In the Heights has played a huge role in the lives of the actors who created and originated in the original Broadway musical. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda became an overnight superstar on Broadway. After the success of In the Heights and another Award-winning musical Hamilton, Miranda became a National Treasure. He was also credited for discovering the actors who performed in his musicals, including Anthony Ramos, who is now starring as Usnavi, a role that Miranda originated on Broadway.
Ramos was just a young college student at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York when he received a free ticket to Miranda’s In the Heights on Broadway. Back then, there weren’t many stories for LatinX actors, and he questioned whether or not this was the right industry for him. Teachers told him to grow his hair out so he could look more ethnically ambiguous and that he “should speak in American Standard” English. It all changed when he watched In the Heights on Broadway.
“I’m seeing all these people on stage spitting and rap-rapping and talking-singing about this and that,” said Ramos during the In the Heights virtual event yesterday. “[They were] singing about the food that I grew up eating and talking about blocks that I used to chill on. Seeing people who looked like me and sounded like me.”
Ramos felt joy watching the performance and knew this was it for him, “That’s it. I can’t quit.”
The film also has a special place in Ramos’ heart after watching an early screening and the trailers leading up to the release. Being from Bushwick in Brooklyn, New York, Ramos had a similar experience growing as a Puerto Rican or as he likes to call it ‘Nuyorican.’ He saw his family, friends, and community reflected in this film.
“I’ve never seen a film where somebody looked like my grandmother,” said Ramos. “Somebody looked like my tia. Somebody looked like my cousin. Someone who looked like my man’s who lives on Linden and Grove. You know what I’m saying like my boy from Knickerbocker in Bushwick and you know, craving the piragua, the food, the pulse, the salsa. I’ve never seen anything where there’s 75 Latinos in the middle of the street dancing and singing full choreography and everything. Like, singing about pride and where they come from. In my life, I’ve never seen it. So, I just get emotional when I think about this movie and what it means to me, and the culture for real.”
In the film, Ramos plays Usnavi, a charismatic bodega owner who saves every penny from his daily grind as he dreams for a better life. Ramos found this story relatable, especially to the idea of dreaming. Usnavi has a sueñito — aka little dream — of getting out of the barrio and living in the Dominican Republic, where his family was from.
“I think we all have small dreams or big dreams,” Ramos expressed passionately. “I think this movie is all about that. Everybody in this movie has a dream, everyone’s got a goal, and we see how each person individually goes after those things and how they go about that and the day to day life in their day to day lives. The things that come their way, the obstacles that are presented to them, that may prevent them from getting these things. The way that this community, not just one character, but how all of them persevere and how all of them make a way for themselves. I think we all have a dream.”
He also hopes that people who watch this movie will take the same message he took when he watched it on stage — hope.
“Not to be cliche, but [to have] the courage to dream,” Ramos shared. “It’s not crazy — your dreams ain’t crazy. I dreamed of being a leading man in something. Anything. Put me in a play in a theatre in the back, a theatre in the back alley. Somebody give me a role. I’m trying to be the lead. I’m just like somebody pay me to act. I found [it] and I’m just so grateful to God that you know sometimes when you just keep dreaming, don’t give up, and you just keep standing up here. It’s fine just waiting.”
Ramos raised his hand when asked if anyone had tears in his eyes from watching the trailer.
“It baffles my mind that some little Latin kid in the hood somewhere is going to be able to see this and be like ‘yo,’” said Ramos. “You have to dream.”
Lights up on Washington Heights… The scent of a cafecito caliente hangs in the air just outside of the 181st Street subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies this vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is the likable, magnetic bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who saves every penny from his daily grind as he hopes, imagines and sings about a better life.
In the Heights premieres on June 18 on HBO Max.