By Emily Goulding
Special to Hispanic Link Weekly Report
The theater is dark, and the only sound to be heard throughout the Richard Rogers Theatre on 46th St. is the lush, languorous skip of a traditional Caribbean bolero. The audience is transported back in time, but not for long –the record soon begins to skip and repetitiously trip over itself until the song’s choppy new rhythm turns into hip-hop. Para siempre, para siempre, para siempre, we hear – forever, and ever, and ever.
The Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights about the Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in upper New York City is a musical about making home. It is about permanence, and about meaning. In the Heights is about sticking around, and in the process, finding oneself. And while it has received critical praise for its original scoring, sharp acting, and expert storytelling techniques, it mainly deserves praise for marking a new phase in American musical theater by portraying – and celebrating – the modern Latino community as it is, on stage and in triple-time.
The Latino community has been subject to intense anti-immigrant sentiment for the past couple years. Overly simplistic visions of the community as quick-footed and temporal members of U.S. society have abounded in politics, media, and entertainment, and In the Heights contests them in a real and very powerful way.
On stage here is an aspirational community that celebrates and communicates in reggaeton; that loves living in a majority-Latino barrio but also dreams of leaving someday; that dreams, jokes, and curses in Spanish, English and yes, Yiddish; that sends some people off to Stanford University and tends to others who will live within the same five-block radius their entire lives. In the Heights lights up a Latino neighborhood that sings altogether in tune, that always knows everyone else’s business, but is always – always - complex.
In the Heights tells the story of ordinary life lived in an unordinary way. The very normal, ubiquitous processes of worrying about how to talk with parents, how to pay bills, how to be fully understood by one’s peers, and wearing cargo pants and little ballet flats is made distinct by the constant mental toggle between 2 modalities: the cultural lexicon of Latin America and the cultural lexicon of the United States. In the play, the concerns and realities of 1st and 2nd generation immigrants weave cycles through each other, and act in a seamless tandem.
This preoccupation to find a true sense of home does not have to do specifically with immigration though, but rather simple migration. In the Heights humanizes the psychology of inter-national and intra-national movement by showing that sometimes, moving down the street can be just as emotionally significant as moving out of the country.
The plot is built around two sets of young couples trying to find themselves but getting up, getting out, or getting over. Usnavi, the main character who was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the States as an infant named after the onomatopoeia of a U.S. Navy ship, dreams of going back to an island he admits is mostly a fiction for him. The woman he has a crush on, Vanessa, was born in Washington Heights, and dreams of moving to Downtown Manhattan.
The other couple, Benny and Mina, are two New York-born kids whose only barriers between them are differences in professional aspirations – Benny and Mina are in love, but Mina got accepted into Stanford University, and Benny works at her father’s taxi dispatch company, where he has worked since he was in high school. Mina, the native-born, book-smart heroine who aspires for white-collar life, is many ways the “star” character of the show acting as the functional double of the street-smart Usnavi who aspires to once again live on the island. Mina articulates her neighborhood’s broader struggle with reconciling conflicting intellectual legacies with songs like “Everything I Know,” where she values the teachings of the rural Cuban-born abuela grandmother character, and “Breathe,” where she ruminates about her perpetual feeling of displacement and discomfort with re-acculturating to Washington Heights after going away to California for college. Mina’s touching lyrics that she “…used to think we lived at the top of the world/When the world was just a subway map/And the 1-9 crossed a dotted line to my place” prove that places are not important because of power, but rather because of emotional significance. As opposed to the staid dorm rooms of an Ivy League institution, Mina felt she lived “at the top of the world” on the iron fire escapes of her childhood apartment building.
More moves the plot than a concern for place and movement, though. (After all, that would be overly simplistic!) In the Heights shows the various day-to-day realities that compose Latino life, including the good, the boring, and the ugly. Tight-knit relationships with a deep sense of family commitment lance the plot forward, but issues such as lack of financial literacy and ethnocentrism undermine those advancements. For instance, Vanessa has problems moving Downtown because her credit is poor. The reason her credit it poor is due to the fact that she is unbanked; as she says in the opening song, she keeps her security deposit in a box in her closet, so it doesn’t show up on her bank statement, and she subsequently can’t “…make a down payment/And pay rent.” Benny has romantic problems with Mina’s family because he is African-American; even though he culturally associates with Latinos and knows Spanish from growing up around Caribbean folks his whole life, he is firmly, constantly told he will never fully “understand” the community he has lived his whole life in.
In the Heights does its work in an aesthetic vocabulary built in equal parts by West Side Story, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the social realist works of Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, rapper Mos Def, and the salsa and reggaeton music of Hector LaVoe and Wisin y Yandel from Puerto Rico. The choreography is also a unique mélange. It is more physical theater than it is pure “dance.” Salsa - whose actual popularity in the Caribbean has steadily declined since its heyday in the late 80’s– is only danced once; in its stead, the main physical vocabulary of the show is hip-hop.
This mix of melodic romanticism and dystopic, hip-hop twined rhymes gives In the Heights is unique, informed, and empowered 21st century flavor. In the Heights shows that the evolution of culture – and the politics of culture – is a march that goes on and on, - no pare, sigue, sigue. Somewhere in between prose and street slang, in between four-year universities and day jobs, is Latino-American reality – a reality that’s here to stay, para siempre, para siempre.
Indeed, issues of “staying” are what brings the plot to a close. At the end of the play, the abuela character wins the lotto, parceling the money evenly between Usnavi and other neighborhood leaders. Instead of deciding to continue to dream about finding himself elsewhere, Usnavi decides to stay and invest in the neighborhood. Usnavi (and by extension, the actor and show author Lin Manuel-Mirandes, who is from the Washington Heights area) decides to claim his Home – onstage, for all to see, in the artistic capital of the country.
With this (albeit theatrical) announcement, an area that was formerly viewed by many to be just a pass-through portion of Manhattan 80 blocks above of what is important has now been put on the city’s psychological map as a place that matters, and above all a place that is special.
In his spoken word soliloquy finale, Usnavi confesses,
“Yeah, I’m a streetlight, chillin’ in the heat/
I illuminate the stories of the people in the street/
Some have happy endings, some are bittersweet/
But I love them all and that’s what makes my life complete/
If not me, then who keeps our legacies?/…
This corner is my destiny.”
While the entire finale is incredibly moving, one of the last sentences of the play is delivered with particular passion:
“I found my island I’ve been wanting this whole time/
This is the stuff that politicians like Congressman Sensenbrenner (who in 2006 single-handedly authored what was arguably the Republican party’s biggest public affairs disaster vis à vis Latinos in the past decade, H.R. 4772) and ex-California Governor Pete Wilson (who authored the draconian Proposition 187 of the mid-1990’s) don’t want to hear. For what it’s worth, this is also the stuff that many entertainment industry executives – who, often overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the Latino community opt to finance more simplistic offerings– also haven’t wanted to or simply haven’t heard before.
This is also the stuff that the Tony award committee deemed the best production of the 2008 in a whopping four categories - for Best Musical, Best Original Choreography, Best Original Score, and Best Orchestrations.
Latinos are the largest ethnic minority group in the country, and finally a musical has been made that chronicles the lives, dreams, and hopes of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation Latinos in a realistic – and even fantastic- format. This new theatrical language that In the Heights has brought forth – perhaps the most important of which is the very fact that high art can and should be made about Latino life– is truly revolutionary. It has to do with power – the power of song, and the power of presentation. On stage is a world beautiful enough to sing songs about, with songs good enough to become part of our national cultural lexicon. And seated is an audience that has, at one level or another, made a new emotional home in a community that maybe they weren’t familiar with.
With In the Heights, instead of the melodic but tired tunes of Carousel or Chicago, the New York theater-going public can now sing along to a reggaeton version of a taxi-cab dispatch, or the heartfelt musical memoir of a Cuban grandmother as she reflects on her immigration experience, her loneliness, her poverty, and the bittersweet passing of time. (The cast album is already a bestseller on Amazon.com) In the Heights is, at the end of the day, just a great musical, as it does what musical theater does best – it uses story to enchant us, to educate us, and to enrapture us. This production does what very few others do, though - it enraptures us with reality, even if that reality isn’t our own.
This is the kind of cross-identification process that can make us collectively fall in love with our cities again. Beyond patriotism, we have joint pride in our shared places – pride in our shared spaces – and pride in our shared urban lives together.
This is good for Broadway … no pare, sigue, sigue!
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