March 26, 2008

Joyfully Back "In The Heights"

If you love theater the way I do, then you really want to love the shows you see. So it’s been tough for me these last few weeks because as excited as I was walking into the theater to see each of the shows I’ve recently written about and as much as I wanted to like them, not one left me with a smile on my face. And that alone would have been reason enough for me to have stood and cheered along with everyone else at the performance of In the Heights I attended. It’s not a great show but it’s a really great feel-good show and if you get the chance to see it, you’ll be grinning too.

Now, I confess that In the Heights holds a special place in my heart because it was the very first show I wrote about in this blog. But others in the audience the night my sister Joanne, my niece Jennifer and I attended clearly had to be won over. Forgive me for stereotyping but they didn’t look like the kind of people who had planned to see a hip-hop/salsa musical about the PG-rated goings on in a Dominican neighborhood in upper Manhattan. In fact, many of them looked as though they had gotten to the TKTS discount booth after their first choices had been taken and were already having second thoughts about whether this show would be as much fun as the folks behind the counter had assured them it would be. But
by the end of the title song opening number, you could already sense them beginning to thaw. And by intermission, some people were almost high-fiving another for having chosen such a winner. At the curtain call, they were cheering and pumping their arms with delight.

Let me say it again, In the Heights isn’t a perfect show. Nearly everyone agrees that Quiara Alegria Hudes’ book is overly sentimental and while several critics and many of my fellow bloggers were knocked out by Andy Blankenbuehler’s high-spirited, streetwise choreography, I would have liked a little more variety from number to number. But what has enchanted everyone—me included—is the new energy this shows brings to the Broadway musical. Its creator, and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, grew up in Washington Heights when rap music was bursting onto the scene but he was also weaned on his parents’ Broadway cast albums. Miranda wrote the music and lyrics for his first version of In the Heights when he was just a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. And, refusing to choose between the two styles of his childhood, he created an old-fashioned musical (there are romantic duets and character numbers, power ballads and even dance ballets) but he set it to the rhythms of music that kids play on their iPods. It’s a musical both your 80 year-old demure grandmother and your 18 year-old macho son can enjoy.

Miranda is only 28 and I can hardly wait to see what he does next. In the meantime, I’m hoping that there’s a Korean-American boy in the Flushing section of Queens who saw the movie "Sweeney Todd" and dreams of resetting it to a K-pop score, the contemporary Korean musical style that incorporates rap, rock, and techno; or a Pakistani-American girl in the midtown Manhattan neighborhood known as Curry Hill, who got Wicked tickets for her birthday, now alternates its cast album with her recordings of Bhangra, Punjabi sounds with western beats, and fantasizes about mixing the two. Because from its beginning, the American musical has been the true melting pot, in which the child of Irish newcomers like George M. Cohan, the sons of Jewish émigrés like Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers and the children of recently-freed blacks like Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle and Fats Waller all poured in their experiences and energy, idioms and rhythms, transforming the American musical into an art form that everyone can love.


Sarah B. Roberts said...

I think the sentimental book is endearing and IS what makes the show great. There's nothing wrong with appreciating what's and who's around you and the book captures how the neighbors feel about each other.

I'm glad you were able to smile. I absolutely love this show.

Esther said...

I loved "In the Heights" too. I wish I could go back and see it again, this time sitting much closer to the front! Sure, the plot's a little thin but I loved the dancing, the energy, the set, the stories of people striving to make a better life for themselves and their children. It was fun and sweet and it made me smile, too.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this show, loved the music. The dancing was fantastic, wish there had been more of it. But I agree that the book was weak, nothing to really move it forward, and too simplistic. Overall, I think this is a nice, fun show but not a great one.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for commenting, guys. I'm glad you all had a good time at the show and I think lots of other people will too.