Upper Broadway

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.

Director Debbie Allen doesn’t capture all the greatness in America’s King Lear: The design tends to be clumsy and the traffic management typically isn’t much better. But getting even merely good work out of this cast is enough to flush away bad memories of the play’s abominably starry revival a few years back. As Brick, stage newcomer Howard has the right sly passivity, though he can’t make us feel the full weight of his anguish. The great Jones, fulfilling his date with destiny, roars when Big Daddy needs to roar and tiptoes through the pianissimo moments when he doesn’t and lacks only the tiniest bit of stitching to connect the two.

All the actors, in fact, give performances of such charm—including Phylicia Rashad’s outsize Big Mama—that the revival finds itself with a rich man’s problem: The audience wants to laugh too much, seizes too gladly on the comic side of Williams’s tragicomic vision. With Allen unable or unwilling to do much to keep the balance right, it’s a relief whenever Anika Noni Rose turns up.

Having played the smart daughter in Caroline, or Change a few years back, she reemerges here as a sex bomb. Looking good in a slip is no guarantee of success as Maggie—ask Ashley Judd, a slinky zero back in 2003—but she brings to the role both the sternness the revival needs and a desperate fragility. The only victory Maggie can have on a hot tin roof, she knows, is “just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can.” Delivered with quiet resignation, that line reassures all doubters that Williams wrote one hell of a play, and Rose is one hell of an actress.

Put together a playwright known for quirky stories (Sarah Ruhl), an actress known for a mannered touch or two (Mary-Louise Parker), and a director whose company specializes in stylized experiments (Anne Bogart), and what do you get? About what you’d fear, I’m afraid: Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Ruhl’s new play at Playwrights Horizons, is a giant slice of whimsy drenched in whimsy sauce.

Ruhl begins with an intriguing Hitchcocky premise: a man expires in the middle of a café as his cell phone begins to ring. When a timid thirtysomething woman answers it, she’s ushered into his family and shady business life. The unfolding action is sometimes funny, and Parker is as charming as any actress who insists on using that girlish drawl can be, but the eccentricities here are laid on so thick that Wes Anderson looks like a panting hyperrealist by comparison.

Much as I liked her spin on Eurydice, Ruhl has been falling into a pattern. She writes speeches that draw you up short—as when the dead man (the terrific T. Ryder Smith) describes how people outrun their souls when they travel—amid stories that you wish would end already. She’s racking up the trophies (MacArthur “genius” grant, Pulitzer finalist, etc.), but I still wonder if Ruhl might be a gifted poet straining to be a workaday playwright. Whatever the cause, she keeps writing scripts I’d rather read than see.

Even after the picky Williams estate approved the first major all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, this production had a road to Broadway as tumultuous as the play’s second act. Producer Stephen C. Byrd spent a full decade on the project before it was ready to go last year—with Forest Whitaker as Big Daddy and Audra McDonald and Anthony Mackie as Maggie and Brick. But when director Kenny Leon pulled out, amid rumors that producers wanted to replace McDonald with Beyoncé, the show was all but dead. It took a new director, Debbie Allen, to pull it back together, thanks in part to her relationship with the only star who survived the shake-up—her sister, Phylicia Rashad.

In the Heights
Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara AlegrÍa Hudes.
The Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
By Tennessee Williams.
The Broadhurst Theatre.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone
By Sarah Ruhl.
Playwrights Horizons. Through March 25.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.

Upper Broadway