I will the first one to confess to being an absolutely die-heart Hamilton fan. I love its character, its story, and its use of musical leitmotifs. However, when I listened to Lin Manuel Miranda’s previous musical In the Heights, that story touched me much more deeply than I had expected. Because it is real, and I have seen it.
The characters sing about paying rent and their arrival in the US. They rhyme Spanish and English words.
In the Heights has won 8 Tony Awards and a Grammy. However, it is often overshadowed by Hamilton’s success. Nonetheless, I hope that the ITH film adaptation, which was originally set to be released this June, but moved to 2021, makes the musical more accessible to a wider audience. Particularly to audiences like me, who know what it’s like to mix languages and cultures.
Why? Hamilton is an incredible musical, but In the Heights is about real people that are alive today.
In the Heights is Lin Manuel-Miranda’s first musical. He wrote it while he was still in college long before his Hamilton fame, along with Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book. Both of them based the story on their own experiences. It’s a musical with a seemingly simple plot: the lives of a group of young people living in Washington Heights, a Latino neighborhood of New York City. It’s a rap musical (yes, Hamilton wasn’t the first one) but it also mixes this genre with classical music theatre and Latin sounds and rhythms.
Usnavi is a Dominican bodeguero who dreams of going back to his home country, that his parents left before he can remember. Vanessa, on the other hand, longs to leave the neighborhood and live in the West Village. Nina, back home from university, struggles with the feeling that she’s disappointing her family. Abuela Claudia, who immigrated from Cuba in 1942, is the matriarch of the barrio who takes care of all of them.
I cannot explain with words the happiness that it brought me to listen to a Broadway cast made almost solely of Latinos.
However, it is precisely this simplicity that makes it that much more real and honest. It’s a story about something that we all struggle with: finding our place, and our identity. This is even harder for immigrant families and multicultural people.
One of the characters that touched me the most was Nina. She is someone that has seemingly made it. She is the first one in her family (and the neighborhood) to go to university, and she goes to Stanford. However, she struggles fitting in at university and feels the pressure of everyone’s expectations placed upon her. I think this is something many of us can relate to.
Even Usnavi’s name (from the US Navy) is a representation of the hope in a new future in the US. But at the same time, its pronunciation cannot escape the Latino identity. It might seem like a made-up thing, but I have met many people with names similar to that.
In the Heights also deals with complex issues. The characters struggle to survive and stay in their neighborhood despite the rising gentrification. One of the most moving moments of the play is the song ‘96,000’, where the characters discuss the things that they would do if they won the lottery.
“With 96,000, I’d finally fix housing / give the barrio computers and wireless web browsing / your kids are living without a good education change the station, / teach them about gentrification / the rent is escalating,” Sonny sings.
The characters sing about paying rent and their arrival in the US. They rhyme Spanish words with English ones, as people who have been brought up in both cultures would do.
Hamilton is an incredible musical but In the Heights is about real people, that are alive today.
I cannot explain with words the happiness that it brought me to listen to a Broadway cast made almost solely of Latinos, who sing about the things that mattered to them, removed from the gangs and crime stereotypes of shows like West Side Story.
I love how Miranda deals with very complex issues such as multiculturalism. He shows the struggle to reconcile the Latino and American identity. The show explores how characters hold on to their culture and the place they came from, while also being excited about the opportunities that the United States provides and the community that they have found there.
They sing: “In the Heights, I hang my flag up on display, / it reminds me that I came from miles away.” That sentence alone reminded me of how much I appreciated Spanish culture myself once I left the country to study in the UK.
I was very happy to see the producers maintain the Latino cast for the movie version. Moreover, in the trailer, it seems like the musical will be updated to touch on some of the most recent events that have been affecting the Latino community, such as the Dreamer’s Act. I am very excited to see how this is portrayed. Watching Lin Manuel Miranda’s acceptance rap at the Tony’s, where he raised the Dominican flag, gives me hope that they will do it right.
Although I have not seen In the Heights live. I am dying to. I can’t wait for the moment where I can see Spanish and English mixed onstage (or on-screen) while the stories of those people that always thought of themselves as invisible are presented to the audience. Until then, I will wait while listening to the cast recording with paciencia y fe.
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