In The Heights

In The Heights and Why I Hated/Love Musicals

Jose 4 Comments

In The Heights

In The Heights

On Saturday night, I saw the exuberant, Dominican-New Yorker-inspired In The Heights on Broadway, a musical about a young Dominican man trying to discover his life’s purpose with the backdrop of a romanticized version of Washington Heights (around 181st St, Manhattan, NYC). First, I’d like to say that this was a really good musical: good storyline, great music, good characters, and an original screenplay. Working in Washington Heights, I don’t often get to see this “wonderful” side of where my students were raised, hence the romanticism comment. Critics (including my Lucy) mentioned that this play, in some ways, appeals to the lowest common denominator by watering down the harsh realities of said neighborhood.

Nonetheless, it made me contemplate why I never got the opportunity to see a play or musical that spoke to my interests. Growing up, I couldn’t be bothered with either plays or musicals, mainly because my family never had those interests and couldn’t afford them. Fortunately, my schools provided me with enough exposure to the arts that I took an interest in singing and acting during my formative middle and high school years. In middle school, we did Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and renditions of the New Testament (KRIST!) I also joined the choir, and that was certainly new to me.

In high school, I pursued similar interests. Yet, this time around, I was in a predominantly White high school, and when I auditioned for plays, I met boys (and girls from neighboring schools) who had already been in tons of plays, and had been singing for the majority of their lives. They grew up watching Grease, and having been to on- and off-Broadway shows with their parents. That culture difference and culture shock attributed to my tagline for most of my high school acting career:

“I hate musicals!”

And of course, I didn’t really hate musicals (though I really don’t like Grease). I just felt an aversion to them, really. It was only exacerbated after, when I mentioned my distaste for Grease, a person who I thought was a friend said, “You just need a little culture.” So you’re saying I don’t have culture because I don’t fall head over heels at the chance at wearing a black leather jacket, tight pants, a toothpick, and a button-open polyester shirt? You’re saying because I’ve never seen Chicago or Cabaret, I don’t get to memorize lines, sing bass, or enjoy the company of fellow actors and actress? Can I haz my spotlight now? No? I guess not.

In my senior year of high school, directors and organizers for the musicals changed, and more Blacks and Latinos joined the play than I had ever seen. A couple of years later, I was invited to see another show and I couldn’t help but feel some sort of gratification when 1/2 of the cast members were either Black or Latino. Not that I have anything against White people; to the contrary, I have so many friends and mentors who I have to thank for exposing me to that side of the arts.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder if I had known about plays like The Color Purple, Othello, Anna In The Tropics, or A Raisin in the Sun, would I have adjusted a little better in my knowledge about theatre, having seen playwrights and actors like me who have starring roles on the stage. Hence, In The Heights actually made me emotional at the end. Almost made me wish I could go back and do it all over again …

Jose, who’s always been about pacencia y fe

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Jose VilsonIn The Heights and Why I Hated/Love Musicals

Comments 4

  1. Maegan la Mala

    I haven’t seen the show and without comped tickets my broke ass won’t. Pero, I wanted to comment on two things. One, I was at an event with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of The Heights where he was asked about the romanticized Washington Heights that you mentioned. He said something along the lines of that it wasn’t romanticized from his point of view. He was just focusing on stories that don’t get told of our communities.

    I was lucky enough to have my dad take me to broadway shows as birthday gifts, I tend to think of musicals as cheesy still, but I am grateful for my early exposure. It’s sad that in the U.S. theatre is considered high culture and is inaccesible to so many.

  2. Amauri T.

    Ah the good old Xavier Dramatics Society. Mr.Warwzynski’s (sp?) heart was at least in a good place as I recall. Good times!

    BTW I loved In The Heights, caught it twice already. It’s true it was more sunshine than reality but in a couple of decades when Dominicans are gone I’m sure the ills of inner city life will still be on display, whether there or in other parts of the city. The play will be a small monument to the positives of our time there. I’m looking to make a move back into ‘Hudson Heights’ for my kid’s first few years. Once he is walking, talking, (acting?) and I’m finally priced out I’ll appreciate being able to point to the Heights and tell him our neighborhood when it was Dominican could also turn out Lin-Manuel Mirandas alongside everything else that usually makes the headlines.

  3. Post
    Author
    Jose

    Meagan, I’m in agreement. I think Lin-Manuel deserves all the props in the world for what he did. Those stories are valuable in the telling of everything. I just felt in the interest of dissenting opinions, I had to get in there. Musicals tend to be a little far-fetched and fanciful things anyways. Maybe because I see some of the terrible things that happen in the neighborhood I work in, I don’t get to see the positive. Nonetheless, I’m glad that you got those opportunities because we at least need that to be promoted.

    And yes, Mr. W was definitely in a good place, and, man, I miss him. I would go to In The Heights again, especially for the music. I think you’re right about Dominicans and them maybe not having their neighborhood in a few years because of the infiltration and gentrification. Yet, I also think that people like you will help revitalize that neighborhood and contribute to that infusion of Dominican culture wherever you go. That vision for a perfect “Little DR” is plausible.

  4. Tafari

    I really enjoyed your personal account! I grew up not exposed to the arts mainly because we were poor & my mothers focus was on survival at any means.

    Like you, I learned about theater in Middle-High School. I found theatrical arts, choir & band to be a place of comfort, a place of relief.

    Man I hate “Grease” with a passion &your so called friend has issues.

    I make it a point to expose my children to as much as theater as possible, it is imperative that they are much more aware of cultural activities than I was at their age.

    Next time I visit NYC, I will have to check into getting tix for “The Heights”

    Peace,
    Tafari

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