Ariel Etana Triunfo
AriViews: In The Heights
Confession: Before July 10, 2021, I, a second-generation New Yorican and professional musical theatre artist, had never seen In the Heights in any format. I know; that doesn't make me a bad theatre kid or even a bad Puerto Rican. To be honest, it just reflects the fact that we don't always have access to this kind of representation; especially on stage. No one does In the Heights; and those who do, often shouldn't have done (looking at you, all-white high school productions). So, it's not so hard to believe that I've never seen, nor had the pleasure of performing in, this particular show that is near and dear to my heart and my heritage. Seeing a very specific part of my identity portrayed on screen was like a breath of fresh air. And, though I hadn't previously seen the show in its entirety, I did already know the music by heart and earnestly mouthed along with the lyrics to every song throughout the film, barring the occasional lyrical adjustment or complete elimination of a song. There were quite a few adjustments - though, before watching the movie, I was already aware of the changes that had been made in order for the musical's book to transition from stage to screen. For those who still haven't yet made it to the socially distanced movie theater seats or snagged a friend's HBO Max login credentials, bear in mind that there are some spoilers ahead.
Nina's mother, Camilla, is cut from the movie; along with her song, "Enough." Additionally, "Inútil," "Sunrise," "Hundreds of Stories," "Atención," and "Everything I Know" were left out. This piece would be a very long read if I went into all of the plot adjustments in detail; but when you think about the changes that were made, it makes sense that these songs didn't make it into the final version - even though I love each of them and they all have importance in the stage musical. Speaking of importance, I always viewed Nina as the main character - perhaps it's because I relate so directly to her identity and her journey through the story - but in the stage show, Nina and Benny's stories and Usnavi and Vanessa's stories are a bit more equally featured; in the movie, more focus is put on Usnavi and Vanessa. It does work for the movie, though, when the other changes are taken into account and we remember that a few camera shots in a film can often show us what would have been explained throughout the length of an entire expositional song.
I did appreciate the moments that were added to contemporize the story in a way that made it feel more believable and relatable for a movie produced in the 2020s. Sonny's film-created status as an undocumented immigrant who actively participates in protests adds a touch of gravitas to his character's arc and raises the stakes a notch higher for everyone around him as well. Finding out about Sonny is one of the things that pushes Usnavi to take stock of his own choices; though it is difficult to accept that Usnavi doesn't have any trouble at all with securing his trip to the Dominican Republic, which is such a significant plot point in the musical. Sonny's desire to have the rights to go to college and be just like Nina is something that makes her think twice about her decision to drop out of school - whereas in the stage musical, she decides to go back to college in order to honor Abuela Claudia, who plays a larger role in her passion and motivation towards getting an education.
In terms of songs, three standouts for me were the title song, "96,000," and "Paciencia y Fe." The movie has a strong opening with the title song's tongue-in-cheek cinematic choices and energetic choreography. The visuals and choreographic pictures are colorful and exciting in "96,000," and the animated digital art used in the beginning of the song is a unique touch that I wish they would have incorporated more throughout the film. "Paciencia y Fe" is a brilliant balance of all of the aforementioned elements which made the other two songs so impactful for me. What I wish I would have seen is further development of Abuela's relationship to each of the main characters before her death - though I know there wasn't really time for that in the overall pacing. Basically, my recurring thought process is that I can understand why certain choices were made; though I don't necessarily like all of the changes.
On another note, I was so happy to see variety in the diversity of body types and skin colors represented on the screen among the dancers who brought so much life to the community scenes in the film. However, like many others, I was disappointed in the lack of diverse representation in the main cast. It's true that the original storyline includes Nina's father's reluctance to accept Benny as her partner, since Benny is a non-Latino Black man. However, in the movie, that element of conflict regarding his race is virtually non-existent (even though colorism and racism still exist within many Latinx communities to this day and it's an important issue that perhaps couldn't be given all of the screen time and focus it would need in order to be properly unpacked). But still, the critical question remains - why were all of the incredibly talented dark-skinned Afro-Latinx actors and dancers relegated to the background?
Colorism is a prevalent issue in contemporary media; one that is layered and complex and very much real. As a light-skinned Afro-Latinx actor myself, I recognize that I have some unseen privileges not shared by dark-skinned actors. And there are further different privileges which white-passing Latinx actors experience; which can also be contrasted with the problematic privileges held by ethnically-ambiguous-passing white actors (if that term doesn't yet exist, it should, because it's also very real). Making equitable changes in our industry starts with those who are in charge of telling the stories. Jon M. Chu notably didn't feature any dark-skinned Asians in his blockbuster hit Crazy Rich Asians, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, though seemingly dedicated to telling untold stories in his work, executed a large erasure of Black history in Hamilton. In the future, I hope to see an active effort from both leading storytellers of color to write and cast their productions in a way that truly reflects the people who actually experience those stories.
All that aside, the film was visually stunning in many ways. The touches of magical realism here and there made it feel more in touch with the imaginative playground a stage offers; though there were moments where it felt like the cinematography wasn't quite sure what it wanted to do. The actors beautifully portrayed the characters in a balanced way that was grounded enough to make you feel like they were real people; and of course the vocals were all great (though too heavily edited for my taste, at times). I'm curious to see how the film holds up from big screen to small screen, but in the end, I'm very happy I went to go see it.
I started this blog not to rate movies or tell you which productions to go watch, but rather, to share my own personal thoughts and perceptions as a theatre artist with an extremely intersectional identity. I am an Afro Latinx/Asian autistic pansexual woman from Brooklyn with a background in theatre, dance, choreography, writing, and design; and that doesn't even begin to cover the half of who I am - and yet, I also recognize that my identity does not cover all the bases. How could it? We are all incredibly complex and diverse individuals, which is part of why it's so beautiful when we come together to build and nurture a community. That's my ultimate takeaway from this movie musical, and it's also a recurring theme that I've been delving into during this era of a global pandemic: We need each other.
We need the people who will support our wildest dreams without a moment's hesitation, and we need the people who will remind us to think rationally before we make any big decisions. We need the people who will dance in the rain with fireworks sparking explosions through the night sky, and we need the people who will sit with us to watch the summer sunrise in comfortable silence. We need the people who take things seriously, and we need the people who find fun in everything. We need each other to grow, and to make the world a better place. Through my writing, I hope to be a contributor to increasing understanding between the wonderfully, vastly different souls which inhabit this planet we all call home.
In The Heights (2021 film) was directed by Jon M. Chu with a screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the stage musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes & Lin-Manuel Miranda. The film was produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Scott Sanders, Anthony Bregman, and Mara Jacobs.