Barack Obama is not the only one singing a hopeful tune these days. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights — an exuberant paean to life in a New York City barrio — is overflowing with hope. A hope refreshingly based on essentially conservative values.
What a far cry from Paul Simon’s ill-fated 1997 musical The Capeman, the play Ben Brantley of the New York Times once compared to “watching a mortally wounded animal.” Also set in the barrio, The Capeman had a gorgeous doo-wop and Latin score. But its story of a 1950s murderer from a street gang was nihilistic, pessimistic, and critical of oppressive American society.
Lin-Manuel Miranda apparently saw The Capeman three times in previews and resolved to write what he viewed as a more honest musical about Latin culture in America. Ten years later, Miranda’s In the Heights is drawing crowds on Broadway and recently won the Tony award for best musical, as well as for best original score, orchestrations, and choreography.
In the Heights is at the opposite pole from The Capeman’s nihilism. Miranda’s optimistic, humorous, vibrant spectacle of music and dance revels in the glory of New York City and the American dream. This captivating musical set on a street corner in Washington Heights should warm the hearts of Manhattan conservatives (who actually do exist, although often in anonymity). Through driving hip-hop and Latin music, the play sends home a quintessentially conservative message: take control of your life and move ahead, without forgetting about your family and community.
The New York Sun recently quoted Kevin McCollum, a producer of In the Heights, as saying that the play is about assimilation. Presumably, he was not using the term negatively to mean the obliteration of ethnic identity. The play celebrates ethnic culture — in the lively dance number “Carnaval del Barrio,” the Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, and Mexican flags are all proudly flourished — while recognizing that America provides opportunities for the taking if one is willing to work.
Assimilation here is not a sell-out. It is the process of making a home in the U.S. and becoming a contributing member of the American community. The immigrant characters are economic refugees who have fled the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico to escape poverty, find jobs, and make more of their lives than their parents could manage. It turns out to be a journey well undertaken.
Ultimately, the main character, Usnavi — a bodega owner played by Miranda — realizes that while he is proud of being Dominican, his real home is not his parents’ island, but the island of Manhattan. As the beauty-salon worker Carla puts it: “My mom is Dominican-Cuban, my Dad is from Chile and P.R, which means: I’m Chile-Domini-Curican . . . but I always say I’m from Queens!”
Assimilation is not the only theme in the musical to take on a conservative hue; work, education, romance, family and community, religion, and self-reliance provide a platform for the expression of conservative principles as well.
Work: Everyone who is on the street corner on which the musical is set, has some kind of work: the bodega owner, the car-service operators, the beauty-salon employees, and the piragua (shaved ice) cart pusher. People sing about work, about coming to America to make something of themselves, about investing in a business-school education, about making a profit, even about competition with Mr. Softee. Benny is trying his hardest to succeed as a car-service dispatcher. Vanessa is saving her pay in a lock box for a down payment on an apartment downtown. Work is extolled, but it is not sugar coated. Life in the barrio is a struggle, and bills are not always easy to meet. Gentrification is pushing the rents up, forcing the beauty salon to move to the Bronx. But we still leave the theater with the feeling that the characters will get by somehow — and many of them will thrive.
Self-reliance: Community support is important, but self-reliance is key. When the barrio is singing “We are powerless” during a blackout, Usnavi challenges the people to take control of things: “All right, we’re powerless, so light up a candle! There’s nothing going on here that we can’t handle!” Then, he decides to forego the move to the Dominican Republic and stay home in the Heights to take care of his cousin and to rebuild his looted store.
Education: The barrio’s favorite daughter is Nina, a student at Stanford. Abuela Claudia used to spend every afternoon with her making sure Nina did her homework, although Claudia could barely write her own name. The neighborhood looks up to Nina as a star. But Nina has returned home a drop-out: she has lost her scholarship because working two jobs interfered with her school work. She is devastated, worried about disappointing her parents (who own the car service) and the community. Eventually, with support and wrenching sacrifices from her parents, Nina will return to Stanford to be the first to make it through college.
Romance: There are two romantic story lines in the play: Nina and Benny and Usnavi and the knock-out beauty-salon worker Vanessa. These couples have touching and comic musical moments together. The play has its share of simmering sexual desire, innuendo, and jokes, but the sex is neither graphic nor rampant. No naked people saunter across the stage. The musical is actually more focused on the characters’ feelings and respect for one another.
Religion: While this is not a religious play, religion is treated respectfully. The characters sing of prayer and God’s protection. Born-again Carla is comical, but her words “What would Jesus do?” ring true. Abuela Claudia has gotten through the trials of life with “paciencia y fe” (patience and faith) and offers up the marvels of small pleasures to the praise of God — “Alabanza.”
Family and community: This musical may be the first to elevate a neighborhood grandmother to sainthood (replete with graffiti icon). Abuela Claudia spent years as a maid cleaning “the whole of the Upper East Side” and raising the children on her block in the Heights. They return her nurturing with devotion and respect. Nina’s parents are steadfast in their support of their daughter and sing of the need to bring one’s problems home for help. The people in the neighborhood watch out for each other and take pride in Nina’s success. Usnavi is a father figure to his cousin Sonny (who works at the bodega) and tells the local graffiti artist to “shut up, go home and pull ya damn pants up.”
New York: Not only does Washington Heights look like a great place to live, but New Yorkers will get a kick out of the references to the demise of the 9 train, rhyming raucous with Secaucus, and Benny’s car-service dispatch rap in which he tells drivers “don’t take the Deegan/ Manny Ramirez is in town this weekend.”
America: The play is set in [George] Washington Heights on the Fourth of July, with fireworks bursting. Usnavi’s name derives from “U.S. Navy,” which his parents saw engraved on a ship on their way to the States. Usnavi even works references to Cole Porter and “Take the A Train” into his rap. When Usnavi decides to move to the Dominican Republic after abuela Claudia wins the lottery, his cousin tries to talk him out of it, saying “Do you think Bert would ever leave Ernie?” — referring to that common cultural heritage of countless Americans, Sesame Street. And Vanessa tells Usnavi that there is a big difference between leaving the barrio and leaving the country.
Immigration: The characters from all appearances are in the U.S. legally. No one seems to be hiding in the shadows, worried he is going to be deported. Many of the characters are openly running legitimate businesses. Several are Puerto Rican. As citizens, they would not have had any legal barriers to immigration, although they would still have had an immigrant experience culturally. The only explicit political reference to immigration that comes to mind is a passing reference in Sonny’s rap that if he won the lottery, he would protest various issues, including immigration policy. Still, a subtext is perhaps discernible: A person who is in the U.S. legally has a realistic shot at the American dream and a lot to offer American society in return.
We’ve come a long way from The Capeman. In the Heights is not a play of the disaffected, victimized, downtrodden, angry, or hopeless. It is a joyful celebration of both Latin culture and conservative values, set in the greatest city in the greatest country in the world. Senator McCain could do worse than take a song or two out of this songbook.
– Monica Mullin is a lawyer and a homemaker living on the upper-west side of Manhattan.