A DJ is spinning Cardi B and Luis Fonsi as if his life depended on it. Waiters are handing out miniature prawn ceviches and bollitos (little cornmeal dumplings stuffed with cheese and chicken from the Dominican Republic).
This is the food of the area, which sits astride the very top of Manhattan island and plays home to a diverse Latinx community comprising Dominicans, Cubans and Puerto Ricans.
Lin Manuel Miranda grew up in Washington Heights. The Hamilton creator still lives in the neighbourhood, just around the corner from the club we’re at right now.
“My parents live six blocks from here,” he says, smiling, in the same apartment building where he grew up. The same apartment building where, as a 19-year-old student in his first year of university, Miranda began sketching out the elements of a musical that might capture the vibrancy and life at the heart of the heights.
That musical, called In The Heights, premiered in 2005 before transferring to Broadway in 2008, where it became a critical and public sensation. (It was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, won four, and turned Miranda into a star.)
In The Heights has all the hallmarks of a Miranda production: the rapid-fire lyrics, the dazzling, frenetic energy, the earnest, bright-eyed heart. But while Hamilton was epic in scope, In The Heights is intimate.
It tells the story of a tight-knit community in Washington Heights, presided over by Usnavi, a bodega owner who dreams of returning to his home in the Dominican Republic, and Vanessa, the woman he loves, who has big dreams of her own.
Usnavi’s dreams are “so big”, says star Anthony Ramos – stepping into Miranda’s shoes and taking on the lead role in the movie adaptation of In The Heights, premiering in June 2020 – “that he’s scared of them”.
Miranda, Ramos, Melissa Barrera, who plays Usnavi’s girlfriend Vanessa, director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and the rest of the cast are all here in Washington Heights to fete their film and release the first trailer for the movie.
It’s a hot and sweaty, sultry and sexy video clip that hints at the colourful finished product. Chu, who cut his teeth in concert documentaries like Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never and dance-musical hybrids such as Step Up 2: The Streets, is in familiar territory here.
The musical numbers integrate seamlessly into the landscape of the film, the choreography never looking out of place on the streets of Washington Heights. And through it all, a powerful message of representation. “We are not invisible,” says Usnavi’s grandmother Claudia (Olga Merediz, who originated the role on Broadway) in the first trailer.
“I started writing this show because I wanted to see the kind of show that I wasn’t seeing and I wanted to fill in what was missing in the world for me,” Miranda explains. “The goal was to write a show that really honestly reflected the neighbourhood that I grew up in … I just wanted to portray that with love.”
The film, which features a cast comprised entirely of people of colour including Jimmy Smits (Star Wars), Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) and singer Leslie Grace in her first film role, tells a universal story of hope, community and the ties that bind, but with the specificity of representation.
Miranda says the songs remain largely unchanged since the musical first premiered in 2008. But their message, stressing the value of Latinx communities, has never been more crucial.
“We have an administration that has never been more hostile to the Latino community than this administration is,” Miranda says, “and the fact that we have a big Hollywood movie where we are asserting that we are the next wave of the American dream … I think that’s really important. I wish it weren’t radical, but it happens to be.”
Ramos, who co-starred alongside Miranda in the original Broadway production of Hamilton, agrees. “There was no one that looked like me onscreen growing up,” the Puerto Rican American explains. “If you asked me who my favourite actor is, I probably wouldn’t tell you an actor of Latin descent because there weren’t many!”
He continues: “We didn’t have a Disney Prince. All the princes in Disney movies – none of them look like me. I hope a kid in Mexico or Colombia or New York, wherever, sees Usnavi and goes, ‘I know that guy. Maybe I can do it.’ That’s the magic of movies, that’s the magic of art. That’s the magic of telling a story and continuing to pass it around.”
The production filmed over the “best summer of our lives”, director Chu explains, on location around 181st Street. (To get to Washington Heights, Usnavi raps in the titular song, you have to “take the A Train even farther than Harlem to Northern Manhattan and maintain, get off at 181st and take the escalator, I hope you’re writing this down, I’m gonna test ya later”.)
Barrera – who stars as Vanessa, a character who yearns to leave the Heights and move Downtown to become a fashion designer – was a big fan of the original stage production. The actress, who you might recognise from Stan’s Vida, saw the musical 15 times on Broadway, so meeting Miranda for the first time was “surreal”.
“He is so open and humble,” she says. “Sometimes when you meet someone that you admire a lot, you think of them as unreachable. They’re inaccessible … But Lin is the opposite. He gave me a hug. Well, I hug everyone,” the actress adds, laughing. “Because I’m Mexican, I hug everyone … So he’s like, ‘Oh, you’re the hugger! I want a hug.’
“Immediately, he broke the ice and the nerves were gone. I felt the love and how he was so thankful that we were all there. That’s when I knew that this was going to be something special.”
In The Heights is in cinemas in June 2020