News

Latinos conquer Broadway with 'In the Heights'

Ed Morales
Newsday (MCT)

NEW YORK - With the news that the salsa-merengue-hip-hop musical "In the Heights" had garnered 13 Tony Award nominations, eclipsing most-likely-to-succeed musicals like "Young Frankenstein" and "South Pacific," a buzz has begun about shifting tastes on Broadway.

It is true that "Heights," along with "Passing Strange," nominated for seven awards, represent a younger, hipper trend in musical theater. But "In the Heights" is also notable because it has succeeded where so many Latino-based plays have failed, perhaps signaling another trend - is the Latino-themed musical poised to finally conquer the Great White Way?

Latin-themed Broadway theater has had a checkered past, if you overlook "West Side Story," a play whose music was more driven by jazz than mambo. Luis Valdez's socio-historical "Zoot Suit," while not a complete disaster, closed in 1979 after just 41 performances, and in 1998, Paul Simon's "The Capeman" couldn't overcome negative publicity and its own complexity. Just three years ago, a much-anticipated production of Oscar Hijuelos' "The Mambo Kings" canceled its Broadway run after lackluster reviews in San Francisco.

So how did "In the Heights" manage to capture the hearts of audiences and critics where others had fallen short? It manages to find a middle path between the strong political themes of "Zoot Suit" and "The Capeman" and the relatively apolitical `50s nostalgia of "The Mambo Kings," for one. The focus is on contemporary issues, from urban gentrification to the ambivalence about class mobility faced by minorities at elite universities.

"In the Heights" is a play about a new generation of Latinos who strongly identify with their parents' Spanish-language culture while simultaneously embracing urban street culture, which is mostly lived in English. The songs shift easily and confidently between genres like traditional Broadway ballads, Afro-Caribbean bolero, salsa, merengue and good old uptown hip-hop. The music reflects the ease with which the young urban Latino flows between cultures and languages, and forms an attractive multicultural soundtrack for the non-Latino audience.

Most importantly, the songs for "In the Heights" were all written by a major new voice in theater, and perhaps in the future, recorded music. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a formidable rapper and excellent storyteller, and his persona adds just the right touch of humor. But apart from his well-delivered raps, he has composed songs that allow the cast members to express heartfelt emotions in an array of different styles that range from R&B to classic bolero and even reggaeton.

The original Broadway cast recording of "In the Heights" has just been released on Ghostlight Records, and it plays like a concept album for an urban Latino star-in-the-making. There are songs about life in the hood, hot nights at the club, nostalgia for the islands and even a mournful tribute to a deceased matriarch. Through these songs, Miranda has captured the hopes and dreams of an emerging demographic of under-30 Latinos and created a joyful spectacle that celebrates a new American dream, while reminding everyone of the commitment necessary to nurture it.

"In the Heights" is currently at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 212-221-1211.

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