At the same time, this multistranded, intergenerational story about family, community and upward mobility is rooted in the real-world soil of hard work and sacrifice. The modest dreams of Usnavi and his neighbors and friends are reflections of a very big dream — the American one, which the film celebrates without irony even as it takes note of certain contradictions.
We are transported from the tropical tranquillity of El Sueñito to the summertime swelter of Washington Heights, a stretch of Upper Manhattan shadowed by the George Washington Bridge and illuminated by Hudson River sunsets. Its streets are a double-poled magnet. In the 20th century, immigrants from the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America — including Usnavi’s father, now dead, and the neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) — were drawn by the promise of economic opportunity. Some opened small businesses, like the bodega where Usnavi and his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) spend their days dispensing café con leche, quarter waters and other staples. Across the street is a livery cab service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who came to New York from Puerto Rico and poured his hopes into his daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace). The apple of his eye and the pride of the neighborhood — “the best of us,” as Kevin says — Nina is a student at Stanford.
She returns home for the summer in the grip of an ambivalence that is as much a fixture of the Heights as open fire hydrants and piragua carts. (Miranda, who originated the role of Usnavi onstage, shows up as a vendor of those syrup-soaked hot-weather treats, a man whose nemesis is the controversial New York character Mister Softee.)
Usnavi remembers his childhood in the Dominican Republic as the best time of his life. For him, that island represents roots, origins, identity — everything that Washington Heights is for Nina. He dreams of finding himself by returning to his father’s homeland. She is expected to reinvent herself in a place that Kevin, who never finished high school, can scarcely imagine. There may be no place like home, but in America home is almost never just one place.
Miranda and Hudes made “In the Heights” long before “Hamilton,” but in some ways the movie version, arriving in the wake of the “Hamilton” juggernaut, works as a sequel. Like Alexander Hamilton, Usnavi is an orphan and an immigrant. His neighborhood bears the name of Hamilton’s commander in chief. And its residents plant 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’s also a purgatory of cold winters, deep-rooted bigotry and bureaucratic cruelty.