pray since i was 17 years old, I would say Thank you, G-d, every night because I am Vanessa in In The Heights…and 10 years later I get cast in the movie and it was kind of surreal and also amazing to know that you’re to be a part of something that’s going to mean so much to so many people who have never felt seen in a major Hollywood movie like this or celebrated or like their stories and their voices are important. After watching Crazy Rich Asians (Also directed by Jon M. Chu) – I left the theatre thinking “I want that too.” I celebrate the Asian-American community because I feel like any minority, we all are in the same struggles, you know? I related to that movie so much – when they were making dumplings around the table, I was like this is my family making tortillas, like that’s what we do. I love how communities are coming out and supporting this movie because it’s an American story.
PG: How did the costumes impact you while making the film?
MB: I know for me, it took us a while to get to Vanessa’s style. Because she wants to be a fashion designer – Mitchell Travers, our Costume Designer – we would talk about how much of the clothes does she make or how much does she add, like does add a little thing that makes it a little more creative or is she just like super casual? Her release is through her designs – you know, obviously her limitations are what can afford. Clearly, she runs thru a thrift trash can at the university to get her fabrics and all that stuff and as an actor, for me, once I find myself in the clothes of the character, I find the character. It’s a key thing for me to find how the character movies and how they carry their weight and when they are feeling vulnerable how they dress and when they’re feeling fierce how they dress – it’s all emotional and for me it’s very formative of the character. Like I would get dressed and I would be like no, this isn’t Vanessa…and then when we found that first outfit, the opening outfit. The one with the tights – immediately I was like ohhh! this is her.
LG: Same. I think it was super important and shout out to our wardrobe again and all of the team – they really took the time to discover and have a conversation with us and see who do you think this person is and listened to us and listened to what we were working through in the dance rehearsals and what our movement – because they had to keep a lot in mind. I remember for When The Sun Goes Down, we spent a lot of time choosing that outfit because we’re supposed to defy gravity so I couldn’t have dangles, tassels – everything had to be pasted on, for Corey as well. Earrings, all those details had to be kept in mind, but also the arc of my character, Nina, you see at the top of the movie, she’s coming from Stanford, where we see that she’s conformed a bit to be what she thinks – the hair, I mean pin straight (and girl, rock all your looks if you can), but you can tell that Nina is kinda like…you know you can tell she’s got her frugal romper, she’s got her California vibe then throughout her finding herself on her block again you see her hair get bigger and bigger…I love that we were able to find that with the team.
Audience Member: What do you hope people take away from this?
LG: I think we hope first and foremost that people enjoy it and that they laugh and that they cry, but on a deeper level, that no matter where you’re from through these characters stories and through their dreams, even if you’re not from Washington Heights that you feel seen and validated, no matter how big or small your dream is. And I think that’s why there’s so much magic to what Lin writes. And to what Quiaro writes and what Jon directed her – is that they really took this story and made it accessible for everyone to relate to – I feel like you can dream as simple as Corey to want to appreciate and protect his neighborhood or Sonny – this is my island, I don’t want to go to no other island, this (Manhattan) is it for me or Usnavi, who wants to go back to where his parents are from, where he doesn’t have that many memories but he feels like that’s where the magic is and finds it right where he’s at. And all of those dreams are validated – there’s no one big dream, everyone’s sueñito (little dream) is just as magical and I think that’s so beautiful, so hopefully, people feel that.
MB: For me, obviously everything that you (Leslie) said and I hope people find the warmth and the deliciousness of getting to know a community that maybe you’re not exposed to and finding how we are all so similar, despite growing up in different places in the world and despite our families looking different – I think that’s something that I would love people to leave the theatre thinking, like oh wow, I’m Usnavi…I think for me, what makes me so hopeful about this movie is thinking about the younger generation. Thinking about the kids who are going to watch this movie, especially like little people of color. Young kids that are going to watch this movie and like this is going to be normal for them. They already see themselves in movies, for them it’s normal, they’re going to grow up thinking not like us – like I never saw myself in a major Hollywood movie when I was a kid. There was no one ever who looked like me, and for little kids to have this reference and to always know that this is a possibility for them and to always know that they have a place and that they can dream as big as they want to dream and that anything is possible – THAT for me, is what I would kids to go out of the movie thinking, that they’re invincible.
Beautiful film, beautiful performances, beautiful conversation. Absolutely worth the wait that felt like 96,000 years to see this movie. P.S. – the Hamilton easter eggs are gold. Also, don’t be a stranger – I urge you to take a trip up to Washington Heights sometime (pro tip: you just take the A train!)
In The Heights is now in select Theatres and can be streamed on HBO Max. For more information, visit: https://www.intheheights-movie.com/