Broadway Hip Hops to New Heights

I was terrified for the day that hip hop music would suddenly burst onto a Broadway stage. Rock music was one thing, I thought, but I had to draw the line somewhere. I was so afraid that all of a sudden Jay-Z and P Diddy and Rihanna and Beyonce would burst into my world, and shove Idina and Sutton and Gavin and Nathan aside and that would be it. I also knew that I sounded just like those old men who write scholarly books about “the day the musical died” who always sound so utterly pretentious and whose opinions are so narrow and their eyes and their hearts are so small. And that scared me too. God forbid that I should become one of them, preaching about how the day that microphones and belting were introduced, Broadway ceased to be Broadway and crap replaced art on the Great White Way.
And then I saw In the Heights and my fears all evaporated. In the Heights is the Tony Award Winner for Best Musical (2008) and it was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics) and Quiara Alegria Hudes (book). It is the perfect melding of hip hop music, which in this context is poetry infused with a different energy, and more emblematic musical theatre songs. Together, they do exactly what I feel West Side Story doesn’t do, which is one of the main issues I have with that show, here the story is told in the language of the characters and as an audience you feel as though you are submerged in a very specific world with its own language, depth and energy. The music is beautiful, and powerful, and the mixing of styles is so indicative of the world we live in, especially in Manhattan, where influences, languages, experiences, and ethnicities are shared and continually overlapped. I love Nina’s song “Breathe,” which is one of the obligatory female belt-numbers, but also find :”96,000” and “Carnival del Barrio” irresistible, while “Paciencia y Fe” and “Alabanza” are heartbreaking. This musical is just as bilingual as Laurents’ West Side Story but it seems more organic and balanced, as at no time did I feel at all alienated or worried about losing the plot.
In the Heights reminds me a lot of Rent (Jonathan Larson, 1996) as like Larson, it is obvious that Miranda wanted to give a voice to the community of Washington Heights, and to honor it in music. The general similarities are plenty, but the differences between Washington Heights and Alphabet City are so numerous, that In the Heights stands its own distinct ground and it does it proudly and genuinely. Like in Rent, and as I would imagine the Original Cast of Rent to be, the love and earnestness and joy in the writing and in the performances are so heartwarming, it is nearly impossible to not be touched. There is a character in the show, Abuela Claudia, who sings the praise of the things most people overlook, like bread crumbs and stars, and so too is Miranda praising these overlooked people and their stories in that “seasons of love” sort of way.
The performances in this show are amazing. I have the Original Cast Recording, and as great as it is, it is clear that the cast has grown and discovered so much more richness in their characters since that recording was made. Olga Merediz is outstanding as Abuela Claudia, the heart and soul of the barrio- she tears the house down with “Paciencia y Fe.” There is comic genius at play with Daniela and Carla (Janet Dacal and Andrea Burns respectively), Rick Negrón and Priscilla Lopez play fantastic parents who tackle both extreme pride in their daughter and utmost concern. Marcy Harriell is fantastically strong as Vanessa, a girl determined to do whatever it takes to get out of Washington Heights. Javier Muñoz is delightful as the apprehensive, goodhearted, earnest Usnavi who lives his life to honor his dead parents. Mandy Gonzalez shines brightly as Nina, the overachiever who struggles to find a place in the ethnic hodgepodge where she truly belongs. Gonzalez has such nuance in her performance, there is such subtly there, and she has the biggest, most enchanting dimples I have ever seen! She’s one of those performers that people fall in love with straight away. For me, the star of the show was Robin de Jesus as Sonny, who is like the Shakespearean fool of the piece. He infused such genuine vulnerability into the humor of his character, I was immediately captivated. He also has this amazing freestyle in the middle of “96,000” that leaves the audience breathless. He has made Sonny such a likeable, honest, character, and one that I think the audience perpetually worries about. At one point near the end of the show Vanessa tells Usnavi, “it’s not like Sonny’s got role models” and the audience is driven to feel protective of him like that as well, as the potential in him shines so strong.
In the Heights is firmly rooted in a New York sensibility. There were jokes the audience laughed at that I didn’t even kind of understand. It speaks of a place I have never been to and an experience I have never had. And yet, it truly touched my heart. It’s not supremely sophisticated, it won’t make you feel pretentious, and it doesn’t even pretend to be important, “I am Usnavi and you prob’ly never heard my name/ reports of my fame/ are greatly exaggerated” but none of this matters. Like Abuela Claudia, saying Alabanza to the birds and cold bottles everyone takes for granted, In the Heights honours this story and I guarantee by the end, you will hold it with respect in your heart as well.
In the Heights plays at the Richard Rodgers Theatre 226 West 46th Street, on Broadway in New York. For tickets visit http://www.ticketmaster.com/ or http://www.broadway.com/.

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