In The Heights- A Surprising Low

In Los Angeles Theatre on July 25, 2010 at 8:52 pm

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.

  1. It must be really lonely to be by yourself in a feeling – I mean with so many people that know of its predicatability, and still see the show 17 times. It must be difficult to just “not get it”. I don’t really think this is a good thing – you maybe want to check that you still have a soul…
    It’s very possible that it is no longer there. I mean, I dont see one.

    • Although I do not always share her opinion, Ms. Salin is very apt in her assesment of this musical. Faddishness and Populist Lockstep do not a great musical make. Many agree with her assesment (you may not agree, but she thoughtfully and reasonably backs up her opinion)and history will be the final arbitrator.(Remember, Salieri was considered the superior composer to the lowly Mozart at the Hapsburg Court). The Tony for this production is a sad commentary on the political correctness factor in theater/film/music etc., and its deletorious effect on cultural excellence.The sad fact – there is a lack of cutural, musical, theatrical, literary education as well as experiential knowledge/exposure for many these days (a dumming down of education etc.). An example would be to the afficianados who have made the mass-produced, dreck of Thomas Kinkaid’s “art” sucessful, yet would not be able to identify one Pre-Raphaelite or, discuss Surealism in Film. These uninformed, undereducated and intolerant of other’s opinions are sometimes very “thin skinned” when others do not subscribe or goosefoot in lockstep with their “Posse’s” absolute need for consensus. Blindly and emotionally, they go on the attack with personal slurs, not realizing, of course, that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Continue the “Good Fight” Ms. Salin with your respectfully, reasoned discourse and, hopefully, you will get some civil, informed and well articulated dialogue and counter points to your blog.

      • Thank you so much your thoughtful comment and your words of encouragement. I really appreciate your taking the time to read my blog.

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