Book Review: In The Heights Finding Home

After working for some 16 hours on the hottest day of the year singing and dancing  in take after take on the uneven concrete floor of a courtyard between two old brick apartment buildings in Washington Heights, the cast of the movie version of “In The Heights” had finally finished the musical number, when one of the performers, Dascha Polanco – sweaty, tired, and tear-streaked — began a chant:

“N-e-e-e-e-w York, N-e-e-e-e-w York.”

 In seconds, the whole crowd took it up.  

“N-e-e-e-e-w York, N-e-e-e-e-w York

Exhausted as they were, they danced…not as the characters but as themselves – while they continued to chant.

“It was the sound of joy and survival,” Quiara Allegria Hudes observes in “In the Heights: Finding Home” (Random House, 288 pages.) The book takes us on the 22-year journey of the musical that began when Lin-Manuel Miranda, 19 years old and a sophomore at Wesleyan, wrote and performed a few songs about the northern Manhattan neighborhood in which he was raised, Washington Heights. It grew into a show about some dozen interrelated characters in the neighborhood, which wound up a Tony-winning musical on Broadway when Miranda was 28. It now has become a Hollywood movie, released last week, six months after Miranda’s 41st birthday.

Joy and survival is a good description of the musical number they filmed that day, “Carnival del Barrio,” in which Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela, the owner of a local salon, rouses her listless neighbors –suffering from the heat, a blackout, and the loss of a beloved member of the community — into an electrifying and literally flag-waving show of pride and celebration. It’s one of the exciting production numbers that critics have been singling out

Joy and survival is something of a theme for the movie as a whole. It’s also an apt enough description of where many of us are now after more than a year in lockdown, facing a solid promise of reopening which this summer movie both heralds and embodies.

If “In The Heights Finding Home” succeeds in capturing the joy of the people who survived the journey of the musical, the book itself is a more mixed experience.

The principal authors, Miranda and former theater critic Jeremy McCarter, have more or less modeled “In The Heights Finding Home” on their previous collaboration, the 2016 bestseller “Hamilton The Revolution.” Both are in effect ambitious souvenir books, heavily illustrated and elaborately designed, that alternate McCarter’s chapters of the show’s behind-the-scenes history with Miranda’s chapters of the song lyrics, extensively annotated.

The problem is that “In the Heights” is not “Hamilton,” in a whole host of ways. For example: “Hamilton” is a sung-through musical, while “In The Heights” has whole scenes with no songs, only dialogue. Rather than reproduce the entire script, the new book features four essays by Hudes, who was both the movie’s screenwriter and the stage musical’s librettist; she talks about a few specific scenes and characters, next to short snippets of the dialogue she wrote for the movie. (Hudes on a pivotal dinner scene: “I had been writing that beast of a scene for 15 years.”)

A page of lyrics (and annotations) of the song “Paciencia y Fe” superimposed on a photograph of Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, the only performer to reprise their Broadway role in the movie.)

Threaded throughout the book is also a series of ten brief first-person reminiscences, labeled Recuerdo, by various participants in either the stage or the movie musical. In one, Eliseo Román, who portrayed the Piragua Guy on Broadway (the vendor of flavored shaved ice that Miranda portrays in the movie), recalls after one performance his encounter at the stage door with a young man: “He was crying. He told me his father sold piraguas in Puerto Rico. When he saw me on stage, all these memories came flooding back. His father was the breadwinner in the family – the one who made it possible for him to go to school….”

There are any number of such small anecdotes that are variously touching or funny or fascinating. These are akin to the embroidered napkins Abuela Claudia shows Nina that her mother had made — “little details that tell the world ‘we are not invisible.’” But if “In The Heights Finding Home” is not a serious work of history (there is no index nor footnotes, for example), McCarter also deserves credit for detailing with some rigor the years-long process that went into the stage musical’s development. At such disparate venues as a converted library on the Wesleyan campus, the basement theater of New York’s century-old Drama Book Shop; the O’Neill Center in Connecticut; and a short-lived Off Broadway theater called 37 arts, Miranda and his expanding team honed the piece, in particular searching for the right characters and a workable plot.

The initial story revolved around a love triangle: Benny is in love with Nina (who at that point is a student at Yale, not Stanford), while Nina’s brother Lincoln, an aspiring songwriter who is secretly gay, is in love with Benny! Two of the producers who eventually came on board, Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, had produced “Rent,” and thought the triangle was too similar to the plot of their previous musical. Lincoln was eventually eliminated. By the time “In The Heights” made it to Broadway, Miranda tells us memorably, all that survived from the original musical was the phrase “En Washington Heights” and the five-note melody that accompanies it. The titles of all 22 chapters of the Finding Home book, he also explains, are titles of songs that he wrote for the musical and never used – just a fraction of those written and discarded.

For all its interesting tidbits, “In The Heights Finding Home” faced some challenges in its conception and execution that get in its way. It seems clear to me that the authors’ passion leans toward the stage musical far more than the movie. (One small example out of many: McCarter describes the first Broadway musical – “The Black Crook” in 1866 – but I don’t recall his describing the first, or any, movie musical.) This makes sense to me (and not just because theater is my jam): The nine years it took for the show to go from notion to Tony winner were full of continuous creativity, incident and drama. The 13 years that it took for the show to go from initial Hollywood studio interest to released movie were full of rejection and delay.

Yet it’s obviously the movie that justifies the timing for the publication of this book, rather than a stage musical that closed on Broadway more than a decade ago, after a respectable but not earth-shattering run of 34 months.

There are a couple of chapters that recount the appeal of the musical after its Broadway run, in theaters ranging from the Philippines to the Netherlands, and among student groups. But it’s perhaps unintentionally revealing (and certainly a refreshing break from the book’s more common tone of self-congratulations) that the director of a production in London is quoted as saying that the show “looks out at the world with a sense of optimism. And isn’t overly worried about being crafty, or sophisticated, or by-the-rules of musical theater.” “In The Heights,” in other words, may be an enjoyable musical (even a groundbreaking one for Broadway in its use of rap and Latin music and its focus on Latino characters) but it is not universally regarded as a stage musical for the ages – the way theater people currently view, say, “Hamilton.”

It seems self-evident that the new movie is what will lure people to shell out the money to hold such an elegant coffee table book in their hands (I can’t recommend the ebook, which is a frustrating experience to navigate.) Yet we have to comb carefully through the pages of “In The Heights Finding Home” to discover how much has changed from stage to screen: New characters have been added, old ones from Broadway killed off. The songs are in a different order, and some have been eliminated. (Tellingly, the songs are presented in the book in the order in which they appeared on stage, not the movie, and most of the photographs on which the lyrics are superimposed are of the stage cast) The way the book is organized makes it challenging to figure out these changes. But it is possible: This is what I did for my article “In The Heights Movie: 10 Changes from the Broadway Musical.”   

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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