Lin-Manuel Miranda performs as a lead in the Tony Award–winning 1998 musical In the Heights, just as he did on Broadway. It's a showy-blowy affair, and that's what wuthering means — not to be confused with withering. It rolled into the Pantages last week with the cachet of being the biggest Latino musical since West Side Story, so famously penned by that legendary Puerto Rican trinity, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
Kidding aside, the complaint about West Side Story was one of authenticity: three Jewish guys telling a tale from the barrio — turning Romeo and Juliet into tappy, jazzy, finger-snappin' calypso soap opera. Here were three white guys cashing in on an ethnicity they may have rubbed shoulders with on the subway but one that had nothing to do with the food they ate, the clothes they wore or the homes they were reared in. These are what describe and define ethnicity.
In the Heights would seem to fix all that because its star and composer is a lithe and very amiable fellow with brown skin, a goatee and the surname Miranda. That feels right for the barrio of upper Manhattan, Washington Heights, where the musical unfolds.
But what is authentic? Who actually owns an ethnicity, and what does it mean to sell it out?
If In the Heights had been written by Sondheim, I suspect there would be grumbling about his right to exploit an ethnicity, or a world, from which he wasn't reared. So is it more authentic, or acceptable, if that world is exploited by someone who was reared in it? Are the issues of authenticity and ownership, which have swirled around productions from West Side Story to Miss Saigon, really issues of identity, or of exploitation? (Miss Saigon was encumbered by casting issues in which Caucasian Jonathan Pryce played the Asian Engineer on London's West End and, eventually — after a political firestorm — on Broadway.)
I suspect the issue of identity has been more or less resolved by playwright David Henry Hwang, in his 2007 satire, Yellow Face. It revisits the Miss Saigon controversy and settles on the conclusion that ethnicity has less to do with one's gene pool, or with one's surname, than with the culture that one allows into one's heart. In that play, a Caucasian actor perpetuates a fraud, almost a joke, in order to be cast in an Asian role, claiming to be from some Asian corner of Siberia. Through the rigor of his research, and his commitment to the role, he starts to become Asian by force of his commitment and belief.
But in Heights, there's the nagging question of exploitation, which is really a different matter. Shakespeare wrote a rather troubling and possibly anti-Semitic play named The Merchant of Venice, about a greedy, vindictive Jewish merchant in that Italian city, though there's no proof that the author had even been to Venice or had made acquaintance with any Jewish people. He also wrote a drama about a senile old man named King Lear, though Shakespeare had never been senile at the time he wrote it. This is really not so different from Laurents, Bernstein and Sondheim collecting royalties from a musical about the barrio. It's called co-option, which is a polite word for theft, which is a rude characterization of storytelling.
This brings us back to Miranda and the author of In the Heights, Quiara Alegría Hudes, and their production, which won a bucket of awards. Their musical is a kind of telenovela about domestic troubles within the barrio among people with barely enough money to get by. The telenovela part seems fitting enough, were that the entire musical. But it's not. It starts as something quite different — a pastiche of sketches about a hard life in hard times — before parachuting in buckets of honey and drenching the stage with the goop. Those buckets contain the plot, not the music.
In the lobby, they were hawking T-shirts for this musical about people who certainly couldn't afford to buy one, let alone a ticket to this show. I had the same reaction in Les Misérables and Rent — a queasy feeling from theaters charging $100 a pop (not counting parking) for a show about people in poverty. That seems like a bit of a rip-off that goes beyond storytelling, though of course the complaint is like spitting into the wind, or at least spitting at any major opera company's production of La Bohème.
Miranda's music is very seductive throughout. It's hard to argue against rap juxtaposed with gentle salsa rhythms, under Justin Mendoza's musical direction. It's really a bouquet of sounds. Anna Louizos' terrific set captures the brownstones, and the business below. The New York City streetscape is so authentic, you can smell the coffee from the bodega owned by Dominican Usnavi (Miranda).
His is one in a trio of businesses that have storefronts in the set. There's a taxicab service run by Puerto Rican Kevin (Danny Bolero) and his wife, Camila (Natalie Toro). Among the early plot points is the homecoming of their gifted daughter, Nina (the entrancing Arielle Jacobs), in from Stanford. Trouble is, she hasn't done so well, has lost her scholarship, and she hasn't yet had the courage to tell her parents that she's dropped out.
It's a very interesting and credible dilemma. Even with the modest scholarship, she was working two jobs. Will her livid dad — when he calms down — sell the business to pay for her return to California?
That would leave a lot of people unemployed, including African-American Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.). So is the fling she has with Benny (setting off her dad like a keg of dynamite) about love or is it about Benny's eye to the main chance? Why does he really yearn to belong to the family that has more in their savings account than his? Benny's crisis is he's been adopted into the family there, and now threatens to be kicked out. "It's not family," Kevin barks at him. "It's just business."
Meanwhile, Usnavi has the hots for Vanessa, a young local flame who wants out of the barrio. There's an appealing ennui in Sabrina Sloan's portrayal of Vanessa's anguish.
There's also a beauty shop next to the bodega — gossip central, where a recurring musical motif contains the lyric, "Tell me something I don't know."
In Act 1, before the plots start unfolding and unraveling, there's an earthy beauty to these simple situations, which feel just as authentic as the music, and to Andy Blankenbuehler's vivacious choreography, which serves up the feeling of a block party.
(Nice rendition also by Elise Santora as Usnavi's Abuela Claudia.)
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In a plot development, they're all held hostage by a regional blackout ("powerless," they sing); Usnavi's bodega gets looted, which is enough to have him thinking of moving out. This is a district poised for gentrification.
The resolutions to almost all these tangles are unwaveringly cloying and sentimental. They call it a "feel good" musical, but this kind of "feel good" churns the bile. Were Act 1 pitched as a telenovela with hints of self-mockery, it might have sustained as a parody of itself, but the story circles aimlessly for much of Act 2 before plunging into a parody of itself.
This is why those questions of authenticity and exploitation linger. The exploitation isn't so much of the people from Washington Heights, even if the producers gave away tickets to them — the musical could just as easily be coined as an homage. Stories like this don't exploit ethnicity, they exploit the depths of anguish that shape the lives of everybody who's struggling to get by in this tempestuous economy. The fake resolutions and sentimental answers that this musical serves up offer neither veracity nor the kind of hope any intelligent person could believe in.
IN THE HEIGHTS | Composed by and featuring LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, book by QUIRA ALEGRÍA HUDES | PANTAGES THEATER, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through July 11 | (213) 365-3500