Prior to 2008, few musicals centered around (or even contained) Latinx characters. Besides “West Side Story,” a musical now heavily criticized for its casting of white actors and actresses in Latinx roles, Latinx communities were depicted almost entirely in a negative light.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning “In the Heights,” however, was the first hit musical to realistically depict America’s Latinx lifestyle. Predating his now famous “Hamilton,” it uses rap music and bilingual lyrics to depict both the strength of the Washington Heights community in New York City and the challenges that it faces. Written while Miranda was still in college, it is a first-hand depiction of the Latinx experience.
“It tells a very recent story about Latino immigration in the United States,” said MUSKET production director Bruna d’Avila, a junior Theatre Performance major in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “It’s about a community that is so lively and happy and energetic, and so many people can relate to this story.”
“It really changed the game for Latinos in terms of representation on stage,” said Gian Perez, a sophomore acting major in SMTD. “It’s never a piece about Latino pain or Latino struggle. It’s the first show to meet the mainstream that portrays Latinos as just a community with a particular culture.”
“The audience in the Midwest doesn’t know this as well,” said d’Avila. They are “welcoming the audience into this community like they’ve never felt welcomed anywhere before.”
MUSKET has worked to preserve the diverse nature of the original production, putting together an extremely diverse cast. It is a point of pride for all involved, with d’Avila boasting that it is, “the most diverse stage the University of Michigan has ever seen.” It’s a topic that is deeply personal to many members of the cast.
“I’ve always thought that as a Puerto Rican actor, I should be limited to Puerto Rican roles,” said Perez, “but there are parts of being a Latino man that I’m learning in these roles.”
The play even goes beyond the generic Latinx identity to pick apart the various nationalities within this identity. Seemingly subtle differences in pronunciation and dialect, for example, can represent entirely different national identities within the larger Washington Heights community.
“It brings together so many different styles of Latin American music into one musical,” said d’Avila.
Though the significance of the rap and hip-hop influences in the show’s music is now largely overshadowed by “Hamilton,” it was a groundbreaking idea that sparked the careers of both Lin-Manuel Miranda and music director, arranger and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire.
“When I’m rapping I’m actually just speaking,” said Perez. “I think that the audiences can engage with this much more than they can with other musicals.”
The musical also features a style of rap noticeably different than much of what is being produced today. It is the rap of the early 2000s and earlier, the rap that was being produced not for streaming services or mass-market consumption, but for public performances within urban environments such as Washington Heights.
“I’ve never really felt that I could readily access poetry that speaks about struggle and pain at face value like this,” said Perez. “It has that essence of rap being used for togetherness and unity. It’s about erasing the lines between people.”
Earlier this semester, the cast was given the rare opportunity to work with Alex Lacamoire. The musical theatre department, through their extensive alumni network, was able to reach out to Lacamoire. Last week was the 10 year anniversary of the musical’s premiere on Broadway. Lacamoire’s recent work on “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” however, has distracted from this early success — he was just as excited to speak about this early work as the cast was to work with him during the rehearsal process.
“It was very emotional to talk about ‘In the Heights’ the way that he would have 10 years ago,” said d’Avila. “He had several amazing notes, and it made the process so much more exciting.”
And while the story may take place in a Latinx community, it is, at its core, about the basic struggle of human emotion. Whether it is the experience of first attending college or the struggle of working three jobs, it is a deeply relatable story about the American experience — particularly among recent immigrants.
“We all went through what Nina goes through,” said d’Avila. “We have all had to make a whole new group of friends.”
“In the Heights” is a story about the Latinx experience in contemporary America. It is a story of a diverse, multifaceted group of people overcoming the stereotypes that they face both in the real world and on stage. A striking relic of the diverse American dream as it was defined in 2008, the musical is a chilling reminder of the changes that this concept has undergone, as previously marginalized groups have sought to redefine it.
“It will open the audience’s eyes to a different perspective,” said d’Avila. “It’s about all those who have immigrated to America. It’s a message from them saying, ‘We’re OK. We’re doing fine.’ And it’s about sharing this story as only theater can.”