The summer after my senior year, I realized that if I were to move past high school and onto college, my Broadway Showtunes playlist had to reflect that growth. I looked up a list of Broadway hits and started listening to find new additions. When I first heard “Breathe” from In the Heights, I started sobbing my eyes out. I had been feeling anxious about going to Vanderbilt since I was accepted, but I was never able to verbalize what I was anxious about.
Listening to this song, I finally recognized the amount of pressure I was feeling to succeed: pressure from my family to make them proud, pressure from my friends to show that a Cabrini girl could make it at such a prestigious school, pressure from Vanderbilt to do well enough to keep my financial aid. The midpoint of the song encapsulated how I felt whenever I would try to talk to my family about how I was worried about going to Vanderbilt. In the background, the listener hears the community of Washington Heights praising Nina in Spanish, but Nina’s inner monolog overlaps, expressing her worries. There was always this disconnect between me, feeling nervous, and my family, having faith in me, that made me think they could never understand how I felt.
When I started classes at Vanderbilt, I overcame some of these anxieties, but new ones soon took their place. Whenever I felt overwhelmed by this pressure to succeed, I would listen to “Breathe” and feel a little relief. I may have felt like I was being crushed by other people’s expectations of me, but someone else understood how I felt.
When I saw that we might be studying In the Heights for this course, I wasn’t sure how to feel. I had seen the trailers for the 2021 film version, directed by Jon M. Chu, and knew it would be amazing from a production standpoint. However, I had this feeling that I would ultimately be disappointed. I figured that the connection I felt to “Breathe” would be the only way I could relate to a musical written in the early 2000s about the latinx community in New York. However, after watching this musical I realized that I had a much deeper connection with the people of Washington Heights than I first thought.
Back home, I live with my grandmother, who used to be a hairdresser. Because my grandparents could not afford to lease a storefront, my grandmother and my aunt (who’s not really my aunt) opened a salon in the backroom of our house. The up-tempo, bright singing in “No Me Diga” reminds me so much of sitting in that backroom, listening to the regular customers laugh while they get their hair done that I can almost smell the perm solution.
Since my grandmother has stopped doing hair, she has come to more closely resemble Abuela Claudia. She loves taking care of everyone in our neighborhood, finds small ways to assert her dignity, and tends to treat herself to a lottery ticket but then forgets to check the numbers (but believe me, I will definitely go get her a ticket whenever she asks from now on).
While I was able to draw these comparisons despite the fact that I am not latina, there were notable points in the story that I did not relate to. One such example is Abuela Claudia, especially when she sings “Paciencia y Fe”. I will never experience the events that Abuela Claudia sings about: I did not have to move hundreds of miles away from my home to a new country, watch my mother struggle to find work, get a job to support my family, or learn English as a second language. However, the emotion that Olga Merediz infuses into the performance and the dynamic movement of the backup dancers tells a story that the audience cannot help but feel empathetic for.
Another example is when Usnavi asks Sonny’s father if Sonny can come with him to the Dominican Republic. In a somber tone, Sonny’s father highlights the fact that Usnavi pays Sonny in cash. Watching this scene, I had no idea what he was implying. However, when Sonny expresses to Nina that he is undocumented, the connection clicked and my heart broke. While attending college, especially a school like Vanderbilt, was difficult for me, it was never as unreachable as the position Sonny is in. Again, I have never gone through the experience that Sonny is going through, but the dramatic structure that explains this part of his story elicits such empathy.
Being able to appreciate the connections while recognizing the differences between my life and In the Heights showcases the musical’s cultural relevance. The show’s 11 o’clock number, “Carnaval del Barrio”, highlights the fact that the community of Washington Heights is made up of people from many different countries in Latin America. While they all experience the greater sense of community by living in Washington Heights, there is no one right way to be a part of the Washington Heights community. The main example we see throughout the story is how the main characters envision their futures. Nina and Vanessa want to leave Washington Heights, going to different places in America. Usnavi wants to go back to the Dominican Republic to reconnect with his roots. Sonny wants to stay in Washington Heights, helping the neighborhood to grow. None of these opinions are presented as the “correct” option.
This idea that a community is not a box that the members must fit in allows a white girl, like me, to feel understood by this musical.
The fact that there are parts of this story that I do not personally connect with does not invalidate the fact that other parts provide me with comfort and understanding. It is this connection that highlights the importance of giving different communities a platform to tell their stories. A group that I am not a part of sharing their stories does not lessen my experiences. Musicals, like In the Heights, allow people to recognize the similarities they share with others and better understand their differences.