If In the Heights Was Set in New Orleans

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.

My dad and I the day I was accepted to Vanderbilt

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.

“The Fall of [Miss] Saigon”: Racism and Representation

By Juyoung Kim, Amanda Sisung, and Jessica Zhang

In THTR 3333, students study the 25th Anniversary performance of Miss Saigon directed by Laurence Connor and Brett Sullivan. Miss Saigon is a famous (or perhaps infamous) 1989 musical written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. Inspired by Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, the musical depicts love and tragedy in the Vietnam War. Students were asked to post an analysis of characters in the Musical and how they depict racial biases to a Brightspace discussion board. This assignment sparked an interesting conversation between three students. As the students discussed individual characters of the production, they came to realize that because race is a nuanced and complex social construct, its representation is inherently difficult and is influenced by racial biases whether consciously or not. The discussion page and replies are pictured below.

Amanda chose to write about Kim.

Juyoung chose to write about Chris.

Jessica chose to write about the Engineer.

ThroUgh their discussion, the students cAme to realiZe that Miss Saigon demonstrates moments of true representation as well as stereotypical racial biases, and the intermingling of these moments result in the riveting and problematic spectacle that is still loved to this day.

Katherine Plumber: Feminist Icon for the Patriarchy

The 2017 recording of Disney’s stage production of Newsies tells the story of a young and plucky trail-blazer that risks it all to make history: Katherine Plumber. Of course, Katherine’s story is a part of the larger telling of the newsboy strike of 1899, led by Jack Kelly. While Katherine and her writing talents are essential to a successful strike, this is not her character’s only purpose. She also fulfills the oh, so necessary role of Jack’s love interest. Interestingly Katherine Plumber is not a character in the original 1992 film of Newsies. In adapting the story for the stage, Harvey Fierstein replaces Bryan Denton and Sarah Jacobs with our leading lady.  

Bryan Denton, reporter for The Sun (Newsies, 1992)

Sarah Jacobs, sister to David and Les & Jack’s love interest (Newsies, 1992)

In the musical, the importance of Katherine’s role as a reporter is obvious. Her publication of the original strike story in act 1 and her idea to write The Newsies Banner in act 2 gives the strike the public attention needed to make change. Therefore, Fierstein needed to include a reporter character that is willing to help the newsies. This begs the question: why make this character a woman? Katherine’s agency, showcased through the newly added number of “Watch What Happens”, provides the argument that making the reporter character a woman creates a rarity for the Broadway stage: a female character that has an important part to play in the plot of the story. As a feminist and female performer, I desperately want this narrative to be true, and it is to a certain extent. However, why does Fierstein also have to make Katherine Jack’s love interest? Fierstein includes Katherine’s relationship with Jack to confirm his masculinity, emphasizing Jack as the main character.

Katherine first shows her agency in the dialog break between “The World Will Know” and “The World Will Know” (reprise). When Jack jokingly asks if she is there for him she replies, “The only thing I’m following is a story.” This line asserts that Katherine is, first and foremost, a reporter. Kara Lindsay’s excitement when the reprise begins confirms that Katherine is after the story, not Jack. Her facial expressions and body language show that Katherine is excited for her big break, and this acting leads right into “Watch What Happens.” Throughout this number, Katherine goes against the norm of a female lead. This “I want” song is about her career aspirations, not about the boy, as many leading lady’s “I want” songs are. The staging of this song further supports the idea that Katherine is not your typical female character. Throughout the song, Lindsay uses space. She moves across the entire stage and fills the space with big arm movements and a spread stance. Compare this to Julie Andrews performance of “In My Own Little Corner” in the 1957 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Julie Andrews conveys that she is a good girl, mild and meek, through her small movements and confinement. 

Katherine claims her space in “Watch What Happens”

Writers Alan Menken and Jack Feldman and choreographer Christopher Gattelli further show that Katherine’s agency is crucial to and accepted by the newsies in “King of New York”.

“She’s the king of New York.”

-Race, “King of New York”

The newsies sing, “We was sunk, pale and pitiful / … / She fished us out and drowned us in ink.” They could not have accomplished what they have at this point without Katherine’s help, showing that Katherine has the power to direct the story. Furthermore, Gattelli’s choreography shows that she has even more agency than the newsies; she is able to do things that they cannot. When the newsies have Katherine take the spotlight in the tap number, she includes displays of flexibility that leave the newsies in awe. 

Race is shocked by Katherine’s abilities

Katherine has the means to make a difference, even without the help of her powerful father. She has the intrinsic motivation to write the story on the strike; as she sings in “Watch What Happens”, “This is what I’ve been waiting for.” She has the ability to make the story successful; her story makes the front page “above the fold”. There is no need for her to solidify her place in the show through her romance with Jack. This nonsense is evident in the discrepancy between Katherine’s and Jack’s ages. The crux of this story is that Jack and the other newsies are children. The show promotes the message that newsies and the other child workers should be allowed to be kids, not to be disrespected as laborers. 

“Each generation must, at the height of its power, step aside and invite the young to share the day.”

– Governor Roosevelt

Therefore, one has to assume that Katherine, the working girl that comes up with the idea to expand the strike to all child workers, cannot be a child herself. A relationship between a boy and a woman in a show that emphasizes children’s rights uncomfortably forces this love story onto the audience. In the 1992 movie, Jack’s fling with Sarah is much easier to accept because she is also a child. So what is so important about this relationship that Fierstein needs to provide Jack with a love interest, even if she is illogically older than him? The romance is not included because Katherine needs Jack (or even because she loves Jack) but because Jack needs Katherine.

Jack’s power as the leader of the newsies comes from his masculinity. As Pulitzer says, Jack is “Mr. Tough Guy”. However, analysis of Jack’s character shows that he is not this perfect display of masculinity that the other newsies see. He dreams of running away to Santa Fe so he can trade working for having a family with whom he can have lazy Sundays. He has an aptitude for painting and pursues art as a hobby, not as a means of income. He puts himself at risk to feed and cloth the boys at the Refuge. However, the newsies need to see Jack as their fearless leader. Therefore, scenes where Jack seems to lose his masculine power are followed by scenes where Katherine is solely operating as a love interest. After Jack laments about running away to Santa Fe in the Prologue, Katherine makes her first appearance as Jack offers to deliver her a paper, personally.

When Miss Medda reveals Jack’s artistic talents, Jack runs into Katherine again and sings “I Never Planned on You”.  Jack betrays the newsies and accepts Pulitzer’s bribe and Katherine and Jack kiss.

These scenes focusing on Katherine as an object of Jack’s affection reassert Jack’s masculine power. They set Jack up for his displays of leadership. Meeting Katherine establishes his role as the leader. Seeing her at the Bowery sets him up for “The World Will Know”, where Gattelli showcases Jack’s masculinity with hard and tense choreography. Jack’s kiss with Katherine propels him into “Once and for All” and through the resolution.

Jack needs Katherine to connect the contrasting elements of his character, but this development comes at Katherine’s expense. Katherine sacrifices her own agency so that Jack can fulfill his potential. While Katherine has the ability to drive the plot, she still has to be an object of male affection so that Jack can claim his power. This shift in Katherine’s position is shown in the rhetoric in the final scene. Miss Medda brings Katherine to the Governor. Jack has Katherine as an ace up his sleeve. Katherine is a feminist character, but in the most palatable way.

She has agency, goals, and a career, but at the end of the day, a man benefits from her success more than she does.