The first time I came to New York, with my parents and not quite a teenager, I remember looking out at the non-stop fireworks display that is Times Square from our hotel room, in awe of this strange and extraordinary place. We did the major tourist attractions: Empire State Building, Ellis Island, Lady Liberty.
Following college, I discovered Brooklyn, thanks to a wave of friends who had relocated there, and fell in love with the quirky cafes, cozy brownstones, and altogether friendlier neighbors.
As a California native and resident, I only get a few weeks a year (if I’m lucky) to reacquaint myself with New York and the time is quickly filled with coffee dates, a bit of shopping and of course, a good amount of Broadway. I’ve never really had the opportunity – or taken the initiative – to explore beyond the confines of mid-town Manhattan or Brooklyn. So it was refreshing to take that trip courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius behind last year’s Best Musical, In the Heights. Washington Heights, that is.
We’ve determined that Broadway loves to celebrate the power of song and the ability of pop culture to be a force for good. Let’s add that Broadway also likes to celebrate to the diversity and overall fabulousness of New York itself. 42 Street? Thoroughly Modern Millie? Avenue Q? New York is the place where dreams are made, so we’re told again and again. Most recently by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys.
But In the Heights comes from a more modest place. It’s characters live simple lives in the barrio – working at hair salons, taxi dispatch services, and the corner convenience store. They dream of moving downtown, going to college, starting their own business someday.
Someone described the show to me as West Side Story meets Rent, presumably suggesting that it portrays the contemporary New York Latino experience of the former with the vibrant energy, optimism, and low socio-economic setting of that famous Alphabet City gang from the latter.
The comparison doesn’t quite hold up. The show doesn’t have the compelling drama of the Jets and the Sharks (the biggest conflicts here come from a Stanford drop-out and her inexplicably racist father) or the operatic scale of Jonathan Larson’s masterpiece that seemed to speak for and to a generation. The set feels a bit Sesame Street-ish – clean and colorful – but the result is a Washington Heights visibly full of beauty and soul, inhabited by a loving, loyal community bursting with dreams and pride for their birth places and ancestral homes of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
It may not carry the historical weight of the Tony and Maria saga or the heart-breaking poignancy of Roger and Mimi’s affair. In fact, In the Heights seems to try pretty hard to avoid broader social issues entirely and instead stay firmly rooted in the lives of individuals and their personal obstacles and small triumphs.
It’s a side of New York that I haven’t had the pleasure – or made the effort – to see. But I’m grateful that this tender and spirited snapshot managed to find its way to midtown. And perhaps, as a result, I’ll get out of my bubble and see the real thing.