Sunday night’s Grammy Awards caused several hours’ worth of social media buzz, but in my little corner of Twitter, a very different buzz was happening: pure joy over the release of new trailers for In the Heights, the long-awaited adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other Tony-winning hit musical. In so many ways, it feels like a shining, dancing beacon of hope for a community and an industry that has been devastated over the past year, and it’s the perfect movie to bring us back together.
To understand why the trailers got the reaction they did, you also have to understand the terrible situation the theater industry has been in for the past year. Like everyone else, theater folks got sent home in early 2020 as the coronavirus spread; unlike almost everyone else, they’ve been there ever since. Theater is a uniquely crowd-centric industry: our very financial model depends on new audiences arriving every night to see a show that doesn’t, itself, change from night to night, all operating on slim profit margins and high risk. It’s a labor of love for everyone involved, and there is nothing more magical than those moments of connection that can only happen when you’re experiencing an incredible, moving performance alongside with a thousand strangers.
It’s the kind of music you can feel in your veins and your very soul; it’s the kind of story that makes you cry for several different reasons.
Those very things that make theater so special; however, are the things that make it exceptionally difficult to adapt to a remote world. It’s not like sports or TV, where performances can just go on without a live crowd and be broadcast to home audiences. Sports games are new every day, while theatrical performances stay the same; TV is built on an at-home model, whereas theater is meant to be live and is more niche in any case. A few one-time performance events, mostly as fundraisers, have made waves, but only as special events. It’s a far cry from, for instance, the 96,000 jobs and $11.5 billion brought into the local economy by Broadway shows in New York City alone, according to one 2020 CNBC report. Anyone in the theater world — or just anyone who loves theater — has had a year and counting of almost-complete loss.
In the new trailer for In the Heights, when Usnavi talks about a “block that was disappearing,” in the context of the past year, that line (originally about gentrification) takes on new meaning; it could just as well be talking about theater itself all but disappearing for a year, and it’s really emotional to think about. Seeing that trailer, then, feels like surfacing after being underwater for far too long. It’s vivid and joyful and emotional and packed with opportunities for talented performers to amaze us all. It’s the kind of music you can feel in your veins and your very soul; it’s the kind of story that makes you cry for several different reasons. In short, it’s some of the best things about theater, and it’s the only wide-release, marquee-level theater event we’ve had other than last summer’s Hamilton filmed performance.
But there’s something different about In the Heights. Where Hamilton is heady and philosophical and full of the weight of its own expectations, In the Heights hits much closer to home. It’s both splashy and intimate, the story of a frustrated but never defeated, working-class, immigrant community who are angry and sad and joyous and rebellious and fighting for stakes that feel all the more important for being smaller and more personal in scale. It couldn’t feel more appropriate for 2021.
With the release of these joyous trailers filled with music that theatergoers have been singing for over a decade, finally, it feels like there’s hope for us to gather — still cautiously — in June to see this movie together. I have never hoped so badly to be able to cry in a room full of strangers! And if there’s hope for that, then there’s light at the end of the tunnel for us to gather again in theaters, from the biggest Broadway houses to the smallest community theaters, to share a few hours of storytelling magic.
It’s possible that In the Heights will be the first big, splashy movie that we’ll get to see together in theaters on a bigger scale, and it will all but certainly be the first “theater” event we’ll be able to experience outside our homes in over a year. I can’t think of a better story to welcome us back together than a story about a community finding enormous joy even in the bittersweet moments of life.