The Heights of Controversy: Lin-Manuel Miranda Made A Mistake

Lovingly Written by Maggie Mershon

When Lin-Manuel Miranda developed In the Heights, he intended for it to be a story of his Latin heritage for other people of Latin heritage. At the root of the show, this sentiment remains. Miranda weaves the story of Usnavi, Benny, Nina, and Vanessa, The Rosarios, Abuela Claudia as they go from day to day in their community in Washington Heights. As was his intent, Miranda created characters for Latino people that weren’t seen on the Broadway stage. These were not gang members or criminals, but people with dreams, striving for a better life.

However, as the show continued to move up the ladder of financial success and those risking capital became integral to your production. An artist can, in some cases, become beholden to the whims of those who pay hundreds of dollars to see these shows, and perhaps lose focus of his intended audience in favor of their paying audience. In other words, It’s a majority white, incredibly privileged audience who expects to be involved in the story that’s on stage. So how does that affect the way the story is told? Does it change the meaning of the musical when the people who are watching are expected to be “in on” what’s going on? Does it force the show to shed its intended identity? I believe that in the context of performance to a majority white audience, In the Heights compromises its original intention-to exhibit a genuine picture of Latin culture-and instead through its story, lyrics, and casting actively caters to this audience and tokenizes what should be empowered.

If you don’t know Miranda from Heights or Hamilton, perhaps you recognize him from Internet lip-biting infamy

Source: @Lin_Manuel via Twitter

In this class, we’ve been talking a lot about Hamilton, another show written by and starring Miranda. Specifically, we’ve talked about the piece delivers a centrist narrative that appeals to both sides of the aisle and is unable to communicate an impactful message of systematic change. I believe that this commentary also applies to In the Heights, where even then, Miranda is fully aware of who his audience is. In the opening number, we hear him sing, “You may be thinkin’ / I’m up shit’s creek / I’ve never been north of 96th street,” a direct reference to the demographic difference across the geography of Manhattan.

In this story we follow several diverse members of a neighborhood in Washington Heights, as they simply go about their lives. They work incredibly hard to sustain themselves: Usnavi demonstrates this in his opening rap, rattling off the orders of his bodega’s regulars; Mr. Rosario sells his business to provide for his daughter; and  Vanessa works from the crack of dawn every day to try and get out of her toxic home life. There is a sense that because these characters all work extremely hard and look out for one another, they will achieve what they are aiming for, as The Engineer in Miss Saigon refers to it, The American Dream. The audience wants to see them achieve this dream: financial success, a family, and a home where they are happy and loved. The musical does not disappoint in this regard. When Abuela Claudia gives Usnavi her lottery winnings, she gives him a chance to do whatever he wants-he has earned this money through his hard work and caring for the people around him. In the beginning of the musical he talks about how desperate he is to get back home to Puerto Rico. Once he has that money? Usnavi ruminates on his live in New York and is no longer driven to return to the Dominican Republic. He concludes he is already at home, Washington Heights is his home and his dream.

This is a beautiful sentiment. The idea that the community in which Usnavi grew up is the one in which he feels happy and secure is great, but the gentrification that the characters are fighting does not disappear in the reality of these characters. The musical may end before we see our protagonists pushed out, but it is coming sure enough. And as this home Usnavi takes up becomes destined to some destitute fate, Usnavi takes up its burden, promising to keep the legacies of the people who live there, to serve them and to uplift their beautiful stories. He’s even decided to go on a second date with Vanessa, whose coworkers helped pay to get her out of her current living situation. With the money he has earned from being a good guy, Usnavi is able to uplift his community and sustain his home.

Who wouldn’t give these faces winning lottery tickets?

Source: Carlito Pucl, ‘In the Heights’ – 2008 Tony Awards Performance – 96000, YouTube

Honestly, I would be shocked if such a heartwarming ending didn’t bring a tear to your eye or swell your heart. This ending provides the audience with an inspiration sendoff that, “Wow, anyone really can follow their dreams.” But that is not the case. It’s an exceptional act of kindness for Vanessa’s coworkers to give her enough money for a down payment, but what happens when she can’t pay next months rent? It’s touching that Mr. Rosario would sell his business to support his daughter but how will he continue to afford life in the community he has called home for so long? And concerning Usnavi-lottery tickets don’t come around every day. Without this enormous completely random gift, how would he continue to support his failing business as he watches the community around him crumble? Furthermore, should it be his responsibility to take care of the community with this money now that he has it? Of course, when watching people on stage and considering morality, we all know what we should do, and what Abuela, Usnavi’s mentor, would have done. But Usnavi as an individual, supporting the community off of one lottery ticket and warding off gentrification is unrealistic and an irresponsible way to portray hope. These stories of people lifting each other up in their community are beautiful and touching but they only treat symptoms and absolve the audience from their guilt and power to stop the root of the disease.

Built into the design of the show are assumptions about the culture that Miranda has acknowledged are not necessarily perfect. In an interview he gave at Swarthmore College, he noted that Abuela Claudia’s journey was, “the farthest outside my experience, I did a lot of research on Cuba and that initial wave of migration in the 40s, and then your job is to forget about it… your job is to write this woman’s story, so you choose, “Okay, when did she get here? What was her experience?” (Zapata, Rosado, Martinez, & Miranda, 2011) Miranda as well as any one understands that there are inconsistencies within his story, which, when presented for an audience that comes from that same background, and understands these things as well as he does, works in his favor. In the case of the specific demographic of Heights’s Broadway audiences, it doesn’t necessarily support the multicultural message intended.

Multiculturalism is an essential component to the spirit of In the Heights. In the opening number, the ensemble sings, “I hang my flag up on display / it reminds me that I came from miles away.” Each member of the ensemble has a story and a culture that they individually bring to their community in Washington Heights. For example, Miranda, a Puerto Rican man, plays Usnavi, a second generation Dominican. Miranda thought it was important to accurately represent the culture of Washington Heights, Usnavi be Dominican. However, when it came down to casting him, Miranda made the decision to compact the two cultures and, instead of finding a Dominican actor to fill the role, played it himself. Miranda received criticism for the inaccuracy of his Dominican accent for other Latino members of the theatre community but was widely accepted by audiences who saw the Broadway show, a majority of whom were white. This oversight directly opposes pursuits of multiculturalism, ignoring a character trait of its main character and gently assimilating Latino culture into one generic whole. Though in word Miranda succeeded in creating this multicultural community, it feels as though an active choice was made that this small design element wasn’t important enough or would not catch the attention of its audience if not corrected.

A DC production of In the Heights throws their flags up on display!

Source: Olney Theatre Center

I sincerely hope that this piece doesn’t come across as hateful, as there is a lot of wonderful work done by In the Heights. When it opened, the producers actively tried to make some seats available to audiences of lower-income backgrounds, targeting communities represented in the show. There are students around the globe who can now study theatre through characters that were written to look and act like them. That is an incredible achievement. But all the whole house can’t be filled by people not paying full price because profits will go down. And in terms of the Broadway show, what good can the piece do if it’s not accessible to the audience it seeks to empower? Even more, if there’s no call to action, no holding the white audience it is presented for responsible, then does it simply become a tokenization of culture? A story of immigrants pulling themselves up by their bootstraps that a white audience can feel good about, totally removed from, and forget at the end of the day?

When he wrote In the Heights, Miranda worked closely with Director Tommy Kail, who sometimes couldn’t understand the Spanish he was incorporating, and Miranda would pull it back. In his words, “we knew our goal in this show … This is a show that I wanted everyone to feel as welcome as possible in this neighborhood, the same way I felt welcomed in Anatevka, when I saw Fiddler on the Roof, even though that’s totally outside my experience” (Zapata & Miranda, 2011). Except Fiddler on the Roof didn’t play to contemporary crowds of anti-semetic Russians. The compromise and concessions that Miranda made to create a story that would fit on the Broadway stage didn’t make it any less of a literary success. It just may have had the impact it wanted if had it actually played in the heights.

Find Below a Work I Cited:

Miranda, L. (2011). In the Heights: A Conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda [Interview by R. Zapata, A. Rosado, & L. Martinez]. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.swarthmore.edu/news-events/heights-a-conversation-lin-manuel-miranda

Ensembles

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Maggie,
    Great essay! I have always enjoyed In the Heights because it ends on a positive and uplifting note; even though the characters deal with rough circumstances, it seems to work out for all of them in the end. Your essay has changed my perspective entirely; you’re right – the musical concludes with a lot of short-term fixes in place (really, relying on a lottery ticket?) and doesn’t expose the audience to the effects of gentrification. As we’ve seen with many musicals in this class, In the Heights aims to keep the white people comfortable (and therefore coming back to the show).
    This idea angers me. How can a musical bring about change when it can only be successful if it makes everyone comfortable? This is a big problem with Broadway: how can you charge $50-$100 for people to see a show that points out the problems with having people pay $50-$100 to see a show? How do we fix this?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really like the work you’ve created here, Maggie! I believe you do a really great job presenting your perspective on In the Heights and its cultural significance to the Latinx community. You are able to not only accurately explain the importance of Latinx representation in a Broadway production such as In the Heights but you also do a great job of providing constructive criticism. Oftentimes, especially in today’s social climate, it is easy to forgo valid criticism with an argument that boils down to, “At least there is more representation than there was before.” But your response clearly addresses that there is still progress that needs to be made in order to fully attain the multicultural message that Miranda’s musical presents. One of the main points that you mention at the beginning of your response was how an artistic vision may be compromised due to the show’s financial interests. In this case, this supported your tokenism argument. However, I think this could be an interesting perspective to analyze across other majority-POC musicals to see if the weaknesses you identity in Into the Heights extends to other Broadway musicals.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Margaret Mershon!
    I really enjoyed this piece. Even before this class, the classism that Broadway and musical theatre represents has always been concerning to me, and I think your blog post does a great job of summarizing and analyzing all these issues of gentrification on and off the stage. Lin-Manuel Miranda feels like a symptom of a larger issue. It seems like he wasted an opportunity to open theatre to a larger, more diverse audience, but the capitalistic tendencies of America and Broadway in general prevented this. I’m glad you recognized all of these issues and still balanced it with praise. I agree that all of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s works are entertaining and genuinely good pieces of art, but it’s important that their flaws are still called out. Great piece and even better accompanying images!
    Love,
    Will

    Liked by 1 person

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