Movie musical lovers will get to enjoy not just one, but two west side stories at the multiplex in 2020. Next December, Steven Spielberg will helm an all-new version of the classic 1957 Broadway production and the equally classic 1961 film version. Six months before that, however, Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu will bring some heat to the summer movie season with his adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakthrough hit, In the Heights.
Originally staged on Broadway in 2008, the show won multiple Tony Awards and set its creator and star on the path towards the generation-defining blockbuster that is Hamilton. Miranda himself produces and appears in Heights, though he’s ceded center stage to Anthony Ramos, taking over the role of Dominican bodega owner, Usnavi. Hamilton fans are well-aware that Ramos previously played Miranda’s son in the show’s original Broadway cast. Based on the just-released first trailer for In the Heights, he’s gonna make his old man proud and blow the rest of us all away. (Watch the trailer above.)
Set over the course of several long, hot days in Washington Heights, In the Heights foregrounds Usnavi in its portrait of that diverse New York neighborhood. When he’s not keeping the store running, he’s pining for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), while his pal Benny (Corey Hawkins) finds himself drawn to Nina (Leslie Grace), back in the Heights on summer break from Stanford University. Miranda based the musical in part on his own experiences growing up in Washington Heights as the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. Funnily enough, Chu directed his first movie musical — Step Up 2: In the Streets — in 2008, the same year that In the Heights became a Broadway sensation. And despite its New York setting, In the Heights always struck Chu as being a universal story.
“It reminded me of my family,” the California-born filmmaker told the crowd at a special In the Heights footage presentation that Yahoo Entertainment attended. “I grew up in an immigrant family...and the fight to survive, the fight to dream and the right to dream — that was everything. That is the American story. When I saw the musical, it connected so much with me, and I said, ‘I know how to make this movie.’”
Filmed this past summer on location in Manhattan, In the Heights makes full use of the city, with lengthy musical numbers that take place in the streets, swimming pools and subways of the titular neighborhood and surrounding locations. Working with choreographer, Christopher Scott, Chu sought to design dance sequences that fit the tone and tenor of the upper, upper West Side. “I wanted to capture ‘How does it feel to be on this block,’” Chu said at the event. “It was about finding an expression of emotion without words. We’re going to build these characters from the ground up.”
While In the Heights follows the general arc of the Broadway show, the movie version acknowledges that the world around Usnavi has changed since 2008. Early on, we hear Usnavi tell a group of children that he’s going to tell them a story about “a block that’s disappearing,” acknowledging the ongoing gentrification of neighborhoods like Washington Heights. And later on in the trailer, there’s an allusion to President Donald Trump’s decision to end the DACA program, potentially subjecting almost 700,000 immigrants known as “Dreamers” to deportation. “They’re talking about kicking out all the Dreamers,” Usnavi’s young cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz) remarks. That’s followed by shots of Usnavi and his neighbors proudly waving flags from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Mexico.
Neither Miranda nor Chu addressed that movie’s new political context directly at the footage presentation, but the director did make his case for why the movie has the power to both entertain and enlighten. “You can’t change the world if you don’t to change. But never underestimate the power of planting a seed: I believe this movie is an amazingly powerful seed that can change a lot of minds.”
At a BUILD interview earlier today, Hawkins confirmed that In the Heights would directly be dealing with contemporary events. “We’re unafraid to speak to the truth in the Latino community uptown,” the actors says. “I don’t know if there are explicit references to certain people, but it definitely speaks to the movement, it speaks to the Dreamers, it speaks to possibility. It just lays in love and compassion and empathy in a way that I think we all know, it’s just hard to see because there’s just so much going on right now politically. It cuts through the noise.”
Based on the Twitter reaction, a lot of peoples’ minds are made up... about wanting to see In the Heights right now.
In the Heights dances into theaters on June 26, 2020.
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