Highs and Lows

'In the Heights' & 'West Side Story'

When he was asked to write the lyrics for the 1957 musical West Side Story, the young Stephen Sondheim reportedly protested, “I’ve never even known a Puerto Rican!”

He took the job in the end, collaborating with composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents, and choreographer-director Jerome Robbins to create one of the most influential musicals in Broadway history. Its legacy was still palpable fifty years later, when Lin-Manuel Miranda—the young creator, composer, lyricist, and star of the hit musical In the Heights—accepted his 2008 Tony Award for Best Score and named “Mr. Sondheim” as one of his heroes. But Miranda’s speech, which he delivered as a freestyle rap, also demonstrated how much had changed on Broadway since 1957. Pulling la bandera Puertorriqueña from the pocket of his tuxedo, Miranda dedicated his win to Puerto Rico and thanked “all my Latino people.”

In the Heights is a fond, exuberant portrait of life in Manhattan’s Washington Heights—something like an update of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene for the twenty-first century. The story is formulaic and unsophisticated, and the plot is flat-footed. But as a celebration of Latin-American culture, the show is a rousing success. The action takes place in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge on and around the Fourth of July. Usnavi, a Dominican immigrant and bodega owner (originally played by Miranda, who has since left the cast), is the show’s narrator and primary character. He longs to return to the Dominican Republic, which he left as an infant, but he feels tied to the store he inherited from his parents. “You stuck to this corner like a streetlight,” a neighbor chides him.*

That streetlight turns out to be an apt metaphor. In the Heights casts a spotlight on the lives of the people, most of them first- or second-generation immigrants, who come in and out of Usnavi’s bodega, but it doesn’t actively pursue any of the questions and conflicts it identifies. The tone is never resentful and seldom melodramatic; for the most part, In the Heights stays neutral and affectionate even as it turns the insider-outsider social dynamic on its head. Usnavi teases those members of the audience who have “never been north of Ninety-sixth Street,” but his welcome is warm and sincere. The lyrics and dialogue (the script is by Quiara Alegría Hudes) deftly blend English and Spanish, reaching for authenticity without condescending to or alienating non-Spanish-speakers. The challenges of the “barrio” give rise to two musical mottoes, which the show holds in tension: No pare, sigue, sigue (“Don’t stop, keep going!”) vs. paciencia y fe (“patience and faith”). One young woman is desperate to save enough money to move downtown; another has left already, for Stanford, backed by the prayers (and high expectations) of the whole neighborhood. Those who remain voice ordinary, universal complaints: financial pressures, noisy traffic, oppressive heat. The show’s most exhilarating moment is the musical number “96,000,” when the announcement of a lottery winner at the bodega inspires everyone to fantasize about what they would do with the money. Benny, a young would-be entrepreneur, raps, “I’d pick a business school and pay the entrance fee.” Usnavi wants to fly back to the D.R., while his cousin, Sonny, is a budding community organizer: “With ninety-six thousand / I’d finally fix housin’, / give the barrio computers / and wireless Web browsin’.” But most of their neighbors simply see a chance to stay afloat—with the winnings, they sing hopefully, “we could pay off the debts we owe.”

The threat of “gentrification” is constantly in the background of In the Heights, but it never quite dampens the overall cheer. Puerto Rican immigrant Kevin Rosario has to sell his business to pay his daughter’s college tuition. But, he recalls, “Rosario’s Car and Limousine” was once “O’Hanrahan’s”—and before that, as we learn when the sign comes down, the storefront was home to a Kosher bakery. The neighborhood’s residents seem resigned to the transience of the world they know. But while it lasts, life in the Heights is something to celebrate. The Fourth of July is marked by a rousing “Carnaval del Barrio,” with a chorus glorifying the flags of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. And Usnavi finally comes to the (predictable but heartfelt) realization that the barrio is his true “home.”

Much of the success of In the Heights can be credited to the production’s expert direction (by Thomas Kail) and creative design. The ingenious set (by Anna Louizos) approximates a cluster of tenements, with a view of the bridge in the distance and an entrance to the subway in the foreground. The mesmerizing choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler) also seems drawn from the streets, combining hip-hop and Latin elements and filling the stage with constant motion. The influence of West Side Story on all of this is impossible to miss. The pivotal “Dance at the Gym” that brings Tony and Maria together in West Side is updated to a nightclub outing in In the Heights. And when the second act of Heights begins with teenage lovers Benny and Nina climbing out onto a fire escape, there is more than an echo of West Side Story’s urban “balcony scene.”

In the decades since its premiere, West Side Story has become so iconic that it is, in some ways, a victim of its own success. What was once bracingly original feels dated, fifty years on: Robbins’s choreography, with its finger-snapping gang members doing battle through ballet, has become a punch line. The edgy street slang Laurents invented for his hoodlums rings false in modern ears. Bernstein and Sondheim’s glorious score—which flirts with opera and vaudeville, but never gets near rock ’n’ roll—is an awkward match for the 1950s urban-jungle setting. The star-crossed “One Hand, One Heart” is now a standard at weddings, and most people would be grateful if they never heard “I Feel Pretty” again.

Still, the current revival of West Side Story at the Palace Theatre was preceded by intriguing buzz: this version promised to revitalize the show by putting the Puerto Rican characters—the Sharks—on equal footing with the “American” Jets. In the Heights’s Miranda was recruited to translate some dialogue and lyrics into Spanish, and the Sharks would be played by Latino actors (not a priority in the ’50s). Unfortunately, the revival doesn’t live up to its hype. In fact, under the direction of ninety-one-year-old Laurents, West Side Story feels creakier than ever. The dancers simply go through the motions of Robbins’s choreography, and most of the musical numbers miss their mark. The costumes look improvised. The sets look cheap. The much-vaunted revisions turn out to be inconsequential—the staging and acting are so limp that it makes little difference when, for example, Josefina Scaglione delivers Maria’s over-familiar final speech (“How many bullets, Chino?!”) in Spanish rather than English. Meanwhile, the score—surely the best reason to revisit West Side Story—is ill-served by the technological changes that have come to Broadway. The orchestra, stuffed beneath the stage, is muted and muffled, and the singers—especially Matt Cavenaugh as Tony—are too dependent on their mikes. Karen Olivo (a standout in the original cast of In the Heights) easily steals the show as Anita, but she is the lone bright spot in a disappointing evening.

The truth is, West Side Story was never intended to be an authentic portrait of life in midcentury Hell’s Kitchen, any more than Romeo and Juliet is about Veronese society. West Side Story is a show about passion, and passion is precisely what the present revival lacks. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, In the Heights continues to bring down the house with its joyful celebration of life in Nueva York. It will never rival West Side Story for cultural-icon status, and in fifty years its music will sound far more outdated than any classic Bernstein score. But In the Heights is groundbreaking in its own way: it broadens the scope of the musical stage and invites a new audience to the theater. Like West Side Story before it, In the Heights will very likely inspire future artists to tell their own stories.


* The original version of this review misidentified the character who delivers this line in the show.

Published in the 2009-04-10 issue: 

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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