After watching the PBS documentary and unexpectedly coming across a bootleg that featured the original Broadway cast (YouTube always comes in clutch when you least expect, I must say), I became more aware of what Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights intended to do and what it meant for the performers and members of the creative team who were involved. The musical intended to not only showcase the vast diversity of Latinx people and their culture but to provide opportunities for Latinx performers to portray characters that shed a positive light on the many heritages and traditions Latinx people celebrate. And after reading the show’s libretto and taking a glance or two at the YouTube-recommended bootleg, I believe I accomplished these goals. In the Heights does a satisfactory job of highlighting a concept known as multiculturalism. The production most certainly allows spectators to gather awareness of the presence of Latinx identity and the communal cultural heritage that exists in the real-life neighborhood of Washington Heights. However, the story dramatization forces parts of the plot and character representation to become more superficial rather than profound.
Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Into the Heights was a flagship for Hispanic representation on the Broadway stage when it debuted in 2008. Miranda and Hudes’s production was one of the first of its kind to showcase the robust and diverse community of Washington Heights. The show portrays how a collective set of similar beliefs binds together the Latino immigrant community despite community members hailing from different regions of Latin America. The choice to fuse traditional Broadway storytelling with Latin-inspired dance, unapologetic Spanish-speaking characters, and emphasis on the immigrant story advance an intuitive plot that explores what it means to find belonging amongst a close-knit community where cultural differences are welcome. Not only does the musical do this, but it also examines how this sense of belonging functions in an overarching, modern American landscape. Into the Heights employs character relationships, production and design elements, and ensemble performance to demonstrate how multiculturalism, the coexistence of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities, fosters a unique and diverse set of individuals who all find universal belonging in the production’s setting, Washington Heights.
The musical number “Carnaval del Barrio” was one of the most enjoyable numbers to watch. The song emphasizes and celebrates the importance of fostering a cohesive and diverse community amongst its Hispanic characters. The number especially brings to light the importance of helping bring up members of the community during moments of doubt and adversity. During this song, Daniela, the local hair salon owner who comically doubles as the unofficial town crier, rallies members of the Washington Heights community during the hottest Fourth of July, which just so happens to coincide with a citywide blackout. Daniela commands her community to lift its spirits despite the circumstances and join her in song and dance. She wrangles the idling ensemble members into an impromptu neighborhood celebration while singing in not just English, but in Spanish as well. As Daniela seamlessly flows between the two languages, she demonstrates the unique, multicultural characteristic that defines the community of Washington Heights. Her bilingual fluency functions as a bridge that joins the neighborhood’s collective Latino heritage with the American landscape they currently occupy. Daniel’s Spanish functions as a tool that reminds everyone of their heritage and where their families have been before, while English operates as a reminder as to why the characters find themselves in Washington Heights in the first place. Daniela’s ability to speak Spanish does not hinder or prevent the fluency of which she speaks English or vice versa. The performance of the two languages complements each other, offering insight into a community that is just as proud of its ethnic roots as it is to be celebrating Independence Day in the country they call home. Daniela’s words reinforce the multiculturalist message that In the Heights aims to recreate accurately. Daniela successfully demonstrates that Latinx culture and American culture can coexist and create a distinct experience that adapts the cultural values and practices of each character’s heritage into a new setting.
As the number progresses, the ensemble members slowly begin to join Daniela in her Latin celebration. They start off dancing relatively slow and constrained, restricting their movements to simple two-/three-step Latin choreography. Although the ensemble performance remains scaled down during this point of the production number, the Latin influence in their footwork and hip movements is apparent. Together the ensemble, although not positioned in a distinct formation, sway and move their feet in time with the music as if they are a complete unit. While each ensemble character is distinctly separate from the other and performs differently from one another, the timing of their movements altogether unifies them. Each character’s individuality serves as a representation of the wide range of Spanish-speaking countries and territories they represent. Although the ensemble’s dance steps represent various styles and steps of Latin dance, the ensemble appears united as the members all move to the same beat and feed off of each other’s enthusiasm. The ensemble movement effectively functions as a mechanism that fosters bonds amongst the individuals that makeup Washington Heights, once again emphasizing the variety of cultural and ethnic identities amongst Latinx people that can coexist within a singular community. Each body that operates functions as a sect of the multiculturalism that makes up the greater community.
From this point on, the “Carnaval del Barrio” choreography continues to grow with more energy and enthusiasm. Progressing from simple steps and hip sways, the ensemble members burst into highly involved Latin choreography that consists of energetic spinning, punctuated clapping, and enthusiastic flag-waving. During this moment, the three flags that the ensemble members dance with represent the countries and territories of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. These flags are waved proudly above the ensemble’s heads and shaken with vigor, signaling the multi-national pride that exists as Washington Heights proudly celebrates. While each of these flags represents a different country, the synchronous dancing once again unites each individual together. The dancers’ uniformity sends a message that differences in national origin do not prevent community formation. Instead, In the Heights contests that community prospers from collective celebration and recognition of cultural differences.
There is no doubt that “Carnaval del Barrio” is a celebratory explosion of Latinx pride and dance. Unfortunately, I believe the recognition of distinct Latinx culture begins and ends here. Outside of the national flags that hang from the fire escapes and the occasional Spanish interjection, everything else about the characters’ situation seems fairly normal. And let me be clear, normal is not used here with a negative undertone. Normalcy can be good. Normalcy, in this case, can help an audience member relate to the characters within the story, a concept referred to as universality. Universality recognizes that as humans, we are just that, human. We are all the same regardless of our skin color, the traditions we engage in, where our family is from, or the religion we choose the practice. However, it is possible to simultaneously acknowledge that we are all humans that deserve to be treated as such and recognize that society affords different groups of people distinct life experiences. Into the Heights does a great job at conveying the former. But the latter? Not as much.
The Into the Heights finale left me leaning more heavily into the normalcy narrative. I perceived the characters from Washington Heights, everyone from Usnavi to Vanessa to Nina to Sonny, and the real-life group of people they represent as people who deserve to be treated with decency. And if this was the sole narrative Miranda and Hudes wanted to achieve with their work, then they definitely have achieved that goal. However, as someone who was under the impression that In the Heights would educate them on the diversity that exists in Latinx immigrant culture, I was unfortunately underwhelmed. While I did learn about Washington Heights and the diverse community that calls this neighborhood home, I am still left with the bigger question of what distinguishes this group of individuals from each other. While Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic are all represented either visually or through character exposition, the differences in culture in each of these countries are never explicitly explored. Although all of these countries are lingually united, I can’t imagine that a Cuban would full-heartedly agree that Mexican culture is the same as Cuban culture. Yes, Miranda’s characters are Latinx, but Latinx people are not a monolith. And going forward, future theatrical work should actively work against this idea.
Criticism and all, Miranda still manages to create a body of work that provides representation to those who have historically been underrepresented on the Broadway stage. In the Heights successfully subverts negative Latinx stereotypes and offers Latinx performers an opportunity to engage with their cultural heritage through a publicly enjoyed art medium. In the grand scheme of Broadway and entertainment at large, Miranda succeeds in introducing Latinx multiculturalism to a broader audience. Granted, Broadway typically caters to a majority white audience that may or may not perpetuate the same process the musical warns about (ahem, I’m looking at you, Gentrification), but I digress. In the Heights certainly has not been the last Latinx-inspired story to hit Broadway. On Your Feet!, the jukebox musical that retells the life of the legendary Cuban singer-songwriter duo, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, graced the Great White Way in 2015. And I am sure once Broadway starts back up after the pandemic, positive portrayals of Latinx communities will only become more frequent and representative over time. It may not be perfect, but In the Heights is an important stepping stone towards the Latinx representation we should all be championing for.