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In the Heights and the new Golden Age of musicals
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Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights is set to bring joy to the big-screen when that is needed most. It could be just the start of a major new era for the genre, writes Hanna Flint.
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Actor-composer Lin-Manuel Miranda has become an international star over the last few years thanks to his seminal musical Hamilton, but a big-screen adaptation of his debut show In the Heights has been in the works since 2008. However only now, 13 years after its Broadway premiere, is this Latin-American story of camaraderie and community in New York's Washington Heights neighbourhood finally making it to the big screen. It couldn’t have arrived at a better time. With cinemas now open again in the US, the UK, and many other countries, the musical – adapted for the screen by original book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes and Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M Chu, with Miranda serving as producer – might just be the spoonful of sugar the world needs after a tumultuous 18 months contending with a global pandemic.

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Musicals have long been considered perhaps the most purely joyful genre in the cinematic library and over the last decade there has been a real influx of offerings onto the silver screen – from those featuring original music like La La Land (2016) and The Greatest Showman (2017); jukebox musicals like Sunshine on Leith (2013), Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018), Yesterday (2019) and the Pitch Perfect franchise (2012-17); and an increasing number of musical biopics such as Get On Up (2014), Jersey Boys (2014), Rocketman (2019) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018).

In the Heights tells an uplifting story of camaraderie and community among the Latin-American residents of New York's Washington Heights neighbourhood (Credit: Warner Bros)

In the Heights tells an uplifting story of camaraderie and community among the Latin-American residents of New York's Washington Heights neighbourhood (Credit: Warner Bros)

Disney has produced several live-action remakes of their 90s animated musicals including The Lion King (2019) and Aladdin (2019), while delivering original animated and song-filled outings like Moana (2016), Coco (2017), Frozen (2012) and Frozen 2 (2019). Even television has got in on the action with the likes of Glee (2009-2015), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019) and, only this year, We Are Lady Parts while several live musical specials including productions of Grease (2016), The Little Mermaid (2019) and Jesus Christ Superstar (2018) have been a hit with viewers at home too.

Soon, the big screen will boast film adaptations of stage hits Everyone's Talking about Jamie and Dear Evan Hansen, and a West Side Story remake from Steven Spielberg. Upcoming, too, are Annette, a musical romance from French auteur Leos Carax starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, with original music from synth-pop duo Sparks, and Miranda’s feature directorial debut Tick Tick... Boom. These films will arrive right in time for awards season consideration where the genre has historically done well. All in all, the musical hasn’t been this popular since its Golden Age during the mid-20th Century. In a world where, pandemic or not, we can feel increasingly disconnected from each other, Hudes believes their resurgence has come because they are offering audiences a real human touch.

"A musical gives an audience permission to relax, imagine and not have to pay attention in such a rigid way because music does something that words alone can't do," she tells BBC Culture. "We're humans, we need music. It's one of our most basic instincts. Our hearts beat in rhythm. I don’t know what can be more essentially human than rhythm and song. Musicals have staying power because they are not just their own subgenre – they incorporate contemporary and different genres of music that’s only to the benefit of audiences."

The power of In the Heights

The music of In the Heights takes its cues from the diverse Latin community it represents, infusing hip-hop, salsa, merengue and soul music into the score and with lyrics about love, life, community and the American dream. Chu has taken visual and choreography cues from the films of Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams while casting an all-singing, all-dancing array of established and emerging actors from the Latin American community including Anthony Ramos, who appeared in the original 2008 production of Hamilton, Broadway veterans Daphne Rubin-Vega and Olga Merediz, who is reprising her role of community matriarch Abuela, and small screen stars Melissa Barrera and Stephanie Beatriz.

Straight Outta Compton’s Corey Hawkins plays the only non-Spanish speaking character, Benny, who helps run the taxi dispatch owned by Mr Rosario (Jimmy Smits) the father of his love Nina (Leslie Grace), a Stanford University student who wants to drop out because of the financial strain on her dad and the racial microaggressions she experiences on campus.

The notion of one central hero, philosophically, feels at odds with the story that I wanted to tell. The community is the lead character – Quiara Alegría Hudes

The film is stacked with interesting characters: Ramos' Usnavi, a Dominican bodega owner with dreams of returning to the Republic, is the musical’s narrator and ostensible lead but the creators always envisioned the ensemble cast as their collective protagonist. "The notion of one central hero, philosophically, feels at odds with the story that I wanted to tell, which is, in a community, there is no single hero or protagonist," says Hudes. "We rise and fall together. The community is the lead character."

Singin' in the Rain was among the crowd-pleasers that formed part of the musical's first Golden Age (Credit: Alamy)

Singin' in the Rain was among the crowd-pleasers that formed part of the musical's first Golden Age (Credit: Alamy)

That's a sentiment that feels especially pertinent right now given the way humans have come together to help each other during the pandemic. However, depictions of Latin American community, in particular, have rarely been afforded space in Hollywood films let alone in the musical genre. In fact, when Hudes was brought on by Miranda to write the In the Heights book in 2004, to accompany his music and lyrics, they agreed it was vital their show avoided the pitfalls of past musicals featuring Latinx characters, such as West Side Story (1961), The Capeman (1998) and Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1990), which featured gang violence or other negative stereotypes. "In The Heights was a piece of activism from the beginning," says Hudes. "[Our] decision to make a piece that is about Latin joy, celebration and resilience might not seem political, it might seem like we're going for palatable entertainment but it was such a conscious and strategic political choice. Joy is political in that context."

Their Washington Heights community is populated by first, second and third-generation immigrants from across Latin America who have left their culture but found their home in the uppermost part of Manhattan. The characters, from store owners to an Ivy League student, hairstylists to vendors of the Puerto Rican iced dessert piragua, have thus formed bonds often thicker than blood to keep their culture alive while embracing new dreams. In portraying this tension between tradition and modernity, Hudes took inspiration from the 1964 Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, about a Jewish family in 19th-Century Russia. "In Fiddler, modernity is freedom but it comes at a cost when Teyve's daughters [reject arranged marriages]," she explains. "They're in love, they gain freedom and independence, but they also lose a connection to their mother and father."

Hudes and Miranda present that lost connection through Usnavi and Abuela especially: while the former yearns to return to the Dominican Republic, the latter expresses her feelings of estrangement from her own homeland of Cuba in the song Paciencia y Fe. "That is a real cost so we related to that in In The Heights," says Hudes. "[However] the journeys that all of our characters take, they gain so much, they find community on this block in Washington Heights by a bodega, a car dispatch and a salon. That's their family."

A brief history of Hollywood musicals

It's now been a little less than a century since musicals were first starting to make their mark on celluloid thanks to the advancement of audio technology, with the likes of The Jazz Singer (1927), The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929) and Hallelujah (1929) proving to be commercial and critical successes. Then the 1930s arrived with the Great Depression, and the immense political and social upheaval that resulted caused people to seek solace in the growing number of American musical extravaganzas. This period showcased the innovative talents of choreographer and director Busby Berkeley in the likes of 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933), and dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcée (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Shall We Dance (1937), among others.

Many of the most popular musicals reflect the difficult times that their audiences were living in, while also offering enough whizz-bang entertainment to coax people out of their houses – Pamela Hutchinson

Then in 1939, The Wizard of Oz, a musical adaptation of L Frank Baum's 1900 children's novel that launched the preeminent careers of Judy Garland and Hollywood musical producer Arthur Freed, ended the decade in vibrant Technicolor fashion. These types of outlandish, brightly saturated musicals continued into the 1940s, and through World War Two, proving a welcome distraction from the everyday struggle of economic and wartime survival. However film historian Pamela Hutchinson believes the success of the musical during this period wasn’t just because they provided cinema-goers with escapism but because they simultaneously acknowledged their struggles, as evidenced by the popularity of films like Cover Girl (1944), which included a song about rations, and For Me and My Gal (1942), starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.

For many decades, individual musicals like Moulin Rouge have made waves, but none has prompted a true comeback for the genre – until recently (Credit: Alamy)

For many decades, individual musicals like Moulin Rouge have made waves, but none has prompted a true comeback for the genre – until recently (Credit: Alamy)

"It is a story about lovers divided by the First World War, about bereavement, loss and disability  – it was a massive hit, one of the biggest of the year," says Hutchinson, of the latter. "Musicals offer a lot of emotional catharsis. Many of the most popular musicals reflect the difficult times that their audiences were living in, while also offering enough whizz-bang entertainment to coax people out of their houses and into the cinema." Today In the Heights, which deals with contemporary racism and immigration issues, is testament to the potency of that combination, as were Cabaret (1972), Hairspray (1988), Evita (1997) and Les Miserables (2012) in previous decades.

After WW2, musical films dealing with loss and sorrow were increasingly being replaced by more joyful and humorous offerings that made big bucks for the studios producing them. Showboat (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and The King and I (1956) were just a few of the crowd-pleasers that cemented the 50s as the genre's Golden Age. However moving into the 60s, despite a few popular hits like West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), and Funny Girl (1968), the rose-tint of musicals began to lose favour as a new reality dawned in US society, with major civil rights battles and protests against the Vietnam war, and audiences’ sensibilities became more grounded as a result. Increasingly inferior works were greenlit to the financial detriment of the studios who were no longer seeing a return on that big musical investment. "The [Arthur] Freed Unit at MGM can make a mega-musical but an independent studio doesn't have the resources," says Hutchinson. “When the big studios collapsed, few filmmakers had the capacity to summon huge sets, chorus lines, great songwriters, costumes or the stars who could put them over. Drama is dirt cheap."

At this moment, I think people are plugging into [musicals] because just words aren't sufficient to get us through these times – Jon M Chu

In the decades since, the most popular musical films have split into two camps: those taking a more naturalistic, socially-conscious approach like Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Cabaret (1972) and Fame (1980) and those that have dazzled with campy edge like Grease (1978), Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Cry Baby (1990) and Moulin Rouge (2001). Individually these films have made waves, but none has prompted a true comeback for the medium. However Chu believes the rise of Miranda has got people hungry for the song and dance genre again. "I think Lin blew open the idea that musicals had to be a specific way and [showed] that the voice of the people is different from what was constructed 50-60 years ago," says Chu. "In this movie, we try to show that any of these dancers, [with] their tattoos, piercings, ballet shoes and sneakers, are just as effective at communicating that kind of grandeur and breathlessness of a moment [as] anyone in the 50s and 60s or [whichever period] they weren't allowed to participate in."

Has Lin Manuel-Miranda changed the game?

Hutchinson agrees that Hamilton, Miranda’s hip-hop musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton, populated by a diverse range of actors, reminded audiences what the medium can offer. "At a time when American politics was bitter and divided, it offered a celebration of the Founding Fathers – something that should be less complicated," she explains. "But everything about it, from the lyrics to the casting, [also] offered a critique of American politics and history, and how those stories have been written. It has allowed audiences to engage and escape at the same time."

Now more than ever this century, the world could do with some entertainment to both engage with and escape into. Of course, musicals like In the Heights were greenlit before Covid-19 hit but the temperature of the world has been increasing over the last decade because of more than just climate change. Polarising political and social factors have no doubt had a knock-on effect on our collective psyche and Chu thinks films like In the Heights can be a healing force to cheer people up and bridge communities. "I know the power of showing people what they can't unsee,” he says. “I know the power of showing them joy and happiness and camaraderie and family."

Many of the big new musicals such as Everybody's Talking About Jamie have a noticeable focus on personal identity (Credit: Alamy)

Many of the big new musicals such as Everybody's Talking About Jamie have a noticeable focus on personal identity (Credit: Alamy)

If the musicals from this prospective new Golden Age have something in common, Hutchinson suggests, it's often their focus on personal identity, whether that's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, with its exploration of mental health, gender, and politics, as well as protagonist Rebecca Bunch’s Jewishness; Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, with its tale of a boy breaking gender norms wearing a dress to his high-school prom; "or something like The Greatest Showman, with Keala Settle singing This Is Me in a very empowering way." What's more, they also embrace racial diversity in a way that is more meaningful than a few tokenistic non-white faces in the ensemble. The 2018 black-led British film musical Been So Long, We Are Lady Parts, with its Muslim protagonists, and, of course, In the Heights, are evidence of that.

So, now that studios have increasingly begun to foot the bill for these high-cost musical endeavours once again, is this truly a new Golden Age and is it here to stay? Chu thinks so. "At this moment, I think people are plugging into something, because just words aren't sufficient to get us through these times," he says. "Music and movement is a universal language so I hope we're in a Golden Age and the presence of all these new creators guarantees that, whether the world is ready or not."

In the Heights is released in the US on 11 June and the UK on 18 June

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