Plus, this multi-stranded, inter-generational story about family, community, and upward mobility is rooted in a real-world soil of hard work and sacrifice. The modest dreams of Usnavi and her neighbors and friends are reflections of a much bigger dream – the American one, which the film celebrates without irony, even though it does note some contradictions.
We are transported from the tropical tranquility of El Sueneto to the summer weather of Washington Heights, a stretch of upper Manhattan shaded by the George Washington Bridge and illuminated by the Hudson River sunset. Its lanes are magnets with two poles. In the 20th century, immigrants from the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America – including Usnavi’s father, now dead, and neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Meredez) – were drawn by the promise of economic opportunity. Some have opened small businesses, such as Bodega where Usnavi and his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) spend their days distributing café con leche, quarter water and other staples. Across the street is a livery cab service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smuts), who comes to New York from Puerto Rico and pinned his hopes on his daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace). The apple of her eye and the pride of the neighborhood—”the best of us,” as Kevin puts it—Nina is a student at Stanford.
She returns home for the summer in the grip of an ambition that is akin to the Heights’ open fire hydrants and Piragua trains. (Miranda, who debuted the role of Usnawi on stage, appears as a salesman of those syrup-soaked warm-weather treats, a man whose nemesis is the controversial New York character Mr. Softee.)
Usnawi remembers his childhood in the Dominican Republic as the best time of his life. To him, that island represents roots, origin, identity—everything that Washington Heights is to Nina. He dreams of finding himself by returning to his father’s homeland. She is expected to rediscover herself in a place that Kevin, who has never attended high school, can hardly imagine. There may be no place like home, but home is almost never a place in America.
Miranda and Hudes made “In the Heights” long before “Hamilton,” but in some ways the film version, coming in the wake of “Hamilton” Juggler, works as a sequel. Like Alexander Hamilton (who Ramos played on Broadway after Miranda’s separation), Usnavi is an orphan and an immigrant. In their neighborhood is the name of Hamilton’s commander in chief. And its residents put their flags – Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican and more – in the land of the $10 bill. The city may be a paradise where “the streets are made of music”, but it is also cold winters, deep-rooted bigotry and bureaucratic brutality.