If you don’t follow theater closely, you may think that Lin-Manuel Miranda burst onto the scene two years ago when “Hamilton,” the most acclaimed musical of the 21st century, hit Broadway. Miranda wrote the book, lyrics and music and starred in the Broadway production, which won an astounding 11 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
But Miranda was a big deal in theater circles even before “Hamilton” thanks to “In the Heights.” He wrote the music and lyrics and starred in the 2008 Broadway production, which won the Tony for Best Musical.
“In the Heights” kicks of the 2017-18 season at Sarasota’s Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.
“I think from talking to other people, and from the feedback I’ve been getting, people are recognizing the genesis of ‘Hamilton’ in this show,” said Jim Weaver, who’s directing the WBTT production.
Miranda’s liberal use of rap in a Broadway musical is still unusual, but when “In the Heights” premiered it was downright radical. An even more distinctive Miranda touch, Weaver said, is the way the character’s back stories are related through song lyrics.
I think from talking to other people, and from the feedback I’ve been getting, people are recognizing the genesis of “Hamilton” in this show.
“The base story of ‘In the Heights’ is about Washington Heights, which is neighborhood in upper Manhattan, and gentrification is going on,” Weaver said. “Prices are going up and people are moving out. The characters are dealing with the adjustment, but in the process they’re discovering their roots and their family.”
Unlike “Hamilton,” which is completely sung and rapped, “In the Heights” has a lot of dialogue. But the dialogue, by Quiara Alegría Hudes, and the songs come together in unusual way. The characters’ spoken lines often meld into the lyrics of a musical number, so there’s sometimes not a clear delineation between the dialogue and the songs.
The production is WBBT’s first show that centers on Latin or Afro-Cuban culture and music.
The characters are dealing with the adjustment, but in the process they’re discovering their roots and their families.
“I think it’s great,” said Weaver, who directed a phenomenal production of “Purlie” for WBTT a few years back. “As a vehicle it’s kind of a gentle foray into new territory. There are a couple of veterans, Michael Mendez and Michael Kinsey, but I’d say 99 percent of the cast are first-timers. It’s great to have those veterans, but bringing new people into the fold gives (WBTT) more opportunities. It will affect what they’re able to do down the road.”
“In the Heights” may be overshadowed by Miranda’s “Hamilton,” which became a cultural phenomenon, but it’s an important piece of theater on its own. Even before it made it to Broadway, its Off-Broadway production won the Lucille Lortel Award and Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, and was named Best Musical of 2007 by New York Magazine.