Hitting New Heights: One of the most innovative and exhilarating movie musicals since Chicago

This week in Variety, the headline spoke of the “disappointing” box office take of the film In the Heights. The movie adaptation of the smash Broadway musical brought in $11 million, and while it was also available to stream for free on HBO Max, films with similar release patterns like Godzilla vs. Kong and Mortal Kombat still managed to pull in more profit, leading to theorizing in the magazine that perhaps either the lack of celebrities in In the Heights or the fact that it’s not as well-known an IP as some other recent releases may have worked against it.

So let’s talk about all that.

First of all, nobody can create an online echo chamber like a theater person can. I remember the day after Smash debuted, when every theater friend I had was convinced it was the biggest television premiere of all time, because everyone they knew was obsessed with it. The ratings told a different story, and all that meant was that what you see on your newsfeed is a carefully curated reality that you and people like you live in. It is not a surprise to me that despite everyone I know raving about a musical that is not nearly as well-known as Wicked or Hamilton, people in Des Moines were not flocking in droves to see it.


Secondly, who the #$%& cares?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not naive when it comes to what matters in Hollywood — even in the early days of the post-Panda Express. Money counted before, and it counts now, but I am fairly certain there is a decent-sized section of the population who has no interest in the 43rd reboot of Lizard vs. Monkey, but was chomping at the bit to watch In the Heights on HBO Max, and I also wouldn’t be surprised if those people were in a more desirable financial demographic than the people who wanted to watch live-action Tom & Jerry.

See? I can speak capitalism with the best of them.

I also don’t expect that Warner Bros. was anticipating that this movie would break box office records. Movie musicals, even the best ones, rarely rake in the dough, and usually, if you sign off on producing them, it’s because you expect the sort of long-term return that a film like The Greatest Showman brought in, and the kind of critical acclaim and awards consideration that is going to be sorely needed if come Oscar time the only thing you’ve produced up to that point is the weakest entry in The Conjuring series.

One pivot I would love to see in the after-times is telling the story of a film by valuing its artistic achievements alongside its monetary accomplishments since the first can sometimes produce the second. For example, it seems to be agreed-upon that Anthony Ramos is going to become a superstar now that this film has landed. It might be one of the best cinematic debuts I’ve ever seen, and that will surely translate into a long and lucrative career for both him and anyone smart enough to hire him in the future.

Any time a movie makes an effort to highlight and celebrate an underrepresented portion of the population, especially in a genre that’s failed to do them justice, it’s rare that it comes out of the gate swinging. Instead, we’ve seen movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Wiz develop cult status that has kept their relevance in the culture ignited for decades after their “disappointing” premieres. In case you were wondering, “cult classic” in Hollywood terms means “It didn’t make us money right away, but then all it did was make money and that’s not the business model we prefer, so we attach the word ‘cult’ to it to try and deter other films from not ponying up during their opening weekend.

If you think I’ve spent far too much time already speaking about box office, that’s only because there’s no point in me ladling any more accolades on a film that’s received plenty. There is not a single bad performance in the movie. Director Jon M. Chu and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes have given us one of the most innovative and exhilarating movie musicals since Chicago. It is a film about community at a time when we desperately need movies that champion learning to lift each other up and not perpetuate the “one man and one man only is coming to rescue us” narrative that is so often present in the stories we tell. Anthony Ramos should be heavily considered for an Oscar for Best Leading Actor, and, if he won, it would be the first win for a Puerto Rican actor since Jose Ferrer won for Cyrano de Bergerac in 1950.

Daphne Rubin-Vega should be considered for Best Supporting Actress. Jimmy Smits for Best Supporting Actor alongside Corey Hawkins, who also turned in one of the most charming performances I’ve ever seen. The film is drenched in charisma — something that has been noticeably lacking in films even before the world was brought to a halt. That comes from telling a story about people who experience conflict through love — not fear and tension. And if there’s ever been a better musical number put on film than “96,000” I’m having a hard time coming up with what it might be. The fact that the film only had a matter of days to accomplish it is confounding.

But as I write this, I keep coming back to Olga Merediz’s performance. After originating the role onstage, she now turns in a performance in the film that should garner her every award we have and some we haven’t created yet. It’s her number– “Paciencia y Fe” — that will be seared into my memory for years to come. What a marvelous gift to audiences to be able to witness that kind of artistry in a major motion picture — regardless of whether they’re seeing it in a theater or from their homes.

In theater, we often talk about the impact we can have beyond the normal confines of our regular audiences. Every year when the Tony’s are on, you’ll hear people saying that some kid in the Midwest might be watching and a new interest in theater might spark simply by catching that telecast. The cynic in me always politely dismisses that in my mind. It’s nothing against the Tony’s, but to me, it sets the bar too low. A five-minute musical number in between doling out trophies might be enough to inspire a blossoming theater aficionado, but what about those who can benefit from the artform even if they never participate in it or have no access to it?

That’s why I think In the Heights might just be that kind of transformative theater event that we all hope for when our chosen passion is given this kind of national exposure. Not just because it’s excellent, but because it’s cool. Because you can sell as many tickets as you want, but if you’re not cool, you’re not long for the cultural world. That’s why I can’t quote you one line from Avatar but if you give me two hours, I can perform all of The Devil Wears Prada complete with costume changes and a fairly decent Meryl Streep impersonation.

In the Heights is profoundly cool.

And I would not be surprised if we were still talking about it for years to come.

In fact, I would bet good money on it.