Last night I attended my first theater production of 2011 - In the Heights. And I must say that the bar has been set pretty high for the rest of the shows I will see this year. In the Heights won the Tony for best musical in 2008. It also won best choreography, best score and best orchestration (not really sure what that means) but I can say that I loved the songs and the choreography was out of this world. More on all that in a minute.
I didn't really know anything about this show aside from what I had read in a small article in the Providence Journal which stated that the show was about a immigrant living in the Washington Heights section of NYC who wanted to get back to the Dominican Republic. Well, that's unexpected. And I had seen a few commercials on TV that featured bits of song. Neither of these made me all that excited to see the show, but I have a season subscription so I went. And it blew me away.
As soon as I entered the theater I was impressed with the set. It showed a street corner in the neighborhood with shops at street level and apartments above. And in the background was the George Washington Bridge. It was an elaborate and very creative set.
The music was upbeat and exciting and the songs were all vibrant and most were energetic. Many of the songs had a rap like beat and phrasing, but were not set to what I would call rap music. It was very cleverly done as a way to keep the flavor of the Hispanic, urban neighborhood. The set and the music reminded me a lot of Rent in style and look.
There were many dance numbers in which the stage was filled with the entire cast. These weren't your traditional dance routines where everyone on stage is doing the same thing at the same time and basically remaining in their own space throughout the dance. The dancers were all moving all over the stage, exiting at times and coming back from other entrances. And all the dancers were moving in and out of each other and all over the stage. It's hard to describe, but it was as though there were many dances going on at once that formed a cohesive whole. I loved it! It was very exciting to watch.
And the story is so much more than one young man's desire to go back to the land of his family. It's so much more complex than that. It's multi-layered and I found myself identifying with it on so many levels. Definitely not something I was expecting from the little I knew about the show.
I'm going to talk about the plot elements in a more specific way now, so if you think you are going to see the show and don't want to be spoiled, you should probably stop reading now because I'm definitely going to reveal some plot points.
As I said, there are so many layers to the story and I could relate on a few different levels. One of the subplots of the story is that Nina has returned from her freshman year at Stanford and hasn't told anyone yet that she dropped out. When her parents find out they are shocked, but they comfort Nina and tell her that she can always rely on them and that she can always come home when she is struggling. Of course this had me in tears as I immediately related it to my own daughter being away at college and how I always want her to know that if she needs it, we will always provide her with a soft place to land.
I could relate to Nina on another level as well. Nina expresses how badly she feels that she was not successful at Stanford, that she was the hope of her whole neighborhood, that everyone was expecting her to be a success and change the world. And that she was not up to the task. She eloquently expresses the pressure she feels as the first person in her family to go to college and what a huge responsibility that is for her. Like Nina, I was the first person in my family to go to college and while I didn't grow up in an impoverished neighborhood where everyone was looking to me to succeed, I did grow up with limited means in a affluent town and I knew that an education was my ticket to a better life. I was definitely too naive at the time to realize what it meant to be the first person in my family to go to college, but in retrospect I can appreciate what that means - for myself and for my family. I'm grateful I wasn't aware of it at the time, but listening to Nina last night it made me realize what it meant to my family that I was going off to college - far from home.
And lastly, I related most emotionally to the special role that Abuela Claudia filled in the lives of the people in the neighborhood. She may not have been everyone's grandmother, but she was the support system for all of them. She was the one who saved mementos of everyone's successes. And she was the one who provided the quiet, wise and nurturing support that they all needed. We all know people like this. The one person who is always in our corner. Quietly cheering us on as we reach for our goals. Or offering gentle words of wisdom when we seem lost and unsure. Even when they are disappointed in us, they have a way of letting us know that without being harsh or unkind. My own grandparents were just this type influence in my life. And Abuela Claudia's relationship with Nina and the other young people in her neighborhood reminded me of my own grandparents's loving support and comforting presence in my life. How does one become such a person? Because that's the person I want to be. Does it only happen with age? Because it does seem like these people are usually older. I hope that maybe with age I will become this type of person for my own children or grandchildren - and others in my life. I'm not sure how that happens, but I sure hope it happens to me.
**** OK, it's safe to read again****
**** OK, it's safe to read again****
If In the Heights comes to a theater near you and you are thinking about going, I highly recommend it. As a matter of fact, I'd really like to see it again, just so I can process it more. There's a lot going on and a lot to it and I'm sure I would get even more out of it a second time. It's that good!