The musical "In the Heights" changed Broadway with its focus on Washington Heights, northern Manhattan's predominantly Dominican neighborhood, in 2008. "West Side Story's" depictions of Latinos' tragic, violent lives had to move over to make room for "In the Heights." Latino characters blend hip-hop, merengue, and, yes, old-school Broadway ballads to tell stories of sadness but also of hope and community.
Texas Performing Arts brings "In the Heights" to UT's Bass Concert Hall on Tuesday. The show began in 1999 when lyricist and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote an early version while attending Wesleyan College. Later, Miranda joined forces with director Thomas Kail and playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the show's book. The resulting musical follows Usnavi, the owner of a Washington Heights bodega, as he negotiates impending neighborhood gentrification and his longing for the Dominican Republic.
Miranda originated the Usnavi role, played on tour by Kyle Beltran. Beltran says Kail describes Usnavi as "a Dominican man's Mama Rose," referencing the female diva of the musical "Gypsy."
Traditional acting training at Beltran's alma mater Carnegie Mellon University might seem poor preparation for Usnavi's alternation between high intensity rap and song. Beltran disagrees.
"I tell my actor friends that rapping is a lot like Shakespeare," he says. "There's so many words, and you have to pay similar attention to rhythm and punctuation, so the message isn't lost but it's still with the music."
Beltran says the pleasure of playing Usnavi is in the role's hybridity.
"Usnavi is like the place where all the paths meet in my life," says Beltran. "I'm half Puerto Rican, and so ethnically this show resonates with me. I'm familiar with the Latino sounds, but I'm also a musical theater nerd. There's plenty of traditional musical theater songs. There's also hip-hop, and that's what I listen to on the radio."
UT professor Deborah Paredez, a performance scholar whose recent work focuses on "West Side Story," says the stylistic collage that Beltran describes is one of the musical's greatest innovations.
"In the Heights" intervenes in musical representations of Latinos by actually having music with Latino roots and choreography that is inspired by salsa and merengue forms that have not traditionally been used in musicals," says Paredez. "It's not like 'West Side Story,' when Latinos were presented in musicals as ballroom fantasies of what Latinos are."
Beltran finds the confrontation of Latino stereotypes refreshing.
"People say, 'Where's the guns? Where's the violence? It's Latinos, right?' " he says. "It's amazing to be part of something that brings Latino culture to mainstream musical theatre but that also tells a side of the story different than 'Law and Order' episodes."
Beltran references the frequent appearance of Latino characters onstage and onscreen as perpetrators or victims of violence. Even more often Latino characters are either absent or not recognized, erased by a prevalent, but limiting concept of race as only indicating black or white. Beltran, whose mother is African American and whose father is of Puerto Rican descent, says performing in an overtly Latino role lets him publicly celebrate being Latino.
He says, "Growing up people called me a 'mutt' or assumed I was black. Most people wouldn't look at me and assume I was Latino. It's amazing for me to be able to dance around in a show and wave those Latino flags every night."
Paredez, who saw the musical on Broadway, agrees that part of its power is its large Latino cast, though she also offers a word of caution about the idea of Latino that "In the Heights" creates.
"There was something very powerful about seeing so many bodies that I read as Latino on a Broadway stage. That had not happened for me in my adult lifetime," she says. "But the danger of 'In the Heights' is the way it projects Latino-ness as opposed to Puerto Rican-ness or Dominican-ness. The play signals both the promise and the anxieties among Latinos as we try to forge allegiances and our own space within not just the city, but also the larger nation."
Maybe there's a young artist somewhere writing that musical — the next show to re-imagine what Broadway musicals can sound and look like.
'In the Heights'
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday- Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2300 Robert Dedman Drive
Information: www.texas performingarts.org