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Upper Broadway

In the Heights brings hip-hop and salsa beats to the old-school musical-comedy form. Plus: Brick, I am your father.

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Illustration by Jason Gnewikow  

Well, that war didn’t last long. In the past few seasons, the energy and the excitement in Broadway musical theater have belonged to insurgents: rock-driven shows that advertise their indifference (Spring Awakening) or hostility (Passing Strange) to Shubert Alley convention. Next to the blasts from those electric guitars, traditional tuners and pop-cinematic hybrids have felt tame, compromised. Now, just when the pop upstarts seem poised to stampede the old-school traditionalists, along comes Lin-Manuel Miranda, a young man who adores Broadway’s past and present and holds an easy, Obama-like confidence that the two can gracefully mix.

In the Heights, the love letter he and librettist Quiara Alegría Hudes have written to the life and residents of Washington Heights, represents an extraordinary blend of old and new, a stylistically groundbreaking 21st-century musical that wouldn’t disturb Jerome Kern’s sleep. Miranda’s songwriting skill and catholic tastes push the sound of Broadway even deeper into fresh territory than Spring Awakening and Passing Strange have. As Usnavi, the show’s goateed bodega owner, he raps his way through the story’s narration, like this syncopated burst from the opening number about his job:

You do rapid mathematics automatically
Sellin’ maxipads and fuzzy dice for taxicabs and practically
Everybody’s stressed, yes, but they press through the mess, bounce checks and
Wonder what’s next
In the Heights

Though the show stands as the most serious piece of hip-hop theater to get anywhere near midtown—and one of the most accomplished anyplace else—it’s not a boom-bap assault on Broadway sensibilities. On the contrary: It’s one of the most satisfying old-timey book musicals in years. Gentrification is remaking the diversely Latino block that comprises Anna Louizos’s set, driving away longtime residents even as Usnavi chases his girl Vanessa, and his friend Benny tries to win over uncertain Stanford student Nina, and somebody walks out of the store with a winning lottery ticket.

Corny? Sometimes, alas. And the second half still doesn’t entirely hold up, ambling towards a finale without building much drama along the way. What’s remarkable here, though, are all the things that aren’t corny: kinetic choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler; sincere ballads with a huge heart, sharp jokes written for and about New Yorkers (like the menacing presence just offstage of Mister Softee); and, above all, Miranda’s prodigious knack for compact, evocative lyrics. Remembering the sky of her childhood, Usnavi’s abuela sings:

Ay mama, so many stars in Cuba …
En Nueva York we can’t see beyond our streetlights …
To reach the roof you gotta bribe the supa …
Ain’t no Cassiopeia in Washington Heights …

Reading the show’s many raves, and talking to people it moved or thrilled, I wonder if we’re responding, on an almost subliminal level, to the way Miranda and Hudes revive a slumbering musical tradition. From the Gershwins–on–Catfish Row sound of Porgy and Bess, to this show’s most obvious precursor, the Shakespeare-meets-street-gang-meets-Bernstein hybrid West Side Story, to dozens of other works for the American musical stage, immigrants and the children of immigrants have insisted that it’s possible to fling wildly divergent cultures and sensibilities together in a way that honors their origins while creating something altogether new. In other words, they found a way to achieve in art what New York itself is forever trying to achieve in life. How could the lights not seem to shine a little brighter when Miranda and his brilliant, multihued co-stars take the stage?

Tracy Letts must be awfully glad to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof back on Broadway. The author of August: Osage County has withstood, amid the raves for his show, sneers that it’s just a trashy soap opera. Tell it to Tennessee Williams, who demonstrated that a trashy soap opera can also be a masterpiece of American drama.

Williams didn’t lavish the ripe, ripe poetry that he’d deployed in A Streetcar Named Desire on this tale of the petty, backstabbing Pollitt clan of Mississippi, but their drama resonates more deeply. As Big Daddy (James Earl Jones) turns 65—dying of cancer and not knowing it—his washed-up athlete son Brick (Terrence Howard) tries to drink away the pain he feels at the loss of his best friend and crypto-lover Skipper, and Brick’s wife, Maggie (Anika Noni Rose), stalks him to conceive the child that will secure their claim to the richest plantation in the Delta. Their overlapping bouts of sexual frustration give way, in Williams’s inspired hands, to existential frustration. Truth kills, and the deceit that men and women live with in this world ends only with death. In a beautifully illuminating reversal, Brick admits that his friendship with the late Skipper wasn’t normal: It was a “pure and true thing”—and thus too rare to be normal in this benighted world.


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