Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘In the Heights’ comes home
By Jada Yuan,
Noam Galai Getty Images
NEW YORK — Some wore nurse’s scrubs, some brought folding chairs. They came straight from work or walked over from apartment buildings their families have lived in for generations. Many spoke only Spanish. None had tickets to Wednesday’s premiere of “In the Heights,” the movie version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first stage musical. But when an ode to the middle- and working-class Latin American communities of Washington Heights, written by a Puerto Rican who grew up in Washington Heights, premieres in Washington Heights, you have to go, verdad?
A parade of black SUVs filled with celebrities is an unusual thing to show up here, outside the Food Emporium near Manhattan’s 175th Street. Around 200 people gathered near United Palace, a 91-year-old theater with an ornate, gilded interior and a gorgeous art deco stone facade. Photographers shouted at the film’s young Latino stars, who posed on a yellow carpet in front of a fake bodega storefront complete with a fake fruit stand and cans of Cafe Bustelo. The neighborhood was buzzing. Was that Gayle King? Robert De Niro? Bodega owners and servers from nearby Dominican restaurants Malecon and El Conde Nuevo popped outside whenever they could get away from customers. A Mister Softee truck (a kind of villain to Miranda’s character in the movie, Piragua, who runs a cart selling flavored shaved ice) tried to make some sales. Police officers kept gently asking the many people live-streaming on their phones to please stop standing in the street. When two city buses in a row pulled up right as singer Marc Anthony, who plays the deadbeat dad of a main character, arrived and blocked their view of him, everyone screamed with dismay in unison.
“It’s a happy day!” said Gladys Liz, a retired seamstress from Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital. The pandemic had been hard on this predominantly Dominican neighborhood, which felt the effects of the virus at a greater rate than the wealthier Zip codes downtown. “It was difficult, very difficult,” Liz said. “A lot of people getting sick here in this area. Some people pass away.”
The theater, United Palace, once a church and now used for concerts and other live events, had been dormant for a year and a half. The pandemic had made things “somber, quiet,” said Lenin Peña, a 36-year-old Dominican who works in security and has lived here all his life.
People watch from the street as guests attend the premiere of “In The Heights.”
But this, this was more like it. “Normally, the neighborhood has a lot of noise and there’s like, always a buzz, especially in the summer,” Peña said. He had arrived an hour earlier and couldn’t seem to leave. He wanted to soak this in. This night was a return not just to normal, he said, but to something “festive” and better than normal. It was a celebration of togetherness and a kind of unexpected acknowledgment coming from outside the community for everyone in this community who had made it through.
“In the Heights” centers on a bodega owner, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who dreams of leaving but keeps finding reasons to stay. It is the opening-night film for the 20th anniversary Tribeca Festival (formerly the Tribeca Film Festival), which itself was founded to revitalize downtown Manhattan after the devastation of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Now that energy was flowing north.
“It’s kind of surreal seeing people that, you know, normally wouldn’t be in the neighborhood in the neighborhood,” Peña said. He had already reserved tickets to see the movie in Times Square on Friday, when it’s released to theaters and on HBO Max, because, despite the gentrification and all this attention, Washington Heights doesn’t have a movie theater.
But many in the crowd did get to spend an entire summer two years ago watching this movie get filmed on their doorsteps. Intersections they walk through every day were cleared for elaborate dance sequences. Romantic scenes feature the stone arches in Fort Tryon Park or the backdrop of the George Washington Bridge that is the backdrop to their lives.
“Oh yeah, you could just turn the corner and, like, walk onto a film set,” said Cydnee Rafferty, 41, who also owns the Brazen Tavern, a restaurant in the Broadway theater district, Miranda’s home away from the Heights. Rafferty had brought her two kids, 7 and 2, because she wanted them to be a part of something “happening in their community that makes their community look as special to the outside as it does on the inside.”
The Washington Post
Cydnee Rafferty, owner of the Brazen Tavern, and her daughter Devin, 7.
Rafferty’s mother grew up seeing movies at the United Palace, and Rafferty couldn’t wait to watch the movie with her kids to “see all the places that we’re so familiar with. . . . And I can say to them: ‘That’s your playground! That’s your park! That’s your school! That’s your bodega where you know Mr. P!’ ”
Elizabeth Rosario, 43, a Dominican housekeeper for Mount Sinai Hospital, grew up swimming in Highbridge Pool, a magnificent, free-to-the-public complex with two Olympic-size pools, where the movie’s centerpiece dance number was filmed. She brought her son to watch the cast of emerging and famous Latinos file into the theater. “It’s like a really big emotion,” she said. “There’s a lot of Latinos in the movie, so it’s really nice that they did it in the area of Washington Heights where there’s a lot of Latinos, like, different nationalities.”
There were, of course, superfans of “Hamilton” — the hit musical that followed “In the Heights” and made Miranda a national star. But even they seemed to be local. Yas Checo, 16, who grew up 20 blocks away from the theater, showed up with a color printout of Miranda’s face affixed to her mask. (Checo had tried to be an extra in the movie but was cast in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” instead.)
The Washington Post
Three sisters and Hamilton superfans, from left, Yas, Lisbeth and Jasmin Checo, grew up 20 blocks away from this theater. Yas, 16, and Lisbeth, 24, tried out to be extras on “In the Heights” but didn’t get picked.
Asked whether they knew of Miranda, many responded (in Spanish), “Oh yeah, he’s Puerto Rican,” before saying they had also seen “Hamilton.” The musician-playwright is raising his family in the neighborhood, “and you see him. You do!” said Rafferty, the restaurant owner. “I see him on the bus. I see him on the subway. I see him walking down on 181st Street.”
Jackie Edwards, 35, an art history PhD student who moved her family uptown two years ago, said Miranda had poured money into Coogan’s, a 35-year-old bar facing drastic rent increases. “It’s a super important pub in this neighborhood,” Edwards said. “It was where a lot of local politicians would meet up, and it’s been here forever and it closed during the pandemic, but he saved it from closure two years ago. And so, yeah, in addition to his artistic prowess — we respect him.”
The Washington Post
Theatergoers await the premiere of “In the Heights” at United Palace in Washington Heights.
Inside the theater, Miranda took the stage to thunderous applause. When he spoke about the meaning of the place, his voice cracked. The theater had been slated for demolition in 1969, when it was bought by a church group, before transitioning back to a theater in 2013. (The marquee reads “Home of Spiritual Artistry.”) Miranda said he’d buy it an HD projector and pay for half of a new movie screen (fans paid for the other half).
“This was pre-Hamilton. Before I had any money,” he said. “This is not a dream come true. This is seven dreams come true at the same time. When you were 19 years old and you write a love letter to your neighborhood and when you get to film the movie about that show in the f—ing neighborhood and in these streets . . .” — the roar of applause drowned him out, and he was having trouble talking anyway.
He was home.