[10 March 2008]
It has been 50 years since a New York Latin gang called the Sharks and their spitfire girlfriends first sang this about the Puerto Rican experience in America:
“I like to be in America/OK by me in America/Everything free in America/For a small fee in America.”
The show, a little smash called “West Side Story,” happened to have been created by Jews - including composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim - and inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
And for much of the past half century, this has been the dominant image of Latinos on Broadway. The men have switchblades. The women are tempestuous. And when an uneducated Puerto Rican girl feels pretty, she sings “It’s alarming how charming I feel” - a line Sondheim later admits might have fit better in Noel Coward’s living room.
Given pop culture’s absorption of everything Latin from dance to cocktails, it’s a shock to realize that Broadway has never had a musical about Latinos created by Latinos. After all, identity politics and immigration are major forces in this election. Just last week, the all-important Lone Star Latinos were being courted for the Texas primary - Tejano bands as warm-ups for Hillary Clinton, Obamanos T-shirts for supporters of Barack Obama.
Enter “In the Heights,” which opened Sunday night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre after an Off-Broadway tryout last winter. The show is a traditional book musical about an unconventional subject - two days in the life of people threatened by gentrification in the culturally diverse northern tip of Manhattan called Washington Heights.
Creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, 28, has been writing his mixture of hip-hop, salsa and merengue since he was a theater-smitten neighborhood kid transplanted to Hunter College High on the Upper East Side. He used to keep notes about songs in his astronomy notebook.
An early version of the show was produced when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan University, where, as legend has it, he impressed John Buffalo Mailer (youngest son of the late novelist Norman Mailer), who later introduced him to director Tommy Kail and who backed a few readings. These attracted a big-time producer, who brought in other producers, significantly the men behind “Rent” and “Avenue Q.”
Thus, when the show first opened on the far West Side with an unusually luxurious budget, there was little doubt where the good reviews and awards would lead. Most of the original cast will return to populate the community, which includes the owners of a car service, their daughter on summer break from a costly college and our guide (Miranda), the Dominican who runs the neighborhood bodega.
Priscilla Lopez, who created the first Morales in “A Chorus Line,” is the most famous name in a company and creative team of newcomers. Still, for all the fresh blood and material, Miranda has said his work was influenced by “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” shows he learned to love through his parents, both professionals born in Puerto Rico.
Of course, hovering over any history of Latino musicals on Broadway is the sobering failure of “The Capeman,” which ran just 68 performances in 1998. This was Paul Simon’s long-awaited first musical, inspired by the real-life story of Salvador Agron, the Puerto Rican teen who murdered two white kids in Hell’s Kitchen in 1959.
The show had great credentials. In addition to Simon - not Hispanic but a brilliant ethnomusicologist - there were dozens of Latin artists, including genuine salsa stars Marc Anthony, Ruben Blades and Ednita Nazario. Director Mark Morris and lyricist Derek Walcott were novices on Broadway, but big professionals in their fields.
Miranda saw “Capeman” three times while it was still in previews. He has said in interviews that, originally, he thought he was “trying to fix `Capeman’” by writing this show. He has called it a “gut check” that Latinos were still being shown as “knife-wielding maniacs.”
“Capeman” was heartfelt. Unfortunately, it was also inert and dramatically inept. Still, there was Simon’s music - a delicate interaction of Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms, the magenta hues of Latin soul, the doo-wop from the street-corner harmonies that once inspired “Me and Julio, down by the schoolyard.” Simon later released some of the music as “Songs From `The Capeman.’”
Coincidentally, Simon returns to them live April 1-6 as part of what should be his fascinating monthlong residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Several from the original cast will perform, backed by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. Also, a new production of “West Side Story” comes to Broadway next season.
Meanwhile, audiences will decide whether they want to know some people they haven’t met on Broadway before. If Miranda’s show is successful, he has said, he hopes he can afford to buy a place back in Washington Heights. Nice touch.