I See You Shiver With Antici…..disappointment

Hi, my name is Bethany, and I used to be a Gleek.

Yikes, that’s really, really embarrassing to admit in retrospect, but there’s something you have to understand – I was a queer theatre kid. Glee was the only place I ever saw myself in media.

Glee was amazing. As show choir kids, we felt seen – there were weird, misfit kids on screen, being annoying as theatre kids always are, living out sometimes relatable and always ridiculous struggles, and making show choir… almost cool? (Or so we thought at the time). Mr. Schuester seemed like an awesome teacher, Finn a big lovable goof, Kurt a relatable LGBTQ+ icon, and Rachel Berry, while annoying, lived out all of our dreams.

However, in recent years, all of the past theatre kids have come together to realize… Hey, Glee was kinda messed up!

Why is that though? Why was a show that was so universally championed by weird little theatre kids in our high school days actually kind of the worst, and why did we not realize it at the time? Why do we realize it now? What has made us so disillusioned?

I think I have the answer – and the perfect episode to explain it. Season 2, Episode 5 – “The Rocky Horror Glee Show”. Will Shuester makes one of his most questionable decisions – which is saying something, because, God, who let this man be a teacher – and decides to program The Rocky Horror Picture Show as the winter musical at McKinley High.

Now, let’s unpack that for a second. Rocky Horror is probably the most iconic cult movie of all time – the one cult movie to rule them all. Starting off in London’s West End, written by Richard O’Brien as a queer bastardization of Frankenstein, starring the legendary Tim Curry as Dr. Frank’N’Furter, was a sensation when released for stage in the mid-1970s. When adapted into a musical, it flopped about as hard as it could’ve. It was literally pulled from its New York Halloween night premiere due to poor reviews. In the years since, however, it has become a worldwide cult phenomenon. There are screenings at every indie theatre in most American cities, where devoted fans dress in costume, bring their own props, sing and dance along, and scream “call-outs” at the screen, spraying water guns, throwing rice, toast, cards, and even whole hot dogs at the screen (or, sometimes, at the “shadow performers” mouthing along with the screen performers). There are theatres who devote themselves wholly to showing Rocky Horror weekly, and it’s a staple in any community theatre around Halloween, even in my small conservative Appalachian hometown – the Johnson City Community Theatre runs a small, ramshackle production every year.

So why is it such a phenomenon? Easy answer. It gives people who society usually labels as “freaks”, the drag queens, the queer folx, the transgender and genderqueer people, a place to be the norm. The accepted normality. Brad and Janet, the stereotypical, white, cis, home-grown Ohio couple, are the freaks. The cross-dressing, queer Transylvanians are normal – that’s just how they are! It was a triumph for the LGBTQ+ community in this era, and it gave them media that unequivocally celebrated them. O’Brien, the original script author and the co-writer of the movie, is queer himself, identifying as transgender. Rocky Horror Picture Show follows none of the societal rules and gives a firm “bug off” to the cultural norms of the time. To this day, it’s a production that tells young queer kids, “you can be normal too, whatever that means to you”. As a young queer kid myself, Rocky Horror became a cornerstone of my personality while I was trying to figure out who and what I was.

So why did Glee think they could take on this iconic cult film, and do it any sort of justice? Because Glee incorrectly prides itself on empowering “freaks” as well. It can be summed up perfectly in Will Shuester’s infamous quote, “You’re all minorities – you’re in the Glee Club”. The show equates being a minority, being part of the LGBTQ+ community, and being physically or mentally disabled with being bullied for being in the Glee Club. It paints Glee as a place that all these different types of people can come together and be celebrated and represented – except it doesn’t actually follow through on that at all. The people in Glee club who are minorities, who are different, are criminally underrepresented in performance. Rachel and Finn, two white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, conventionally attractive people get every single lead and starring solo. Really, most other characters in Glee are minorities in some way or another: Kurt is gay, as are Britney and Santata. Mercedes, Tina, and Mike are all POC. Artie has a physical disability and uses a wheelchair. The Glee Club doesn’t really accept or celebrate these differences, either – it merely tolerates them, which to be fair, is a lot more than most others in Lima do.

When Glee did Rocky Horror, all of the main issues with representation in the show are on display. The tone-deaf nature of Glee has honestly never been more present. Mercedes, a cis straight woman, plays the role of Frank’n’Furter, changing the iconic lyric from “Transsexual Transylvania” to “Sin-sational Transylvania”, but still referring to herself as a “sweet transvestite”. Like…. what? The entire performance reads as completely tone-deaf. The production is only done so that Will Schuester can impress Emma, the guidance counselor at the school who he’s trying to woo, which makes the motivation for the show itself a heterosexual relationship between two cisgender people. The queer representation is nowhere to be found in this production of Rocky Horror, because the content itself isn’t enough, it’s the performance and the spirit behind it as well.

Really, this is indicative of the problems that Glee faces throughout its run. There’s tolerance and representation without acceptance and celebration. So why did we view it so positively in 2009? That, too, has a clear answer. At the time, there was little to no representation in mainstream media. Acceptance and tolerance were enough for the community – we didn’t expect better. Nowadays, with all of the positive queer representation in media, we can expect more. Shows like POSE have brought the history of LGBTQ people into the light with stories that are full of heart, honesty, passion, and celebration. Looking back at Glee, it’s a disappointing, one-dimensional paper cutout of what representation should be, and we deserve more as a community than that.

Carnaval del Progreso: Almost There, But Not Quite

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.

An image from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 production In the Heights featuring Miranda (center left) as Usnavi and Andrea Burns (center right) as Daniela.

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.