By Alyssa O’Connell
Lin Manuel Miranda is probably a name you’ve heard by now. With the overwhelming success of his latest musical Hamilton, Miranda’s reports of fame are not an exaggeration (but are due to “the fact that [his] syntax is highly complicated.”) However, this isn’t the first time Miranda has engaged audiences through sharp sentences and move-bustin’ beats. Years prior, in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, a young immigrant took center stage to share a story of growing up in Washington Heights, lovingly referred to as The Heights. The main character, Usnavi, bounces beats in his bodega, a playful rendition of Miranda’s own upbringing as an immigrant. While In the Heights is an American musical, in the sense that it is set in an American neighborhood on the streets of New York and performed in a Broadway theatre also on the streets of New York, it is far from your typical American musical. As a Latinx musical crafted by Latinx writers, In the Heights celebrates an honest representation of immigrant culture through an emphasis on community within the plot, the characters, and the staging choices that juxtapose performances that electrified the American musical stage for years prior.
Skimming the intricate set, a cluster or two of bright colors are meant to catch the audience’s eyes. “I hang my flag up on display / it reminds me that I came from miles away” the ensemble dictates. In the musical’s setting, a barrio in Washington Heights, the individuals use flags to celebrate where they came from and the cultures that shaped them; however, the ensemble doesn’t dwell on which flags are on display. It isn’t about where exactly they are from but what they brought with them; the cultures of their home countries don’t divide these people but instead forge them into a community of immigrants with a shared experience. Without any other context, it might be assumed that the immigrants share the same flag but, in typically fast-talking Usnavi fashion, he casually drops a few countries you might find represented in the barrio “D.R., P.R., we are not stoppin’.” If you so much as adjust yourself in your seat, you might miss it. That’s because to build community, these people lean on what they have in common instead of fixating on their differences. In terms of physical location, they all came from far away to start lives different than the one they had; they all left places they knew and comforting communities of familiar cultures to pursue a different and, hopefully, more fruitful future. As Usnavi puts it “We came to work and to live and we got a lot in common.” The community created in the Heights wasn’t a coincidence but it was actively sought-after in hopes of easing anxiety while navigating an unfamiliar world. While it may not change the world outside the barrio, the fostered community brings comfort and understanding, as the people all attempt to support each other in their current experience as an immigrant. While the community is referred to based on physical location, it is compromised of so much more than a shared space: it’s the shared foundation of ideas, beliefs, experience, and culture from which life is built on. There may be many flags up on display, but the general community isn’t meant to invalidate the individuals and the personal narratives they bring to the table but instead strengthen it. It is in the variation that this idea of community is made even stronger, besides, without any differentiation, life in the Heights would be so boring, but more on that later. With shared experiences and cultural appreciation, this community doesn’t have to derive from the same country of origin but instead finds commonality in their social, mental, and emotional spaces, as well as their current physical space.
Within the hustle and bustle of big dance numbers and sessions of “hot goss,” the characters and relationships highlighted within this community challenge the patriarchal and heteronormative relationships of its musical predecessors. First, with her wisdom and loving-kindness, Abula is the heart and start of the community. Not only is she nothing short of an angel throughout the entire play (too soon?) her presence as the matriarch of the neighborhood receives a jaw-dropping glare from the patriarchal American society outside the barrio walls. She a commanding figure within the play, giving power and guidance to the other characters and curating quite a bit of the musical. In this way, she combats the norms of a male-led society in a way that is subtle and motivated by love instead of a grasp for power. In addition to Abula’s challenging of gender norms, as Usnavi and Benny work a 9 to 5 in the barrio, the ladies are off receiving an education and hopping on elevated trains. Nina and Vanessa both challenge typical feminine roles as the carriers of culture by carrying themselves out of the barrio. While these roles in and of themselves challenge what is typically presented on stage, especially for BIPOC women, they also help cultivate a community that is more accepting of difference as a whole. Outside, but connected to the role of gender, sexuality was intended to have space on the stage. Though it never made it to the final cut of the show, Sonny and Graffiti Pete were supposed to have an intimate moment on stage. Shining a spotlight on a range of identities and the acceptance of those identities furthered the importance and strength of the community as not only an object of comfort and understanding but as a place where everyone can come as they are and feel like they belong.
In direct contrast with this, it seems, is the overarching desire within the story to break out of the barrio and break away from the community it has fostered. However, the characters and audience soon realize, you can take a person out of the barrio, but you can never take the barrio out of them. Nina struggles to find herself within her community at school but revitalizes herself through being back in the barrio, specifically through her love interest Benny. Usnavi also desires to escape the life he’s always known in search of something greater. While Nina ultimately chooses to go back to school with her friends and family’s support, Usnavi realizes the home he has is in the barrio. While the community in the Heights supports the individuals within its walls, it also comforts those that are far away. For Usnavi, he relies on this support in a physical sense while Nina’s financial support and emotional support are harnessed from a distance. There is something safe about being in a group of people that have a shared experience but at some point, an individual also must find themselves throughout the musical, even if that means leaving some part of home behind and making their new definition of what home is. The community that is projected onstage not only looks different but feels different from other portrayals of community on the musical stage and that is due to the comfort and belonging it brings to the characters through their struggles with identity.
Taking a step back and zooming out to the full picture, the characters come together to create a picture of life that allows for an expression of individuality while reinforcing the idea that these people have come together to create something bigger than themselves, a cultural community. The easiest way to see the community is through dance, in which the full ensemble fills the stage and becomes one in the motion of the music (for the most part). Remember that part about variation? Well, that same differentiation in which flags are displayed also takes shape in the bodies on stage. While the individuals may walk differently, pose differently, or activate their hips differently (I mean, come on, we were all looking at the hip action), they all move with the same intentions, with their cultures hitting out their hips and pulling at their feet, fighting the American mold. Much like West Side Story, the dance within the show is meant to be a distinct variation from a typical musical theatre approach to dance and instead focus more heavily on the movement that is common within the cultures of the characters. In addition to the dancing, the casting also lends itself to a visual of a diverse yet connected community on stage. Very intentionally, the cast is comprised of actors that relate to the story being told, either as immigrants themselves or close descendants. While the hair, skin, eyes, and other physical features of the characters may differ from person to person, the community of similarity is still cultivated, especially when compared to the facial features and bodies of those outside the barrio. In this way, the characters in the barrio stand out from the backdrop of New York just as the actors that embody them do. On the stage, the visualization of difference coming together to form a connection represents the community within the show in its most fundamental sense.
In the Heights is not only set in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in New York, the stage it was being performed on (also in New York) meant it was situated within the American musical context. With its emphasis on cultural community and its take on gender norms and the musical elements of casting and dance, In the Heights gained immense success as a musical that sought to celebrate a story of immigration and culture performed by people who shared that experience. However, just because Lin Manuel Miranda wanted to create a piece that accurately presented what it was like to be an immigrant in New York, he never intended to create a piece that was only for the community he was representing; it was the opposite. In a conversation with the Swathmore Departments of Theatre and Spanish, Miranda said “We knew our goal in this show … There are certainly plays that seek to provoke and there are certainly plays that seek to alienate. This is a show that I wanted everyone to feel as welcome as possible in this neighborhood, the same way I felt welcomed in Anatevka, when I saw Fiddler on the Roof, even though that’s totally outside my experience.” The community cultivated onstage even goes further to extend a hand toward the audience and welcome them into the world of Washington Heights. The end goal was to create a story that was as real and raw as it was relatable. Even if the cultural context was something spectators couldn’t relate to, they could relate to the characters, because they weren’t exaggerated stereotypes of Latinx characters crafted through a white lens. Instead, they were real three-dimensional people. If we go back far enough, most of us can probably relate to the themes of immigration in this story. Though Abula is not really his Abula, I relate to the way Usnavi was raised in the culture and speaks with this grandma figure. From the time I could talk I’ve been uttering grammatically incorrect and ill-pronounced phrases in Italian at my Nonno and Nonna around the dining room table piled high with focaccia, sugo di pomodoro, and boxes of scopa cards. While outside the walls of my Nonna’s house, my life is not as immersed in culture as the lives in this play, I can relate to the bilingualism and connection to culture. Beyond that, I can make a first-level connection to Nina. As a college student at a prestigious university, I understand feeling like a fraud and another connection to the story is forged.
When we try to tell stories that aren’t our own or try to put ourselves in communities we don’t understand, it’s not inherently evil but a disconnect between what you want to portray and what makes it to the stage arises. That is why In the Heights can create a community that celebrates Latinx culture for what it is, because it is written through a Latinx lens, not a white one, and therefore attempts to tell an honest story instead of a story that the audiences expect from these characters.