Heightened Exposure: In The Heights
When In The Heights opened Off-Broadway in the summer of 2007, no one could have guessed that it would move to Broadway and become one of the most popular hits of the season.
After making the transfer, it’s clear that it exceeded everyone’s expectations and then some. Movmnt gets cozy with the hearts and souls of the show and finds out what gives this Tony Award winning Best Musical its pulsing beat.
Not since West Side Story debuted in 1957 has Latino vibrato echoed center stage with the kind of jubilance that transcends cultures and possess mass appeal. Heights is innovative and modern, but unlike American youth culture, the show reveres its ancestry. No matter how far astray the syncopations and bass thumps edge the music, or the grit and grime of rapping make it sound like it jumped out of the radio, the songs are rooted in a classic Broadway vocabulary. Because when all is said and rapped, Heights is still a bona fide Broadway musical. And although Lin-Manuel Miranda credits his musical predecessor as “one of the greatest [shows] ever written” he quickly notes how its social commentary has provided a sort of stigma for Latinos, a blessing and a curse. Perhaps the core of this “curse” is also Miranda’s blessing. Unlike West Side Story, Heights sings a Latino voice, cultivated from a genuine Latino mind.
The adage, “the show must go on” must have never encountered technical sound issues. But as In The Heights composer and breakthrough star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, walks on stage to address the antsy crowd, it is clear something is wrong. The set, which portrays a slice of the uptown neighborhood, Washington Heights, looks strangely inauthentic sans the vibrant fiesta of children, street vendors, and the boom-box soundtrack that greets cabs en route beyond 180th street. After an explanation and apology for an uncommon technical delay, he begins to fill the stage with the needed energy and satiates the audience’s growing hunger for Broadway spectacle with an impromptu rap incorporating selected theatergoers into his amusing banter. Miranda is a true showman, and in this moment of improv, we encounter a slight glimpse into the wonder behind his frenetic, witty mind and raw voice– a voice that lends itself to a new inspection and celebration of the Latino community.
Performer and Heights assistant choreographer Luis Salgado was all too familiar with this curse. When he read in the blogs that the show he was working on prior to Heights would probably not see a Broadway opening due mainly to the fact that its cast was predominantly Latino, he couldn’t help but feel a slight pang of uncertainty. He had fought adversity and doubt on every front, including his parents, who were not quick to celebrate his love for the arts.
Mambo Kings (which was slated to open on Broadway in 2005) never reached New York, although the ripples of those blog postings resonated in the psyche of Salgado, who couldn’t help but wonder if they were right. Salgado, after all, was born in Puerto Rico, and unlike Miranda, who found artistic nurture in the bastion of Wesleyan University, Salgado’s ambitions left him fending for his own. His parents preferred he pursue a career in medicine or law, and it wasn’t until he started his own dance school at the age of 17 that they began to take him seriously. So he took his passion and wandered over to New York, where he found, as he best puts it, “[his] Disney World.”
“It was paradise, I could take a dance class any time, in any style. In Puerto Rico you had to wait ’til Wednesday at 8pm to take a jazz class.” Salgado adds, “Here you could take a class at eight at night or eight in the morning! “With new direction and instruction, Salgado implemented a new philosophy. “When I first came to NY, I tried very hard to stay away from my Latin influences because they came too easy for me. It”s who I am. I wanted to push myself so far away from what was my comfort zone.”
With the kaleidoscopic hues of performers in New York, Broadway, like most American media outlets, is still recovering from a deficiency in providing performers like Salgado their respective spotlights. Luckily, Salgado’s assimilation into musical theater found salvation in his heritage. “It wasn’t until Mambo Kings that I realized…I need to celebrate who I am and my culture. I don’t need to limit myself. I will have the opportunity to do everything else that I also love, but it’s only by celebrating the one thing that I am, that all of the other things will happen.” For Salgado, and every performer like him bearing the sometimes marvelous, sometimes stifling burden of being Latino on Broadway, vindication got its opening night.
Like Washington Heights (the neighborhood where the show takes place), the cast of In The Heights is eclectic and gutsy. The show is a visual melting pot of urban flair rooted with distinctive traditions of other worlds. Rhythmic beats adorned with rap soliloquies compel an unforeseen admiration for a genre not yet heard on a Broadway stage; a genre best encapsulated in that moment of technical blunder, when Miranda’s freestyle rap vacillated to show tune camp as an audience member requested the cast sing a few numbers, to which he replied, “We don’t have voices like Ethel Merman, we need to fix the mics.”
If the nuisance of technical issues yielded Miranda’s improvisational antics, then all was forgiven when the lights gleamed as the show opened. In a sort of graffiti symphony, the story goes through three days of life in Washington Heights, exploring the different aspects of struggle contained in the tight-knit neighborhood. Miranda, who leads the cast as Usnavi (the proprietor of the local bodega), blazes the stage with the opening number rightfully titled In The Heights. The number infuses the vibrancy of the neighborhood with a counterpoint: all the frustrations of unpaid bills and heat waves.
We are introduced to the cast of eccentric characters, like the owners of a car service and their daughter, Nina (Mandy Gonzalez) who has just returned home from Stanford University. Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), whom Usnavi considers his grandmother, tickles the stars and purchases a lottery ticket — unknowingly altering the fate of her loved ones. Before destinies can be etched, Heights explores relevant social issues like Nina’s struggle to pursue higher learning in lieu of her parent’s financial welfare. Gentrification and assimilation incite characters to move on, or ‘to the West Village.’ Luck, love, and lottery culminate in an award-winning musical that poses the same question to today’s immigrants as it did to the passengers of the Mayflower, or as Miranda puts it “essentially, a question of home– and what, or where, home ultimately is.”
In a city that is the cultural Mecca of the world, Heights has ushered a new crop of theater aficionados. Luis Salgado broke his subtle machismo with a misty observation of a crowning moment in his career. His mother had always enjoyed his performances, but never seemed immersed in anything beyond his solos. After watching In The Heights, Luis was met by his mother’s excitement and meticulous mental notations on the production and story. She wanted to share her thoughts about characters and songs. It was a rare and special moment for Salgado.
Cast member Nina LaFarga, who is a first generation American to immigrant parents from Cuba and Trinidad, also reveled in her family’s emotional reactions, although her father, sadly passed away before the show’s Broadway run. Prior to Heights, LaFarga (whose killer looks are made for music videos) danced with the likes of Mya, Jennifer Lopez and Alicia Keys, as well as in Broadway shows like Aida, and Sweet Charity. But this show allowed her to embrace her ancestry in a way those other jobs didn’t. “The story of the show is about immigrants moving from other countries in general, but specifically Cuba and other Spanish countries. I was seeing my life in this art piece, in this show. And what was difficult for me was finally I’m in this show that’s about me, something that my father could really understand.” Nina, with a bittersweet smile adds, “I wanted him [to] see me doing something that represented our culture and he was never able to do that.”
Heights has a universal story about human struggle that is aided by its abundance of musical styles. Shaun Taylor-Corbett, whose small stature defies his enthusiasm, avidly attests to this. The product of parents both prolific by their own measure in the entertainment industry (his mother choreographed the movie Fame), Shaun is adamant about the power that the diversity in the show produces. “It’s a revolutionary show that hits home with musical theater lovers and people who have never seen musical theater.” Although he is only an”honorary Latino,” as he jokingly alludes to the character Benny in the show, his love for Heights is genuine corazon.
With a cast equipped with experience ranging from Priscilla Lopez’s legendary Diana Morales in the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line, to Seth Stewart’s stint dancing on tour for Janet Jackson and Madonna, one can see the dynamic mélange of performers and backgrounds that incite the show’s unique synergy. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler didn’t cast dancers with traditional dance backgrounds. Blankenbuehler’s talent of conveying a dance landscape true to the streets required dancers whose abilities interpreted these gyrations authentically.
It’s that authenticity from every level of the creative team that makes Heights such a captivating evening. When posed with the question of choosing one singular moment in the show that captures its true essence, Miranda’s choice was definitive. “There’s a character in the show, the piragua guy,” he notes of the flavored ice street vendors synonymous to Washington Heights, “he sings,” keep scraping by, keep scraping by “I think he’s a perfect metaphor for anyone in this community. The odds are stacked economically against you and you just gotta keep scraping and hawking what you’ve got.” After scraping and hawking from Puerto Rico to the George Washington Bridge to the Great White Way, In The Heights and its spectacular cast serves us something worth savoring.
Text and interviews by Jayzel SamontePhotography by River Cark - riverclark.com
Styling by Paloma