How ‘In the Heights’ explains the COVID era

Scheduled to be released in theaters June 2020, the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights was in the first wave of movies that were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It got pushed back a full year to June 2021, when as part of a slate of Warner Bros. movies it controversially debuted in theaters and HBO Max simultaneously.

While I did take advantage of the streaming option for several of these movies (sorry, Dune), I knew I wanted to see In the Heights on the big screen. Not only to support it financially but also because musicals ought to be a big-screen experience shared by a crowd of like-minded moviegoers. 

But as with the denizens of Miranda’s Washington Heights, my cinematic sueñito soon had a rude awakening: The theater I went to was completely empty. Not just my screening room but the entire multiplex. I appeared to be the only person going to a movie on that particular Sunday afternoon, a time I assumed would normally be bustling with people of all ages. 

Part of me was OK with having a screening room to myself as I wouldn’t have to worry about talkers or texters. But this feeling was also tinged with disappointment: it meant moviegoing itself, my beloved pastime, was still fighting the same virus we moviegoers were fighting outside in the real world.

Little did I know that the fictional story I was about to witness on screen about a neighborhood reckoning with a paralyzing power outage would serve as an unintentional parable for a different kind of crisis. 

“Everybody’s got a dream”

Adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning stage musical, In the Heights tells the stories of community members in the predominantly Latine neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City, with Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and his bodega as the centerpiece of the dramas and delights that happen during one sweltering summer. 

What the core cast of characters share, besides being childhood friends, is the desire for something more—something they hope will propel them out of their limiting circumstances. Usnavi yearns to return to his ancestral home in the Dominican Republic, which conflicts with his feelings for Vanessa, who also aspires to escape the barrio and pursue fashion design. Meanwhile Benny dreams of becoming a business tycoon and being with Nina, a star student but first-year Stanford dropout having an existential crisis. 

These rising tensions finally come to a boil one night when the group is out at a packed salsa club. It’s a sweaty and electric scene that’s punctuated by moments of misunderstanding and frustration between Usnavi and Vanessa, who can’t get in the same rhythm with each other—on or off the dance floor.  

And then: Boom! Power outage. The club goes dark, and amidst the chaos and screams the crowd stampedes out into the unlit streets. 

With no indication of when the power will return, the neighborhood is left to endure the heat however they can. The public pool offers welcome relief, which the epic “96,000” showcases with exuberance. But eventually fatigue sets in and all there is to do is sluggishly waste away outside in the boiling sun. 

That’s the scene the fiery salon owner Daniela arrives at when she charges into an apartment complex courtyard in search of a boisterous farewell for her salon relocation. Her attempt to rally their spirits turns into the lively “Carnaval del Barrio” sequence, which features some great song-and-dance but also lets people air out their feelings about the challenging circumstances. 

Vanessa and Sonny, Usnavi’s undocumented immigrant cousin, vent about their powerlessness—both literally amidst the prolonged outage, and figuratively against gentrification and discrimination:

Y’all keep dancin’ and singin’ and celebratin’
And it’s gettin’ late and this place is disintegratin’

But Usnavi, preparing to leave Washington Heights for his homeland, argues for a hopeful acceptance of change and makes a plea for solidarity:

Alright, we are powerless, so light up a candle
There’s nothing going on here that we can’t handle

This spurs the group into a raucous, unifying celebration of the barrio’s different ethnicities, with people rallying around the flags of their heritage—Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico—not as jingoistic saber-rattling but as jubilant ethnic pride. They may be suffering, but they’re suffering together.

“Oye, que paso? Blackout! Blackout!”

A sudden crisis with an unknown duration. Increased outdoor interaction with neighbors and friends. Personal and political discontentment spilling out into the public square. Sound familiar?

Despite the Broadway version debuting a decade before—and the movie filming a year before—the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, In the Heights serves as a richly drawn (and sung) synecdoche for that particularly fraught moment in modern American history. You remember: within two days of the WHO’s official pandemic declaration on March 11, 2020, Tom Hanks announced his diagnosis from quarantine in Australia, the NBA shut down, the president addressed the nation, hospitals braced for impact, and businesses everywhere slowed to silence. COVID didn’t strike quite as suddenly as a power outage (hello, toilet paper hoarders) but it sure felt like it in the moment. 

The days and weeks that followed were a time when we’d lost everyday powers: to visit elderly family members, to go grocery shopping without fear of contamination, to attend school in front of other humans instead of a screen. 

But it was also a time when, like a real-life “Carnaval del Barrio,” pent-up discontentment got channeled outward as thousands of people took to the streets with raised voices—not to escape a power outage but to protest George Floyd’s murder. And the tug-of-war between hope and despair played out on the national stage as the 2020 election ominously approached. 

(Even Abuela Claudia fits into the analogy: her health issues combined with the suffocating heat proved too overwhelming, leading to her death early in the pandemic—a tragic analogue to the virus’s high mortality rate among the elderly.)

“We’re all in this together” is something we heard a lot in those dark early days when the masks went on and the infection trend lines went off the charts. Over time, as inequalities piled up and ideologies clashed, it become less inspirational and more cruelly ironic. But its core message stands, in real life and on the screen: communal camaraderie amidst a crippling crisis makes struggle a little easier to endure. As Abuela Claudia always said, “¡Paciencia y fe!”

“Tell the whole block I’m staying”

Back in Washington Heights, the power eventually returns and our friends are left to adjust to their own “new normal.” 

Nina has regained her vocational drive and plans to return to college to fight for the undocumented. Vanessa has moved out of the neighborhood and found her creative ambitions reinvigorated. Usnavi is still set to leave for the Dominican Republic until, with a little help from his friends, an epiphany reframes his vision for what home means to him. (Something the large swathes of post-COVID remote and hybrid workers can appreciate.) Though they looked different than they did in the before times, their sueñitos had come true. 

I’m very grateful I was in a happy and healthy home for quarantine with my wife and child in June 2020. I also wish I could have been at the movie theater instead, watching In the Heights become the smash hit of the summer. That didn’t happen, but I can still dream…