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In The Heights and Why I Hated/Love Musicals

by Jose Vilson on January 12, 2009

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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

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