The first time I listened to the soundtrack to In the Heights, it was on the two-hour Megabus ride home from Philadelphia to New York last winter break. The music’s blend of rap, hip-hop, and salsa influences was both exhilarating and comforting in its urban-ness, perfectly capturing my nostalgia as I waited for familiar lights to appear outside my window.
In the Heights focuses on a few days in the lives of everyday people in a largely Latino, working-class immigrant community in Washington Heights. In the latest production of the show, at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, a simple set of streaked glass storefronts, stoops, fire escapes, and a silhouetted skyline grounds us in a here and now; but the stories of the block’s inhabitants span into remembered pasts and dreamed-of futures.
In one memorable number, the neighborhood’s matriarch Abuela Claudia recounts her and her mother’s arrival in New York from Cuba. The ensemble joins her in 1940s pastel dresses and round-brimmed hats to recreate the scene, dancing a languid waltz until they suddenly snap to attention, turning on Abuela Claudia as the struggles and demands of life in a new country set in.
For Usnavi, the show’s narrator and corner store owner, dreams of returning to his parent’s seaside home in the Dominican Republic are just as vivid. And the character who most struck me when I initially listened to the soundtrack – Nina, a first-generation college student who must return home and tell her parents that she’s lost her academic scholarship – is also mired between past and future.
In the Heights’s composer Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the first version of the show as a sophomore at Wesleyan, and the themes of home and identity he explores provide a point of entry for other college students. Nina negotiates the liminal space between her family in the Heights and success at a prestigious school. Feeling isolated from both, she asks for help from neither. The soaring vocals of her first solo, “Breathe,” capture the anxiety of a first-year student who returns from college feeling overwhelmed and perhaps not entirely triumphant. Having worked her entire life for an acceptance letter, she finds herself, along with many of her neighbors, asking “What now?”
For most of the characters, the seeming dead-end is surmounted through recognizing connections to heritage and to one another. Urban Latino/a experiences are represented in songs like “Carnaval del Barrio,” in which the local salon owner rallies the neighborhood for a block party combining Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, and Cuban cultural traditions. In “When You’re Home,” two childhood friends reminisce about growing up in the city – opening fire hydrants in the summer and watching Fourth of July fireworks from the rooftops. Parental figures like Abuela Claudia and Nina’s parents, Kevin and Camila Rosario, embody warmth amidst the chatter and frenzy of the city. The Rosario’s powerful vocal solos “Inutil [Useless]” and “Enough” are clear highlights of the show, depicting their protectiveness and love for their family.
In the Heights highlights very real issues affecting urban communities, from housing insecurity to lack of access to education, and many of these problems remain unresolved. “We are powerless,” choruses the ensemble as the neighborhood grapples with a sudden blackout, with a rawness that is difficult to forget. Haunting too is the character of Vanessa, played by Gizel Jimenez, whose solo “It Won’t Be Long Now” voices her desperate need to escape the Heights and her alcoholic mother.
A major plot element, when one character wins a $96,000 lottery ticket, is an improbable and temporary fix for a small business threatened by gentrification. Usnavi’s teenage cousin, Sonny, is an aspiring activist, but his visions for social justice are laughed off by his peers. And Nina, though she learns to accept the emotional and economic support of her family, is still heading into another three years of balancing part-time work and school. She has “escaped” from the very neighborhood which has defined and loved her.
I saw the Philadephia production of In the Heights on the same weekend as Discover Swarthmore, an admissions event which caters to prospective students from a range of geographic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Nina’s story is a reminder that getting in is only the beginning, and that colleges have farther to go in addressing the needs of students from underrepresented backgrounds once they are on campus.
The enormously talented Philadelphia cast nails both harmony and choreography, performing each ensemble number with joy and energy. As he searches for his own path throughout the show, Usnavi frequently yields the stage to his friends and adopted family, celebrating the stories of individuals who make difficult choices in the face of great obstacles.
The general tone of the ending is triumphant: Usnavi finds his place in the barrio; the Rosarios weather a tough financial decision; Vanessa is able to move out and even find love. Yet Nina’s initial voice of anxiety stayed with me, one of several unanswered doubts underlying the flawlessly-executed, sentimental finale. She expresses the uncertainty lurking beneath progress, beneath the process of growing up, both for a first-generation college student and a rapidly changing neighborhood.
Photo courtesy of www.broadway.tv