Oh, for the Jets and Sharks of yesterday - the Annie in "Annie Get Your Gun," or even the Annie of "Annie."
Oh, for a few people being real, nasty and maybe both, and being able to sing about it.
They're nowhere to be found in "In the Heights," the salsa-impregnated musical that opened last night after a successful off-Broadway run.
Broadway's search for the new, gritty musical - the next "West Side Story," "Hair" or "Rent" - continues, trying to discover something that talks today's talk, sings today's songs.
Unfortunately, "In the Heights" doesn't stray more than a brief subway ride from middle-age Broadway's comfort zone.
It's certainly no rude "Spring Awakening." It's more like "Guys and Dolls" seen through rose-colored Latino spectacles, with a little gambling (strictly legal), scarce sex (all of it straight) and no drugs. No cigarettes, either, come to think of it.
Instead, it's a pretty picture postcard of Washington Heights – one with few lows.
The show has been created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a young Ivy League-educated graduate from the 'hood.
Not only did he provide the concept, but he's also composed the brilliantly lively music and the even more dazzling lyrics. (He even quotes Cole Porter.)
He also plays one of the leads, and he's fantastic - a natural who has carved himself a terrific leading role.
So the music is fun, the lyrics are clever, and Miranda is the finest performer of that name since Carmen. And while no one else in the cast is at his level, or has his chances, most are pretty damn good.
Anna Louizos' set - a pretty barrio square in that uptown neighborhood - seems absolutely right for the show, filled as it is with architectural power and grandeur, complete with a wonderfully realistic George Washington Bridge in the background.
Paul Tazewell's costumes are imaginative without being implausible. The partly hip-hop choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler is slick and slickly performed.
And while the lighting by Howell Binkley is bizarre in its almost abstract changes, these were presumably at the request of Miranda or his otherwise sharp director, Thomas Kail.
So with everything so right, what went wrong? What usually goes wrong on musicals: the book. Quiara Alegria Hudes' work is droopily sentimental and untruthful: Young love finds true love, old love reinforces fading love, the foreseeable right person wins the lottery and, just as foreseeable, the right person keels over dead exactly on cue.
There is no real plot, no true drama. Everyone is as cute as a litter of kittens.
Without any lows, just how high can these sanitized "Heights" climb?
It has been lamented in certain circles that they don’t make Broadway musical stars the way they used to. We’ll not see the likes of Ethel Merman again. Or Mary Martin or John Raitt. Or, for that matter, Patti LuPone or Mandy Patinkin.
C’mon everybody, let’s give a big, sad sigh.
Oh, let’s not. While the manufacture of matinee idols and worship-ready divas, not to mention the sturdy vehicles they rode to fame, may be in decline, the theater has not gone out of the star-making business entirely. If you stroll down to the Richard Rodgers Theater, where the spirited musical “In the Heights” opened on Sunday night, you’ll discover a singular new sensation, Lin-Manuel Miranda, commanding the spotlight as if he were born in the wings.
As you watch Mr. Miranda bound jubilantly across the stage, tossing out the rhymed verse currently known as rap like fistfuls of flowers, you might find yourself imagining that this young man is music personified — a sprightly new Harold Hill from the barrio, where this sweet if sentimental musical is set.
Mr. Miranda, as the owner of a corner bodega who dispenses good cheer along with café con leche by the gallon, is not just the brightly glowing star of “In the Heights.” He also wrote all the ebullient songs for this panoramic portrait of a New York neighborhood — Washington Heights — filled with Spanish-speaking dreamers of American dreams, nervously eyeing their futures from a city block on the cusp of change.
First seen Off Broadway last year, “In the Heights” moves uptown with its considerable assets confidently in place: a tuneful score enlivened by the dancing rhythms of salsa and Latin pop, sounds that are an ear-tickling novelty on Broadway; zesty choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler that seems to put invisible wings on the young cast’s neon-colored sneakers; and a stage amply stocked with appealing actors who season their performances with generous doses of sugar and spice.
Its fundamental deficiencies are also along for the ride, unfortunately. Conceived by Mr. Miranda, with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, “In the Heights” consists of a series of vignettes that form a vivid but somewhat airbrushed mural of urban life. Directed by Thomas Kail, it is basically a salsa-flavored soap opera, and if there is an equivalent of schmaltz in Spanish, this musical is happily swimming in it.
Will Usnavi (Mr. Miranda) and his abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) — his beloved grandmother in spirit if not in fact — achieve their goal of returning to the Dominican Republic? Will Nina (Mandy Gonzalez), the plucky neighborhood girl who made good, find the courage, or the money, to return to Stanford University after a shaky freshman year?
Will her adoring parents, Kevin (Carlos Gomez) and Camila (Priscilla Lopez), take the momentous step of selling their gypsy cab company so Nina can realize her goal? Can they come to accept Benny (Christopher Jackson), the upstanding but un-Latino young man who works for them, as their only daughter’s suitor?
I almost forgot the biggest nail-biter: Who is in possession of the winning lottery ticket Usnavi discovers he has sold?
Although you may lament the efficient but mechanical way these story lines are developed and resolved, staying tuned will be a pleasure if you have any affection for the bubbly or sultry sounds of Latin music.
Under the enthusiastic guidance of the music director, Alex Lacamoire, the orchestra — band is really a better word — plays with a sense of excitement almost never heard emanating from a Broadway pit. (The standard amplification is less flattening to this music than to traditional scores.) Bright, piping fanfares from the trumpets punctuate the dance numbers; the merry tinkle of a steel drum laughs along with the jokes. The players below seem to be having as much fun as the performers onstage.
That is saying plenty, for when this musical erupts in one of its expressions of collective joy, the energy it gives off could light up the George Washington Bridge for a year or two. The title song, for instance, is among the most galvanizing opening numbers in recent Broadway memory, as Usnavi gives the audience a guided tour, in briskly flowing rap, of the troubles that nip at the heels and the hopes that feed the imaginations of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. (The street is designed with impressive attention to the minutiae of urban decay by Anna Louizos.)
In addition to the aforementioned characters, there is Usnavi’s cocky 16-year-old cousin Sonny (the impishly funny Robin De Jesús), eager to give Usnavi tips on how to woo the girl he’s got a secret crush on. She is the ambitious Vanessa (Karen Olivo, all legs and voice), whose ardent wish is to move out of the barrio; unfortunately she’s got a mother draining her resources, and a serious credit problem. The vivacious Daniela (Andréa Burns, choicely tart), who owns the beauty salon where Vanessa works, is on the move whether she likes it or not. Priced out of the ’hood, she’s packing up her straighteners and moving to the Bronx.
Mr. Miranda’s most distinctive songs are the snazzier ones. The ballads can sound generic, and they are too often sung with throbbing ardor by someone standing in a spotlight, eyes aglow with hope or resolution. But even the musically bland selections are given a fresh gloss by the specific details of experience embedded in Mr. Miranda’s lyrics. When Nina and Benny sing a tender duet establishing their mutual feeling, she reminisces about the days “when the world was just a subway map, and the 1/9 train climbed a dotted line to my place.” Benny, his voice all honey and love, sings back, “There’s no 9 train now.”
As a performer, Mr. Miranda is anything but generic. Slight of build, with a wispy goatee, he does not fit any leading-man molds. But he is so naturally and vibrantly alive onstage that he brings an animating touch of urgency to even the more clichéd or predictable turns of the plot. He may be no real balladeer — he doesn’t sing much at all — but Usnavi’s long streams of rap riding a pulsating rhythm are the music that makes the whole neighborhood dance.
You could easily be cynical about the show’s heartfelt belief in the possibility of a little love and a big lottery win making all things right. But then Mr. Miranda bounces back onstage, throwing down rhymes and throwing his arms open wide as if to embrace the whole mezzanine. He seems to embody music’s ability to make the trite seem true again. And after all, this scrappy little musical about chasing your dreams and finding your true home is Mr. Miranda’s own dream come true. He couldn’t look more at home.
In the Heights (* * * out of four), which opened Sunday at Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre, is not a great musical. But it's about as impossible to dislike as an adorable puppy.
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, 28, who also wrote the music and lyrics and stars in it, the show focuses on a group of Latin Americans living and struggling in Manhattan's Washington Heights and features a score that blends Latin, pop and hip-hop textures. Most of the characters are young, and some of them rap.
If you're thinking an uptown Rent or an updated West Side Story, think again. Heights already has been cited alongside two other off-Broadway transfers, last season's multiple Tony Award winner Spring Awakening and this year's superb Passing Strange, as evidence of a more progressive and culturally eclectic spirit in musical theater.
But for all its youthful energy, Heights is ultimately a sentimental journey, and a safe one. True, its outcome is less predictable or hokey than the too-neatly constructed first act would suggest, but Quiara Alegria Hudes' book is no more clever or daring than that of your average Disney screen adaptation.
More crucially, Miranda's score is short on the melodic punch that's a vital element of any memorable musical. However well Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman's zesty arrangements and orchestrations serve them, his songs are at best showcases for the rhythmic and harmonic savvy of the cast, and at worst banal vehicles for the empty, American Idol-style showboating increasingly embraced on Broadway.
Still, I dare you to resist Heights' endearing characters, from Miranda's unsinkable Usnavi — named by his Dominican parents in a heartfelt but slightly confused tribute to the USA that yields one of the show's better jokes — to the doting, Cuban-born senior citizen who raised him, played with a big voice and a bigger heart by Olga Merediz.
Priscilla Lopez and Carlos Gomez are equally winning as an industrious middle-aged couple from Puerto Rico concerned about their daughter, whose studies at Stanford University are thwarted by financial concerns, and who is falling in love with one of their employees, a twentysomething black man.
Mandy Gonzalez and Christopher Jackson are sturdy and attractive as the young lovers. But they're outshone by Karen Olivo's gorgeous, sassy girl from the 'hood and Robin De Jesus' goofily lovable performance as Usnavi's impish 16-year-old cousin.
Another key player is choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, whose street-savvy stylings and exuberant production numbers should make him a front-runner when this season's Tonys are handed out.
In the end, though, Heights' greatest asset is not its shiny surface but its warm, soft center.
Toward the end of his affectionate musical mosaic of a Latino neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, composer-performer Lin-Manuel Miranda's character farewells his bodega by wondering, "In five years, when this whole city's rich folks and hipsters, who's gonna miss this raggedy little business?" That reflection will strike a chord with anyone who has looked on sorrowfully as yet another Mom-and-Pop shop closes its doors or another no-frills diner gets swallowed up in New York's ever-accelerating makeover into a playground for money movers and trust-fund kids. It also sums up the bittersweet nostalgia that runs through "In the Heights," providing a soulful counterpoint to its infectious celebration.
Transferring uptown after a well-received run early last year, the production continues the string of idiosyncratic musicals that have braved the leap from Off Broadway, following on the heels of "Avenue Q," "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "Spring Awakening," "Grey Gardens" and "Passing Strange."
What makes "In the Heights" so unique, however, is that despite the driving pulse of its Latin-American rhythms, blending hip-hop, rap, jazz, pop, salsa and merengue, this buoyant musical also nods reverently to the traditions of the show tune. From its catchy opening number, which tosses in references to Cole Porter and Billy Strayhorn while swiftly introducing a large gallery of key characters and placing them within a vividly drawn community, the musical's plucky marriage of youthful freshness and lovingly old-fashioned craft is hard to resist.
The chief criticism leveled at the show in its previous incarnation was Quiara Alegria Hudes' sentimental book, which takes a sanitized view of a close-knit group of folks in Washington Heights, their struggle to scrape by, to trade up or to find love unmarred by the usual barrio staples of drugs, crime, violence, despair or real poverty. But that idealized perspective can be as endearing as it is limiting. It's a musical, after all, not a ghetto angstfest.
The story's conflicts have been sharpened in the move, its emotional tensions deepened and its characters more fully shaped, adding nuance to the central theme of immigrants and their children forging a community only to have their unity challenged by the unstoppable forces of gentrification. But what's more notable is the physical work done on the production.
Anna Louizos' wonderfully evocative set has grown in scope, etching a wealth of detail into the funky row of storefronts and apartment buildings spread out in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. And Howell Binkley has redesigned the show's lighting with a poetic touch, bringing a gorgeous color palette to scenes that shift primarily between dawn, dusk and nighttime, and adding visual excitement to the July 4th fireworks. The exuberant, brassy orchestrations and muscular sound mix are further pluses.
Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler take full advantage of the playing space, smoothly weaving the action and dancing in and out of doorways, up and down stairs, and into every cubby hole, giving the show a vitality that seems more spontaneous than studied.
This is some of the most spirited dancing on Broadway and one of the most limber ensembles. Blankenbuehler's choreography shows a pleasing aversion to slickness and rarely lingers long in one style. Instead it evolves freely through flexing urban moves, sinuous Latin lines and wild aerial tumbles, refreshingly maintaining an element of considered chaos that heightens the energy and echoes the vibrant textures of Miranda's toe-tapping score.
The songs are more shaped by character than narrative, giving a defining number to almost every member of the terrific principal cast.
Owner of the deli that's the hub of the 'hood, and dispenser of the cafe con leche that fuels its residents, Usnavi (Miranda) and leggy hairdresser Vanessa (Karen Olivo, long-overdue for full-fledged musical stardom) both have dreams of escaping their environment yet they remain anchored to their home and its people. Their hesitant romance is nicely balanced against that of troubled Stanford scholarship student Nina (Mandy Gonzalez) and Benny (Christopher Jackson), a dispatch worker at the car service run by Nina's folks (Priscilla Lopez and Carlos Gomez).
Then there's Usnavi's cousin Sonny (Robin De Jesus), amusingly striving to be cool, and their Cuban surrogate grandmother Claudia (Olga Merediz), the keeper of the characters' collective memories and the heart of the show. Even ostensibly peripheral figures like gossipy salon owner Daniela (Andrea Burns) and her guileless staffer Carla (Janet Dacal) are generously drawn, while the Piragua guy (Eliseo Roman), defiantly pushing his cart of fruit-flavored slushies against the encroaching commercial threat of Mr. Softee, provides a lilting melody all his own.
The sense of people bound together yet each with a distinctive voice, honoring their cultural roots while determinedly carving their own identity, gives "In the Heights" real humanity that transcends its flirtation with cliche. That depth of feeling, together with the wit of Miranda's lyrics, the playful dexterity of his rhymes, his dynamic score and a bunch of truly winning performances, make the show an uncalculated charmer.