03 December 2008

In the Heights review

I finally went to see the musical In the Heights, winner of the 2008 Tony Award for best musical. The musical has a fairy-tale story behind it. Lin-Manuel Miranda originally conceived of the concept while in college. The story is about a Hispanic neighborhood in Washington Heights (near 181st St in Manhattan) and loosely modelled on Miranda's childhood experiences growing up in New York City. Miranda wrote the music and lyrics and also ended up playing one of the lead characters, Usnavi.

As previously mentioned, the story is set in a Hispanic neighborhood of Washington Heights. It's July 3rd. Usnavi owns a deli/grocery store; his cousin Sonny also works there. Usnavi is very close to his Abuela (which means "grandma" in Spanish) Claudia. Nina is home from her freshman year at Stanford. She gets into trouble with her parents (who own an auto business) because she dropped out of school and because she starts dating a black guy, Benny who also happens to work at the auto business. Benny happens to also be Usnavi's best friend. Carla and Daniela own a salon. They really like to gossip. Vanessa works at the salon and Usnavi has a crush on her. (All the characters, other than Benny, are Hispanic.) The characters are brought together when Usnavi discovers that someone in the neighborhood holds a winning lottery ticket to $96,000.

The musical doesn't have a traditional plot. It's a mosaic of the American dream as interpreted by the different characters. Some characters, in particular Usnavi and Nina's family, illustrate the tension between family and the American Dream. Some critics have criticized the lack of cohesiveness in the book due to this approach. I agree that it does detract from the emotional resonance of the musical because there is no take-home message. Everyone has a different interpretation of the American dream and the musical doesn't single out any interpretation as the right one. The theme of tension between family and the American Dream is interesting, but it is not explored deeply in the musical.

In the Heights follows in the footsteps of Rent and tries to fuse modern music styles with the traditional Broadway musical. It was cute that the traditional overture was worked into the musical by having a guy put a boom box on the stage. Often the characters are associated with a particular style, for instance, Usnavi/hip-hop, Benny and Nina/pop, Carla and Daniela/Latin. The musical is an ensemble work. Almost everyone has a song, even the piragua guy!

The music is definitely the strong point of the work. Hip-hop has never been used extensively in a Broadway musical until In the Heights. It's definitely a very refreshing and novel sound. The ensemble numbers like "In the Heights", "96,000", and "Carnival del Barrio" are outstanding, and the pop duets between Nina and Benny are nice. The rest of the music seems forgettable, but the good songs make the cast album worth getting, just to hear the innovative hip-hop and the energy of the ensemble.

I found the performance itself a little disappointing. The actors seemed tired and flat, in particular Lin-Manuel Miranda during the opening number. The second act was more energetic, a shame since the best songs are in the first act. The best performances came from the supporting cast, such as Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia. Maybe I should stop going to weekend performances. The actors must be exhausted by the end of the week. Or maybe the original cast is getting tired of performing the same thing for eight months. Fortunately, the cast album is excellent and captures the energy that must have been present during the first month after opening.

In the Heights is a musically innovative work with a weak book. However, it is a great first work from Lin-Manuel Miranda and I hope to see more from him.

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