In the Heights examines what makes home, home

Debra Cardona as Abuela Claudia and Justin Gregory Lopez as Usnavi; photo: Rich Ryan

By Terri Gordon

When Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show “Hamilton: An American Musical”—a rap, hip-hop and rhythm-and-blues laced musical—hit Broadway, people were surprised by its meteoric success. They shouldn’t have been. If they’d been paying attention, they’d have known. Because “Hamilton” wasn’t Miranda’s first successful show. It was his second.

Miranda’s first hit was “In the Heights”, a musical he actually wrote as a sophomore in college. The college production struck a chord, and senior students approached Miranda about expanding it for Broadway. With help, he took up the challenge. The new version played first in Connecticut in 2005, then it went to off-Broadway in 2007.

Then, in 2008, the show opened on Broadway. That year, it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, the Tony Award for Best Original Score, the Tony Award for Best Choreography, and the Tony Award for Best Orchestrations. It also won the Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. There were nine other nominations.

This is the show that’s coming to Dayton. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Tony Award-winning In the Heights will play at the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center from Oct 3 through Oct 8—and it is sure to please.

The show is co-directed and choreographed by Al Justiniano, the artistic director for Teatro del Pueblo, and James A. Rocco, the vice president of programming and producing and artistic director at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, in association with Alexander Gil Cruz, Giselle Mejia, and Ashley Selmer.

Rocco essentially grew up on Broadway as a professional child actor. He worked with “greats Uta Hagen and David Merrick,” and choreographed his first show at the age of 15. Most of his education was at the hands of tutors and correspondence classes, but he set the goal of a college degree for himself—and achieved it. With so much practical knowledge about performance, he chose to study management. This gave him a better understanding of the bigger picture, and solidified his roles as director and choreographer.

“In the Heights” takes place over the course of three days in the Hispanic-American community of Washington Heights in New York City. It involves the typical struggles between parents and children—and lovers. It involves everyman’s search for identity and examines the meaning of home.

“It’s about three generations of people that moved to the United States from another country,” Rocco says, “ three generation of Latinos—some that came are first generation, some are second generation, and some are third generation.

It’s about the traditions you bring with you when you come to America from your old country, and what traditions do you keep, and what do you let go. What changes in your life when you become American.

It’s all very pertinent for these times when we’re all thinking a lot about diversity and how our country is hugely ethnically diverse.”

Playing the part of Nina is Aline Mayagoitia, who was born in Mexico City and moved to Austin during childhood. She recently graduated from the University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre program. Now living in New York, this is her third time to be a part of a production of “In the Heights”. She was introduced to the show by a middle school theatre teacher.

“I was kind of a snob,” Mayagoitia recalls, “only liking classic musicals, but she insisted I listen to it. I remember, from the first three bars of rapping at the top of the show, feeling like something was changing the field. The show told stories from my world, my family, in a masterful way, and I was in love.”

In the show, Nina is the first in her family to be born in the United States, and the first to attend college. When the show opens, she is coming home to tell her parents—who have sacrificed much to send her—that she is withdrawing from school. Mayagoitia can relate to the tugs and pulls and concerns.

“[She] shares so many of my dreams and anxieties,” Mayagoitia says. “She sings ‘what would happen if my parents had stayed in Puerto Rico? Who would I be?’ and that’s probably the central question of my life since I moved.

“The pressures of first generation immigrants keeping traditions strong and adapting to American life and certain ideals is something every wave of new Americans has experienced, whether they arrived through the Rio Grande or Ellis Island.

“As [I am] the first person to attend university in the states, my family has made huge sacrifices to support my education. My graduation this past May felt like a victory to my entire extended family.”

Mayagoitia brings these feelings to her portrayal of Nina, broadening and deepening her character.

Nina finds love with Benny, a non-Latino boy. This infuriates her father—and yet, it shows another reality. In the end, her family accepts Benny—and Nina returns to school.

While Nina assimilates into American society, others long for home. Usnavi came to the states at a very young age from the Dominican Republic. When his parents died, the neighborhood matriarch, Abuela (Spanish for “grandmother”) Claudia took him under her  wing. Abuela Claudia herself came from Cuba as a child with her mother. Their intent was to eventually return home, but somehow that never happened. But Abuelo Claudia still dreams. When she wins the lottery with a ticket from Usnavi’s bodega, she convinces Usnavi to return to the Dominican Republic—his original home—with her accompanying him. But a power outage throws the community into chaos. True feelings emerge. Things change—and stay the same. For Mayagoitia, there is no part of the show that exemplifies the story of this Latino community better than the song “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith),” sung by Abuela Claudia.

“It’s the thesis statement of this show,” Mayagoitia explains. “[Abuela Claudia] outlines her story of immigrating from Cuba in the 1940’s and how surviving in New York was incredibly difficult. She makes it through year after year, adopting this Washington Heights block as her family—something that many immigrant communities must do. Extended family is very important in Latino culture, and finding connections like that in a new country is very important to survival. “In the Heights” displays exactly how much these people care for each other, even if they come from different countries and different generations.”

It takes love and human connection to make a place home. To tell any more would ruin the story. If you want to know the outcome, you will have to see the show! Suffice it to say, it is a lesson for us all as we all navigate the human condition, an imperfect world, unrequited affections, and unfulfilled dreams.

As Mayagoitia says: The more specific a story is, the more universal its themes can be. This snapshot of the circumstances that make life in these five blocks in Manhattan present problems and blessings everyone has dealt with. The best musicals can do that.

“In the Heights” may be Miranda’s earliest effort, but it is not a weak one. Rocco points out that “In the Heights” is “reverent and very much aware of the history and the impact and the love of musical theatre in our country, but takes it and puts it in contemporary terms.”

With “In the Heights” and with “Hamilton”, Miranda has changed the Broadway musical. He has added rap and hip-hop. He has used vernacular.

““In the Heights” is a very important piece, and Lin-Manuel Miranda has changed the face of musical theatre in the same way that Rogers and Hammerstein changed the world with “Oklahoma”, and Stephen Sondheim changed the world with “Company”. Lin-Manuel is a genius. I’m fortunate to get to play with his words for a couple of weeks. It’s fantastic! I am having a completely different experience working on the show then I did when I first saw it. It has become very personal and moving. It is about staying connected to your traditions and your choice of family. I firmly believe that when we have relationships, even when they are no longer happening in the physical world, you remain connected in a psychic, spiritual way. I see that in the show.”

Tickets for In the Heights are available at Ticket Center Stage, located in the Wintergarden of the Schuster Center. They can also be purchased by phone at 937-228-3630, toll-free at 888-228-3630, or online at TicketCenterStage.com

Educational activities for youth and adults can be found at www.VictoriaTheatre.com, under Broadway Series-In the Heights.

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Terri Gordon
Freelance writer Terri Gordon writes across a range of topics, including nature, health, and homes and gardens. She holds a masters in English and occasionally teaches college composition and literature. Her blog, WordWorks (http://tsgordon.blogspot.com) is a "bulletin board" of some of her favorite things.

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