I’ve talked before about over-hype and the detriment that it can do to shows—how the build up of excitement and expectation can delude audience members. I’ve talked before about my distaste for musicals with no substance beyond a tireless succession of song and dance routines. But I’ve also talked before about a rare breed of shows that have surmounted these difficulties, proving me wrong in my assumptions.
Unfortunately, In the Heights was not one to defy the odds. Both victim to over-hype and perpetrator of an excessive song repertoire, this musical dealt up a double dose of disappointment.
Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights provides a slice-of-life look into the culture and daily struggles of Washington Heights (aka “the barrio”) in Upper Manhattan. Aside from the lively atmosphere that director Thomas Kail creates, offsetting the community’s hardships with a festive ambience of salsa and hip-hop music, the rest of the show induces restless seat-shifting and watch-checking. Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book features every plotline cliché known to man, depleting the show of any mystery as to how the story will unfold. You’ve seen it all before: the first generation college student, the pioneer of higher education for the barrio who—uh oh!—loses her scholarship; the forbidden love between the lowly car service employee and said higher-education-pioneer; the woman whose dreams have outgrown the Heights but whose alcoholic mother drinks their money away; the grandmother who longs to move her family back to the homeland…not to mention the overworked themes of the immigrant’s struggle in America, the hard knock life of New York, and the significance of family and community. Yawn.
To Miranda’s credit, integrating the hip-hop street vibe into musical theatre was a new, refreshing take on the genre. His talent for writing music is undeniable, and I was blown away by how he rapped his way through the show with flawless rhyme and rhythm. He imbued some of the lyrics with a clever sense of humor that cracked a smile out of even my own unamused scowl. It was definitely not the typical cringe-worthy, jazz hands kind of show. Yet with its relentless series of songs and its banal plot line, it had every other characteristic that fuels my musical theatre prejudice. The characters never fully flourished for me (perhaps because they were preoccupied with singing about the same set of problems over and over), and those problems were trivialized by the fact that I had seen them played out already in countless other works. Off the top of my head, I can recall that Rent has the whole struggling-in-New-York thing covered (though I don’t like that show much either), while West Side Story tackles the immigrant and forbidden love themes quite nicely. And it’s not that I’m insensitive to economic hardships or the struggle to succeed or carving one’s own path in society. In some form or another, these are issues that anyone can relate to. But the uninspired storyline made these topics seem trite, and the unwarranted overload of songs made the show drag all the way to its predictable conclusion.
But why all the hype? Why the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical? What am I missing here that hoards of adoring audiences all see?
Perhaps I just don’t have the mind for musical theatre. Perhaps my straight-theatre-biased brain can’t detect the subtle complexities hidden within the lyrics and choreography. Or perhaps I just expect too much of a genre where simplified, recycled storylines guarantee Broadway blockbusters.