Slurry of Soapy Soft-Rock Musicals Clean Up Broadway

Twenty-eight-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda is the immensely talented star of In the Heights who also conceived the show and composed all the songs and lyrics of a score that thrillingly combines hip-hop, salsa and (less successfully) generic Latin pop. Mr. Miranda is our narrator, and he makes a confident, unfussy, exceptional stage presence as the bodega owner named Usnavi (read: U.S. Navy). He’s also the evening’s pulse.

The glorious opening ensemble number is the best wake-up call I’ve experienced in a long, long time. It explodes audaciously onstage—with Mr. Miranda throwing down all aces. The wit and punning of his lyrics grab you immediately. The beat is rap, but his delight in words is a tribute to another master of lyrics:

Me and my cousin runnin’ just another dime-a-dozen
Mom and pop stop to shop
And oh my God it’s gotten
Too darn hot like my man Cole Porter said …

Cole Porter! And why not? Mr. Miranda is smart and he’s learned well from him, in his fashion.

In the Heights, directed by Thomas Kail, takes place around Independence Day. (“It’s the Fourth of July,” someone shouts, protesting the unusually downbeat mood in the barrio. “Show some fockin’ spirit!”) The outstanding, mostly young cast, the vitality of the score, the electrifying, nonstop hot choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler are reason enough to celebrate the show—and forgive its undeniable flaws.

While the sustained, escalating excitement of another major production number, “96,000,” all but stops the show, the frantic pacing throughout is too eager to please. The lyrics are grounded in reality (like Anna Louizos’ decaying streetscape of Washington Heights, with the bridge blurring in the background). But the book by Quiara Alegría Hudes is soapy soft, and her plot, which turns on a miraculous lottery win and the sudden tragic death of the wise and beloved abuela, is, well, pretty ludicrous. Let’s whisper reluctantly that every character is a showbiz cliché, and every overheated relationship, romantic struggle or noble sacrifice risks a near-fatal sugar high.

In the Heights isn’t—as some would have us believe—a contemporary version of West Side Story, which Mr. Miranda affectionately mocks (so did Urinetown seven years ago—only more so). Rather, in its gooey, good heart, it’s a throwback to the awesome sentimentality of the traditional Broadway musical.

Should you see it, then? Of course, dear friends! Overlook its hundred flaws—there’s nothing remotely like In the Heights.

You’ll see the
Late nights,
You’ll taste
Beans and rice
The syrups and
Shaved ice,
I ain’t gonna
Say it twice.

Slurry of Soapy Soft-Rock Musicals Clean Up Broadway