Curtains up, hit ‘The Heights’

In the beauty salon, "In the Heights": Lexi Lawson, Isabel Santiago, Arielle Jacobs, Genny Lis Padilla. ©Chelsea Lauren 2010

By Bob Hicks

If the theater is truly the Fabulous Invalid, is any subsection of it any more fabulously ailing than the Broadway musical — and more of a fabulously unlikely survivor?

Before last night’s opening of the eagerly anticipated touring production of In the Heights at Portland’s Keller Auditorium, the last musical Mr. Scatter had seen was the Oregon Shakespeare Festival‘s glowing revival of She Loves Me, the masterful, small-scale 1963 romantic comedy by Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. (Mr. Scatter wrote about it here, and Mrs. Scatter expanded admirably on it, and the appeal of musicals in general, here.)

On the surface there’s not a whole lot of connection between She Loves Me and In the Heights, the 2008 Tony winner that Mr. Scatter took in with Oscar/Dennis. She Loves Me is a delicate love story based on a 1937 Hungarian play, Miklos Laszlo’s Parfumerie, and in style, sensibility and musical association it harks back to the heyday of central European operetta. In the Heights, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, is a not-so-delicate love story that bursts with the Dominican-American flavor of Manhattan’s Washington Heights and takes its musical cues from hip-hop, soul, and the Caribbean sounds of salsa and meringue.

Still, the Broadway musical feeds largely upon itself — that’s both a weakness and an enduring strength — and as She Loves Me smoothly incorporated aspects of earlier musical forms, so does In the Heights echo some of the successes of Broadway Past. It represents a particularly successful response to the dilemma that producers, writers and composers routinely face: Broadway audiences want to see something different, but not that different.

So, as Mr. Scatter admired those smooth-and-sexy dance sequences in In the Heights, visions of Bob Fosse’s Steam Heat from The Pajama Game danced in his head. Yes, this was different: sexy and steamy in its own Latino-American way, and maybe not as overtly comic as Fosse’s stuff. But the intention of the sizzle was the same. Dazzle the audience. Show ’em a little flesh. Give ’em a show.

Memories of West Side Story inevitably floated across the stage, although there are significant differences. Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics for WSS will undoubtedly last longer than Miranda’s for In the Heights (there’s no shame in that: the music and lyrics for West Side Story are among the finest ever produced, and anyone who can match their quality will be a Broadway savior, indeed) but In the Heights is an essentially sunnier tale: love prevails, the prejudiced parents repent their mistakes, life changes and produces loss but in significant ways it gets better. In that sense, In the Heights is actually closer to the shrewdly sentimental spirit of She Loves Me: a well-turned fairy tale, an aspirational fantasy about the redemptive powers of love.

The music for In the Heights plays a role similar to Galt McDermott’s compositions for 1967/68’s Hair: it introduces a forceful pop-music sound to the essentially European Broadway mix (rock ‘n’ roll for Hair, hip-hop and salsa for In the Heights) but does it in a smoothly integrated way that maintains the song structure of the traditional musical while infusing it with fresh rhythms. (Hair, coincidentally, is next up in Portland Opera‘s Broadway Across America season, playing the Keller December 28 through January 2. If you go, listen for the enduring melodicism of McDermott’s songs.)

Like a lot of other musicals — for instance, Frank Loesser’s 1956 The Most Happy Fella, about love in Napa Valley’s Italian-American winemaking community, before Napa wine became chi-chi — In the Heights is appealing partly for its introduction to the stage of a vibrant community not familiar to most Broadway audiences. This Broadway tendency is an intriguing and essentially generous aspect of the darker American cycle of ethnic paranoia, prejudice, and eventual integration, or at least acceptance. Mainly white and prosperously mainstream audiences become emotionally attached to cultures — in this case, hip-hop and urban Latino-American — that they might otherwise regard with suspicion, and as a result come down with a nice dose of the warm-and-fuzzies. The experience is both liberal and conservative, embracing at least for an evening the otherness of a subculture while being assured that its members are (a) not dangerous, and (b) “really, just like us.” In spite of its undertow of condescension, and despite the nation’s disturbing current culture of incitement and outrage, the process reflects one of America’s greatest traits — its reluctant willingness to kick though the false barriers of its own small-mindedness and adopt an ever broader perspective about what it means to be American.

This touring production is well-cast and polished and enjoys a terrific urban-barrio set by Anna Louizos, but it’s also hampered by sound troubles in the Keller. The 3,000-seat hall has largely left behind the pops, fizzles and flops of its bad old days — musicals can actually sound crisp and well-balanced here — but on opening night the sound mix never really hit its stride, and Mr. Scatter got the feeling that the characters would get a much more sympathetic shake if only their electronic wires weren’t getting crossed so much. It’s a difficulty that contemporary musicals face a lot, anyway, as they adopt musical styles with a much stronger bass beat, which makes it difficult to balance vocal and instrumental sounds. Throw in the natural difficulties of catching the lyrics in a hip-hop performance, and the result is that the audience can spend too much time straining to follow the dialogue at the expense of easing into the emotions and narrative of the tale. (Willamette Week’s Ben Waterhouse recently criticized the tendency of even small-scale musicals on small stages to rely on microphones, and he had an excellent point. A show like In the Heights in a hall like the Keller has to rely on a sound system, but it should work better than this.)

On the drive home, Oscar/Dennis (who was enjoying being out so late on a school night) neatly diagnosed the characters, coming up with a favorite, the suave Sonny, who seems a little lazy but has unexpected depths. Then he launched into a sophisticated comparison of In the Heights with Rent, citing the ways that the two musicals are similar and also very different, riffing on what might have made Rent creator Jonathan Larson tick and wondering whether he didn’t actually work himself to death, pushing relentlessly to do something he loved.

Musical theater does, indeed, nourish itself on its own past. It creates converts the same way.