Lin-Manuel Miranda’s joyous celebration of the Washington Heights neighborhood, “In The Heights” has finally arrived on the big screen and HBO Max… and also Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music and all other DSPs, for a soundtrack that soars just as high even without the benefit of interstitial dialogue and sumptuous visuals.
Adapted from the Broadway musical, the story centers on a bodega owner, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who discovers his mom-and-pop stop-and-shop has sold a winning lottery ticket. Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jimmy Smits and Olga Merediz make up the cast. While the original cast recording exists featuring Miranda in the lead role, Atlantic Records’ soundtrack showcases the remarkable talents of this new cast singing the old favorites, along with a newly written closing song, “Home All Summer.”
Diehards of the musical will immediately notice the shifts of songs… and, lamentably for some, the inevitable cuts. Gone are “Sunrise,” sung by Nina and Benny after they spend a night together, and “Hundreds of Stories,” a duet between Usnavi and Abuela Claudia as they sing about what they’ll do with the lottery money. Also missing is “Atención,” a song that Kevin sings, announcing Abuela Claudia’s passing. And MIA is the character of Nina’s mother, Camila Rosario, which changes the dynamics between college student Nina, her father and their story.
The good news is, despite those omissions, which were done to fit the movie’s run time, the album is still a scorcher. The movement of numbers allows for director Jon M. Chu to put his creative stamp on the movie, and what a stamp he makes. It’s one that diehards will embrace with open arms, or arms handing him the keys to the stage-to-screen kingdom.
Anthony Ramos Jr. is delightful as Usnavi, narrating the story for audiences and listeners in the opening number, “In the Heights.” His voice is crisp from beginning to end whether rapping or singing. He introduces himself, the neighborhood, and the key players in a song that is a vibrant mix of Latin, pop and R&B. This is Ramos’ first major leading role. and you could never tell.
Melissa Barrera’s Vanessa is the perfect partner to Usnavi; even through the pure listening experience, you root for the leads to get together. Her belting intro snaps as she holds her notes in a fashion worthy of a Broadway performance. Gregory Diaz IV’s Sonny steals the show in “96,000,” with his solo during the hip-hop-infused number. The fantasy number is another ensemble piece in which everyone gets the chance to imagine what they would do with that winning lottery money.
Maybe the most welcome of all the changes made between stage and screen: fans who cringed every time they had to suffer through Donald Trump’s name being mentioned in the Broadway cast album lyrics during this number will find that he’s been replaced by a Tiger Woods callout.
Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia flexes her chords in “Paciencia y Fe.” In the musical, the song is used as an announcement: she has won the lottery. The movie version not only holds on to the suspense of who won a tad longer, but the song also comes moments before she passes away and is a reflection on the sacrifices made for her to emigrate and portrays her arrival in America. “Fresh off the boat in America. Freezing in early December, a crowded city in 1943, learning the ropes in America, in Español, I remember, dancing with Mayor La Guardia, all of society welcoming mami and me,” she sings. There is no doubt of Merediz’s ability to deliver a number. She’s reprising her role from Broadway but her power strikes strong here as if she’s discovering the part for the first time, rippling through the emotion of the journey for a tear-jerking highlight.
On a lighter note, the salon ladies who are mistresses of hair, nails and gossip are led by Daphne Rubin-Vega who steps into the role of Daniela. She brings her smoking vocal to the soundtrack bringing her signature smoky vocal tones to one of the most fabulous and commanding female characters ever written.
Her sidekicks Carla and Cuca (Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco) thoroughly entertain complimenting Rubin-Vega’s delivery.
It’s in “Carnaval del Barrio” where listeners should turn the volume up as the energy of the musical hits as high as it can go. Rubin-Vega takes this community-rallying celebration of heritage to full force, as the film’s theme of music, dance and culture culminates in a single, glorious number as the salon ladies say goodbye to the neighborhood after being priced out.
Miranda makes his cameo and gifts listeners with “Home All Summer,” performed by stars Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, and Marc Anthony. The song plays over the film’s end credits and is a Latin-pop infused number filled with fun and energy while driving the point of home.
It’s a rarity that an original cast recording and subsequent film soundtrack for a musical find an equal place in the hearts of fans of a show, but that’s likely to be the case here; making the touch choice of which should come up first in a playlist will be a perfect problem to have.