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...

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About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is Commonweal's associate editor at large. She blogs at dotCommonweal.