If you can imagine Do the Right Thing mellowing out, learning Spanish, and bursting frequently into song, you’d get near In the Heights. Like Spike Lee’s joint, this musical is a fond portrait of a New York neighborhood, in this case a Latino corner of Washington Heights bounded by the 181st Street A-train stop (downstage left) and the G.W. Bridge (upstage center). Stories in such communities have been very good to American theater (Puerto Ricans, West Side—ring a bell?), but no one’s going to mistake this show for its celebrated predecessor. Delightfully enough, here’s a musical that owes more to Big Pun than to Bernstein.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has real affection for Broadway, shouting out to Cole Porter in one early number. Yet like the creators of Spring Awakening, he and librettist Quiara Alegría Hudes don’t try to ape Broadway’s old orchestral sound, or the corny bombast that a million failed jukebox musicals seem unable to kill. Just weeks after Duncan Sheik dragged Broadway screaming into the world of indie rock, they’ve claimed another swath of new sonic terrain for theater.
The most obvious of the show’s many virtues is that it doesn’t sound like the half-assed pseudo-pop that clutters up Broadway. Miranda’s score is rich and kaleidoscopic, as it needs to be. People on the block hail from all over: Cuba, the D.R., Mexico, Puerto Rico (which the owners of O’Hanrahan’s car service call home). As these immigrants and children of immigrants dream about returning to distant lands, or just going to the East Village, Miranda fills the stage with salsa and merengue. He also makes one of the most sophisticated theatrical forays yet into that untapped lyrical gold mine, hip-hop. Usnavi (played with charm and humor by Miranda himself) runs a beaten-down bodega, dishing out café con leche, a very lucrative lottery ticket, and sinuous, propulsive rhymes about wanting to go “from poverty to stock options.”
When the show does borrow from Broadway tradition, it avoids dopey clichés. The dances feel like they really might have come off the street. (Look, Ma, no jazz hands.) When young Nina (Mandy Gonzalez) returned from Stanford, I braced for the awkward switch from speech to song. Instead, a street vendor struck up a little melody in Spanish, then she began to translate it, then she took it over on her own, slipping past the most cringe-inducing of all musical moments.
That clever craftsmanship shapes many of the numbers. Songs slip into one another, advancing plot and shifting mood. Their sharp comedy is one reason why Miranda’s lyrics are some of the best that New York has heard from a young songwriter since Avenue Q. Yes, yes, he only rarely comes up with perfect rhymes; his pairing of “hipsters” and “business” would make Oscar Hammerstein’s pen explode. But his messy words are deeply evocative. Any quotes would wither on the page, so you’ll have to trust me that when Abuela Claudia sings about the open Cuban sky, or Vanessa describes a train rumbling by her apartment, or Nina remembers feeling that she lived at the top of the world when the world was just a subway map, the images stick with you.
Daily reviewers granted the show an entertaining quality, though many were critical of its pat and sentimental second act. It needs work, no doubt. Still, I’ll forgive a show some cut corners when it so clearly has an idea in its head. This story could have been a simple screed against gentrification, but it’s not: Miranda and Hudes dramatize why some people fight it, some are driven off by it, and some decide it’s best to go along—an unusually subtle treatment of the force that’s remaking 21st-century New York. This is where the show most resembles Lee’s movie and least resembles the usual Broadway fare: In the way it thinks and the way it sounds, it could only have been written right here and now.