In the Heights opened on March 9, 2008 — eight years ago today. By the time it closed exactly 34 months later, it had won five Tony Awards including best musical, and launched the Broadway careers of Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail and performers Joshua Henry and Javier Munoz, among others; it had also given a boost to choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, musical director Alex Lacamoire and performer Christopher Jackson.
At the time, I wrote: “My hope is that Lin-Manuel Miranda will return with a new work for the New York stage, rather than – the big temptation – going Hollywood.”
And so he did, collaborating once again with many of those with whom he worked on In The Heights, on Hamilton.
Seeing “In The Heights” for the first time inspired me to write an essay on the definition of Broadway, which I excerpt below:
New York is the only city I know of whose streets are not just locations but synonyms for whole industries — Wall Street and Madison Avenue (hence “Mad Men”); or even for an entire way of life — Fifth Avenue and (once) The Bowery. Broadway is short-hand for both an industry and a way of life. But Broadway means something different to different people.
This was brought home to me in at least three ways while attending “In The Heights.” From the very start of the musical, the audience is brought cheekily into another Broadway – the street that runs through Washington Heights:
“Now you’re probably thinking ‘I’m up shit’s creek, I never been north of Ninety-sixth Street,” the main character, a bodega owner named Usnavi, raps before the looming backdrop of the George Washington Bridge. “Well, you must take the A train even farther than Harlem to Northern Manhattan…get off at 181st, and take the escalator.”
We are in a Broadway of Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban residents who are struggling with rising rents and paltry paychecks and a blacked-out, broken down city, but also a neighborhood of exuberant aspiration, the neighbors’ stories told in a score infused with rap, salsa and meringue, “sounds that are an ear-tickling novelty on Broadway,” wrote the New York Times reviewer. He did not mean Broadway at 181st Street, where they are anything but a novelty.
Some call “In The Heights” a breakthrough musical — a breakthrough for Latin music and Latino performers and for Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star, lyricist and composer who conceived the idea for the show when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan College. (Other reviewers explicitly said it was not a breakthrough musical, e.g.: “In the Heights” is not another break-through tribal musical like, in their respective days, “West Side Story,” “Hair” or “Rent,” but it gets its electricity from the same source.”)
Sometimes it seems there have been so many “breakthrough musicals” on Broadway — yes, “West Side Story,” “Hair” and “Rent” but also “A Chorus Line” and before that “South Pacific” and before that “Oklahoma” and before that “Of Thee I Sing” (the first Broadway musical to win a Pulitzer) and before that “Show Boat” — that “Broadway” is synonymous with “breakthrough.” If the story in “In The Heights” is familiar, the story of “In The Heights” is familiar too…and thrilling. Breakthrough productions and star-making performances are a large part of Broadway lore…a large part of what Broadway is .
The first Broadway musical that anybody ever called a Broadway breakthrough was “The Black Crook”, because, some claim, it was the very first Broadway musical — in 1866.
Fire had destroyed the largest theater in New York, the Academy of Music, which was on Union Square, leaving the impresario with no place to present a troupe of ballet dancers he had brought over from Paris. The producer went over to the owner of the second largest theater in New York, Niblo’s Garden, which was on Broadway (and Prince Street). The manager of Niblo’s was about to put on a melodrama called “The Black Crook.” The ballet producer convinced the melodrama manager to combine theatrical forces…and the Broadway musical was born, a uniquely American art form; a true breakthrough.