Nobody holds onto WashingtonHeights for very long. Even its namesake, the great General George himself,coughed it up to the British after a few months during the Revolutionary War.As the tallest hill on Manhattan Island, it’s the perfect spot for a laststand, and over the last hundred years it’s served as a demographic Alamo:first being handed off from the Jews to the Irish, then from the Irish to theGreeks, then from the Greeks to the Puerto Ricans, and then from the PuertoRicans to the Dominicans.
Thisweek, the area’s narrative of incessant flux is articulated by the criticallyacclaimed, award-winning musical In the Heights. Trumpeted as a unique look into a quintessentiallyLatino neighborhood, a hyper-specific place full of hyper-specific peoples—Dominicans,Puerto Ricans, and Cubans—In The Heights can feel at times like a Sesame Street without muppets. The set actually looks like the old SesameStreet set, before they cleaned itup, with the dingy tenement buildings and their jumble of fire escapes, a fewbeat-up commercial businesses at the street level, and their erector-setlandmark, the George Washington Bridge, stretching out in the distance. Their funnylanguage(s) (Benny, the only black dude in the entire neighborhood laments,“Man, it’s like two languages: Puerto Rican Spanish and Dominican Spanish”) andfunny foodstuffs (café con leche, piragua,Pepsi) come at you in waves ofexoticism. At one point in the second act, the whole company seems to beintentionally freaking the audience out by letting their flags fly: Mexican,Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican
Butsomehow all this made me think of my parents and my family and my friends backin White Bear Lake, where I grew up. The characters here, with names like Nina,Daniela, Claudia, and ridiculously, Usnavi, are all brown, but they’rerelatable to almost any white suburban family: the struggle by Nina’s parentsto pay the obscene cost of college tuition, the struggle of Usnavi, Vanessa,and Nina to define themselves either by staying or leaving their ‘hood.
Lin-ManuelMiranda started writing the musical when he was away at college at Wesleyan,finishing it when he was 27 (he’s now 29), and it’s full of references that arespecific to the identity of a young Puerto Rican who came of age in WashingtonHeights (as Miranda did)—there are wicked Nikes and some incredible b-boydancing and the kids be tagging private property with spray paint. Mostimportantly, this musical is the first I can recall that heavily incorporateship-hop into the score. And that’s gotta be a challenge: Miranda played Usnavihimself on Broadway, but the touring production features the rapping of KyleBeltran. He’s a skinny little guy, but he carries himself with a feel-goodswagger and rhymes in a baritone that reminded me of our own Brother Ali. (Pitythe casting director—now they have to find people who can act, sing, dance, andspit.)
Butit’s Miranda’s mass-cultural ties thatbind: there are Romeos and Juliets as well as Tonys and Marias In theHeights; there are shades of DoThe Right Thing’s “hottest day of thesummer,”; there is an annoying deus ex machina subplot with the New YorkLottery—and god knows the lottery has become ubiquitous in this great countryof ours; and Los Angeles Dodger superstar Manny Ramirez even gets a shout-out(a Dominicano hero, he played hishigh-school baseball in the Heights).
UnlikeWest Side Story, whose characterswere constantly dealing with the anxieties of competition and encroachingdifference, the characters of In The Heights worry about getting stuck there. “This is like aghetto Gilligan’s Island,” Vanessa whines, as her credit report prevents herfrom moving into an apartment downtown.
Yes,there is something Epcot Center to this beautiful young cast, and musically,this is no West Side Story: thereis no definitive Broadway number, no “Americá” or “I Feel Pretty” in the score.Though its songs are rooted in meringue and soul as much as they’re rooted inhip-hop, unless you can tell the difference between a Nas beat and an Eminembeat, the songs might seem compressed and a little same-y to an ear green torap.
It’sokay—every great Broadway song doesn’t need to be instantly hummable, does it?Regardless, that same-y-ness might actually help make an important sociologicalpoint: At this point in the Republic’s history, we’re less concerned withmaking a difference than we are with entirely losing all our differences. As webecome more and more alike—eating the same ice cream, applying to the samecolleges, listening to the same music, buying the same stuff—we seem to more and more desperately cling to ourroot cultural identities. One of the most poignant scenes in In The Heights is between Usnavi and Nina, as they go through a boxof old neighborhood photographs on a stoop. And at the end of Act I, there is aneighborhood-wide blackout—can you come up with a more obvious metaphor forhomogeneity? What’s a better equalizer than the dark, and what creates morechaos?
Everybodyfrom John Stuart Mill to Thomas Friedman has written about this flatteningeffect as a corollary of globalization. My favorite writer on the subject, thephilosopher Kwame Appiah, writesabout “soul building,” a concept that’s been around at least since Plato. Soulbuilding is a process in which we ask what’s important to us, and how do we getour kids to understand why it should be important to them. Do we send them toStanford? Do we leave them the store? If America is still a “city on a hill” inthe old John Winthrop sense, it’s going to function like any strategichill—there are going to be last stands, and there’s going to be turnover. Theonrush of time doesn’t allow for the preservation of entire cultures—WestSide Story is going to become InThe Heights and In The Heights will become something else. But Appiah’s soul buildingspeaks to the moral of Miranda’s musical: We should preserve pieces from ourvarious cultures, a few values that we all can hold in common—and it’simportant to decide which ones.