In the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, we’re told, “there are fights, endless debts and bills to pay.” But even so, everyone living there wakes up, drinks some coffee and grinds at work; because even though rents have gone up, checks bounce and most are living in poverty, they also each have a sueñito, or “little dream” that they’re working toward.
Usnavi immigrated as a young boy from the Dominican Republic—what he considers to be the best island in the Caribbean. He runs the local stop-and-shop and sells the best coffee in town.
But Usnavi’s dream is to save up enough money to return to his island and restore his childhood home. That, and to possibly get a date with Vanessa—a beautician with dreams of moving to downtown New York to become a fashion designer.
Another Heights resident, Nina, with her big brains, managed to get into Stanford. But the tuition is costing her dad every penny he has. (He sold half his business to pay for her first year of school.)
And while Nina’s dream is to help the immigrant community of Washington Heights, she worries her dad’s efforts will be in vain since she isn’t sure if Stanford is the right fit for her.
Nina misses the Latin community that helped raise her—the people who knew Nina’s mom before she passed away. And she misses Benny, her ex-boyfriend who works for her dad and dreams of starting his own business. But no matter what obstacles stand in their way, the hustle never ends for those who live in the Heights since they want to see their dreams come true.
This is a story about a community coming together, supporting each other, lifting each other up and taking pride in everyone’s individual accomplishments. They all have dreams, and we get to see some of these dreams come true. But we also see the hard work they all put into it.
Usnavi tells several children that sometimes, when you work hard, it doesn’t turn out like you plan, but that doesn’t mean you should give up or stop working hard: You do your best and leave a legacy of that hard work and effort behind. You pass it on to the next generation so that they will carry your legacy.
Claudia, or “Abuela,” is the community matriarch. Because she never had kids of her own, she adopted the whole neighborhood as her family and became known as “Abuela” (the Spanish word for “grandmother”) to all of them.
But one of her biggest contributions is reminding her people that it’s the little things that matter. Others might look down on you for cleaning toilets (she was a maid in the Upper East Side), but you assert your dignity in small ways—such as embroidering beautiful napkins or buying luxurious velvet gloves to hide the cracks in your hands from the harsh cleaning products.
She inspires her community to stay the course and keep working toward their dreams—no matter how small—because those little details show the world you aren’t invisible.
Nina initially lies to her dad about missing the deadline for Stanford’s tuition fees. However, after he reassures her that he can afford it and calls the school, she admits she can’t handle the pressure. She argues that she’s being forced to carry his dream, especially since his own dad pulled him out of high school to work. But after Nina realizes that everything her dad did was done to give her a better life, she backs off and they reconcile.
After Nina learns that Sonny, Usnavi’s cousin, won’t be able to attend college as an undocumented immigrant, she decides to use her education at Stanford to help immigrants become legal citizens. Usnavi helps as well, paying for a lawyer to help Sonny get a green card.
During a blackout, Nina’s dad and Benny volunteer their time to run the dispatch center, directing emergency services to those in need. Other members of the community set off fireworks to provide light to those trying to get home.
When someone passes away, the community holds a candlelight vigil in her honor. A man supports his girlfriend’s dreams, explaining that he doesn’t want to hold her back and that he will wait for her while working toward his own dream. When Vanessa can’t get approved for a new apartment because of her credit, someone co-signs her lease.
As Abuela passes away, in her mind’s eye, she walks down a tunnel, reliving key moments from her life. There is a light at the end of this tunnel, and she chooses to walk toward it, thus passing on.
Someone says that Abuela would lift things to God’s face and sing praises to Him for providing them. After she dies, people sing a song called “Alabanza,” which means “praise.” A woman crosses herself and people pray when Abuela dies.
When a woman asks, “What would Jesus do,” her friend responds, “Do I look like Jesus?” We hear several honest exclamations of praise and thanks to God throughout the film. We see a picture of Mary, Mother of Jesus. Some graffiti says, “Archangel.” Someone calls wind the “voices of the gods.”
Usnavi and Vanessa kiss and make out. Benny and Nina dance together and kiss, and someone says they had a “roll in the hay.”
In the opening number, we see many couples waking up together in bed to start their days. Some kiss their spouses on the cheeks (including a same-sex couple). We see a trans woman in a salon. Some women tell a story about another woman who caught her husband in bed with another man. People talk about sex and male genitals, someone mentions condoms and someone speculates that Nina is pregnant.
Throughout the film, we see Latin-style dancing that is sometimes sensual. This includes some booty-bumping and shimmying. At a fiesta, multiple guys want to dance with the same woman, making her date jealous. In response, the jealous man dances closely with another woman.
Female characters often wear tight, revealing clothing (including swimsuits). We also see some shirtless men and a woman’s bra straps as she changes clothes. Song lyrics talk about how a woman is objectified by many men. A teenage boy flirts with an older woman.
We hear 10 uses of the s-word and “d–n.” We also hear eight uses of “h—” and three of “a–.” Christ’s name is abused once and God’s name is misused 10 times (once in Spanish and once paired with “d–n”). After a teenager swears, someone tells him to watch his mouth.
People drink at fiestas and meals. Usnavi and Vanessa drink champagne directly from a bottle. Sonny’s dad is a drunkard.
We learn that Nina was searched on her first day of school as a result of racial profiling. She also says she felt out of place at a diversity event for Stanford, where she was the only Latina person who wasn’t working the event.
When the Heights community learns that someone won the lottery, they all discuss what they would do with the money if they won—most of which are selfish and unrealistic. (Though Usnavi points out that it’s silly to get into hypotheticals and better to make a to-do list and work hard to accomplish your dreams.)
There are several references to the gentrification of Washington Heights. We see how this is harmful to the community since many of them can’t afford the new prices.
A guy spray paints graffiti on several walls. Someone steals from Usnavi’s store. We hear about bribery. We see a brief rivalry between an ice cream truck driver and a sno-cone cart owner.
We see a contortionist dancer during one song that could be unsettling for some audiences.
In the Heights is the latest Broadway adaption from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s probably most famous for his Tony-award-winning phenomenon Hamilton.
Usnavi and his friends grew up learning that if you work hard and live by the rules, money will come and things will come—and those things will complete you.
However, after grinding hard day-in and day-out, they all realize that if you’re too focused on whatever your “dream” is, you might forget what’s right in front of you—friends, family and a community of people willing to stand by you through thick and thin.
They realize that just because things are changing doesn’t mean that nothing remains. Wherever you go, you rep your people. And that means creating a legacy and passing it on to those who follow.
Unlike Hamilton, there’s no f-words heard here. However, we do hear the s-word, as well as several other profanities. There are also several references to sex and a heavy hint at some racial profiling.
In the Heights carries an inspiring message that encourages people to work hard, but in the end, some of the innuendos and foul language could deter audiences from an otherwise fun musical.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.