Weeks before I actually watched Brown’s production of In the Heights, it was all that I had been hearing about—with warnings from my friends to buy a ticket before they sold out, raving reviews of how eye-opening and tear-jerking it was, and all the Facebook posts begging people to sell their tickets for “money, my soul, my eternal gratitude” (one of my personal favorites) after the tickets really did sell out. Then, on Sunday, March 12, the time had finally come for me see it all for myself.
“Yo, pull out them kiddie pools…” a voice comes on over the radio, as vendors set up shop and people bustle around and go about their usual morning routines. The set is designed realistically and thoroughly from floor to ceiling, completely immersing us in the world of Washington Heights, a largely Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban neighborhood in northern Manhattan full of tall, brick buildings and once-bright, now-faded bodegas and other storefronts. The only break in the illusion is the small gap in the back where the musicians are visible; but that’s hardly noticeable as the bright lights flash, vibrant skirts twirl, and the energy of the cast washes over the mesmerized audience. The tone shifts when Nina Rosario (Viva Sandoval ’20) comes home from her first year at Stanford with a secret.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the actor, composer, and playwright best known for the fame of Hamilton, wrote the first draft of this show in his sophomore year of college, grew up in Washington Heights where the musical is set. Miranda says that, “We’re a stew up there, and we wanted to reflect that.” He wanted to depict the multitude of diversity and culture of Washington Heights and represent “Latinos, not wielding knives, but . . . being in love and having businesses and families.” In the Heights is a musical portrait of the people Miranda grew up with and the place he called home.
The cast members fully stepped into the characters created for them by Miranda in the script and Brown alum Quiara Alegría Hudes in the book. Watching their faces and body language fully transform with each action and emotion that affects their characters, it as easy to forget they were acting. Piragüero (Rishi Wagle ’20), the Piragua Guy, has little stage time and brief lines spread sporadically throughout the musical. But he is more than just a goofy guy to serve as comic relief during transitions.When he sings about “scraping by,” not only in reference to his job as a piragua vendor who scrapes his ice block to sell snow cones to customers in the hot summer sun, but also in reference to the lessons of survival and perseverance that are taught through the stories and lives of the people on this street corner in Washington Heights. And Wagle executes both roles and reveals both meanings of his part so well through the deadly combination of his accessibly goofy attitude and shockingly powerful voice.
This show not only celebrates People of Color but also recognizes the racial tensions and divisions that are all too real within People of Color as well. It is mentioned several times throughout the show that the character of Benny (Stephen A. Bozier ‘17), who is Black and does not speak Spanish, “know[s] nothing of our culture,” and will never be good enough for Nina. Finally, he is driven to ask, “Why learn the language if they still won’t hear you?”
The biggest and most memorable parts of the musical were when the entire cast performed together, limbs swinging in unison and voices weaving in and out of harmonies. The kinetic energy between the cast members made the ensemble pieces crescendo, not only in volume but also in sheer excitement and life. At the same time, each cast member was also certainly strong enough to hold their own part in the midst of the overlapping, chaotic, beautifully messy scenes. Aristotle really got it right when he said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Actors sniffled and wiped their eyes on stage during the final scene and throughout the bows. As we filed out of the auditorium, I saw a man and a young boy a row behind me get up and sing “Piragua, piragua” to the tune of the song. And I knew that the cast, crew, and audience would be humming along to the songs and remembering the lessons of In the Heights for weeks to come.
NOTE: If you want to read more about this remarkable musical, here was the press release for Brown’s production of it. https://www.brown.edu/academics/theatre-arts-performance-studies/news/2017-02/press-release-heights.