I have noticed that compared to classic musicals which feature great songs that can stand on their own — “It Might as Well Be Spring,” “Send in the Clowns” and “Memory,” to name a few —modern musicals tend to be more operatic.
They have an awful lot of songs, almost replacing dialogue entirely, but the songs only function to move the plot along and are not as much music in their own right. That is the biggest fault I found with “In the Heights,” a Broadway play about a Latino community in Washington Heights, New York, which I went with my fellow Knox students to see last weekend in Chicago on a Union Board-sponsored trip.
In a musical where the characters spend the majority of the time singing, the songs are unmelodic; I do not remember any of them now. The lyrics leave little beneath the surface but simply tell the audience what the characters are feeling — “They are all counting on me to succeed,” “Today my daughter’s home, and I am useless.” I was frustrated by the overt nature of the play: the audience is told who is in love with whom, who to sympathize with, how the play’s events relate to themes of family duty, community, et cetera, with little left for speculation. This is simply not good storytelling.
However, I seem to stand alone in this opinion. Everyone I have talked to liked the play a lot.
“It was nice seeing a show that grabbed your attention and didn’t let go even for a second, with the mesmerizing dance numbers and the actors that were so easy to empathize with,” junior Allister Byrd said.
Freshman Claire Neri said, “I thought it was interesting because it incorporated music from our generation. I’d never seen a musical do that before.” Oh, and it won four Tony awards, including one for Best Musical. Go figure.
I attribute a lot of the popularity of “In the Heights” to its powerful, universal themes. The setting appeals to anyone who has been in a community where everyone knows everyone else’s family problems, who they are sleeping with, who they wish they were sleeping with. Where neighbors annoy you but also take care of you.
The play skillfully portrays a blended culture; Fourth of July turns into Carnival. The integration of Spanish and English in the songs and dialogue gave the show richness and the mixture of Latin dance and hip-hop was also a good touch.
Although I found the characters rather generic, largely due to bland acting, other people really empathized with them. Neri said, “Nina [pride of the barrio because she went to Stanford] was most relatable to me because of her struggles to get out and how she refused to let anyone or anything keep her from getting a quality education.”
Freshman Paula Castanos said, “Coming from a Latin American family, I could really connect to each of the characters. I loved the sense of family and togetherness.”
I will not take back my criticisms of “In the Heights” just because it is so popular. I still think the music was unmemorable and that even though the themes of community and merging cultures are compelling, they were not portrayed with much subtlety or originality.
The characters felt like types: the wise old matriarch, the overachiever breaking under the pressure, the loveable, misbehaving kid. Better actors would have made the characters more three-dimensional and more fun to watch.
“I saw the show once before, and unfortunately this cast didn’t have quite the charisma the other one did,” Castanos said, making me wonder if a better cast would have made all the difference in my liking the characters. Regardless, the Union Board gave us a Broadway play and a trip to Chicago for $15, so I really cannot complain.