By Julia Corcoran
It’s clear where we are from the very first view of the stage - faded storefront awnings, a Virgin Mary figurine on a windowsill, the 181st Street A train subway stop and the George Washington Bridge, looming like a beacon in the background. The new musical “In the Heights,” is not set in just any New York neighborhood; it is unmistakably rooted in Washington Heights, a predominately Latino community near the northern tip of Manhattan.
Centered around a bodega during three days in July, “In the Heights” traces the lives of friends and neighbors in this close-knit community. It looks at both the older generation that left Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to build better lives in America, and their children, who go to college, leave the barrio and embrace opportunities their parents never had. “This show is about this generation and the future and family,” said the director, Thomas Kail. “It’s a love letter show.”
The musical was conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who grew up in nearby Inwood. Miranda also wrote the music and lyrics and plays Usnavi, the bodega owner. His familiarity and affection for the place come through in the detailed set design, familiar neighborhood characters and the lively music that capture the essence of Washington Heights. The livery cab service, the unisex salon that specializes in gossip and the block’s onstage nucleus, the bodega, are remarkably similar to the small businesses that line 181st Street. “We wanted to do something theatrical but still be realistic,” said Kail. “We could have real people in front of real things.”
Washington Heights’s vibrant mix of Latino cultures is reflected in the music. “If you roll your window down or walk through Washington Heights, this is the different music you hear,” said Kail. Songs include strains of salsa, merengue, mambo and bachata, as well as hip-hop and Broadway-style numbers. Hip-hop is a particularly fitting form for musical theater, allowing for fluid story telling to a contemporary beat. Miranda’s lyrics are quick and clever.
Songs and dialogue include many inside references—to Manny Ramirez being in town (the Red Sox player is from Washington Heights), to the Castle Village landslide onto the West Side Highway and to wiring money to relatives in the DR or PR. The piragua man selling shaved ice sings of competition with Mister Softee.
The characters in “In the Heights” are familiar without being stereotypes. One character, Nina, has just returned from her first year at Stanford. Her parents, who came from Puerto Rico together and own one of Washington Heights’s many car services, are tremendously proud of Nina, but they worry about paying tuition and keeping their business afloat. Nina struggles to find her way. She is pulled toward home but is stifled by its closeness and she’s drawn to the limitless opportunities she finds in college in California.
The character’s experience mirrors that of the musical’s writers, Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for the show. Both left urban Latino communities for college. Hudes grew up in Philadelphia and went to Yale and Miranda went to Wesleyan, where he wrote an early version of “In the Heights” as a sophomore. As Usnavi, Miranda runs the bodega and serves up light, sweet
coffee and sells lottery tickets to neighbor-hood dreamers.
One such dreamer is Claudia, honorary abuela (grandmother) to the whole neighborhood. She looked after everyone as they grew up and now the grown children look after her. The character is a fixture in Latino communities like Washington Heights. “The abuela is sacred,” said Olga Merediz, who plays Claudia, a hardworking Cuban immigrant. “She’s a centerpiece of the community.”
Merediz, whose own family fled Cuba when she was young, identifies with the characters and appreciates the musical flavor. “The songs in this piece—the lyrics have such an edge and are so deep and emotional,” she said. “It’s a really great opportunity for a singer and actress to dig your teeth into it.”
The musical captures a moment just before the block changes forever—the salon is about to move to the South Bronx, where rent is cheaper, the car service is sold and longtime residents move on or pass away. Even Usnavi contemplates a new life back in the Dominican Republic.
While the show is about a small place in a big city and the flavor is distinctly
New York, the story is universal. “I’m a big believer in trying to do work for
people who go to theater and for people who don’t,” said Kail, who hopes to attract new audiences to the theater, including residents of Washington Heights, who will recognize the character of their community on stage. “The show has such a big heart.”