Thursday, May 8, 2008

West Side Stories

There is an old truism about Golden Age Broadway that when a show is about some exotic location or historical period--the kingdom of Siam, say, or the Salem witch trials--the intention is actually to create a metaphor for some contemporary situation. Thus The Crucible is actually about McCarthyism, or Camelot about the Kennedys, or what have you. When we watch these shows, we see ourselves.

That's all well and good, but it all hinges upon one word that is rather fraught with ideological implications: "we." Who is the "we" in a broadway audience?

I got to thinking about this because Mary and I were in NYC recently, and went to go see In the Heights, the new (to Broadway, at least) musical based on a Hispanic neighborhood in Washington Heights. I'm not really going to review in detail here. The quick rundown is that In the Heights was written by a twenty-seven year-old New Yorker named Lin-Manuel Miranda while he was a sophomore in college. It had a very successful run off-Broadway, and now just opened, with some revisions, at the Richard Rodgers Theater. Miranda himself still stars as Usnavi, a Dominican bodega owner. The music, I feel qualified to say, is outright amazing. When I first heard that it was a "hip hop musical" it's safe to say that I was concerned, but I was completely won over by the musical experience. Often when commercial music theater attempts to use "youth music" it sounds forced. I tend to think it is a matter of tempo more than anything--I love Rent as much as the next artsy suburbanite, but the painfully slow tempos of Larson's "rock music" always make it clear that you are in a very different musical world. At its best moments Miranda's music--and credit equally goes to the music director and excellent pit orchestra--pops along as if unaware of the millions of dollars in revenues weighing upon it. The result is energetic and immensely appealing. Everything else about it is great too, and I hope that next time you are in the city you should run over and see it. If you want to read a real review, try here or here.

In the Heights comes five decades after the definitive Broadway portrait of Nueva York, written by a queer Jew from Boston: West Side Story. West Side Story cheerfully participated in the traditional exoticist Broadway style. When the idea was suggested to Bernstein, he was thrilled to have the chance to play around with Latin rhythms, even if, truth be told, most of them still sound like Stravinsky. Originally the musical was actually to be called East Side Story, since the Bernstein and Co. assumed that was still where the Puerto Ricans lived.

So if "we" all had a great time watching Puerto Ricans fight and dance on stage, what happens with Puerto Ricans themselves go from being the object of a musical to being the creators? Well, one thing was very obvious to me Saturday night: the majority of the audience at the Richard Rodgers theater was speaking Spanish to one another during intermission.

This causes consternation to some people. The critic Terry Teachout, for one, had some praise for the musical, but decided that it rang essentially false:
Mr. Miranda is clearly a very talented young man. Why, then, did he settle for this casserole of warmed-over Disney slathered in hot sauce? It occurs to me that the answer may have something to do with his background: Mr. Miranda's father is a political consultant and his mother a child psychologist, while he himself directed "West Side Story" as a senior in high school, then attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Might all this explain why his cheery portrait of street life seems the least little bit faux? Stew, by contrast, drew forthrightly on his experience as a middle-class black kid in Los Angeles to write "Passing Strange," every bar of which rings true to life. I liked "In the Heights" more than well enough, but I have a sneaking feeling that a show about the real Lin-Manuel Miranda might have been a whole lot more interesting.
I'm not even sure where to begin taking this apart. Let's start with the judgment that In the Heights should have hewn more closely to autobiography. Needless to say, that's an unusual aesthetic standpoint with which to judge Broadway musicals, a genre not known for its unsentimental portrayals of gritty realist subjects. Teachout's favorite musical, after all, is Sweeney Todd, which I sincerely hope is not the product of autobiography. Teachout himself makes much of the fact that he himself moves articulately in several different social worlds--small town Missourian living on the Upper West Side, conservative critic in the liberal world of the arts--so one might imagine him to be sympathetic to an artist moving between worlds, and not being confined to his or her origins. But Lin-Manuel Miranda bugs him.

Well, I'm going to say something unpleasant about Teachout: I suspect that the reason In the Heights rang false for him is because the characters in the show did not do drugs, were not criminals, had upwardly mobile class aspirations and were generally good people. In Teachout's world, Lin-Manuel Miranda's parents were well-to-do, therefore Miranda is unqualified to write about Hispanic life in Washington Heights.

The fact is, cloying sentimentality aside (and there is plenty of it!), Miranda is writing autobiography--or at least as autobiographically as Meredith Willson did with regards to River City, Iowa. As the observant might have noticed from Teachout's mini-biography, Miranda and I went to college together. We were in fact classmates. We didn't know each other, and I admit that I didn't go to the production of In the Heights he did our sophomore year because I thought the idea of a Wesleyan student doing a "hip hop musical" sounded ridiculous. But I can at least vouch for the fact that he is indeed Puerto Rican, and is indeed from the Washington Heights/Inwood part of the world. And I hate to break it to Teachout, but there are many people like him in Washington Heights.

The problem, I think, is that In the Heights does not match Teachout's own fantasy about what Hispanic life in Washington Heights is like. And this, I would argue, is because Miranda's musical does not go out of its way to speak to Teachout. Unlike the Jets and the Sharks safely performing a knife-fight ballet to Stravinskian rhythms, the cultural difference of In the Heights spills into the audience, and for many a "typical" Broadway audience member there is the shock of recognizing that perhaps this musical is not speaking to me.

Not in any kind of radical way, of course. The politics of In the Heights, such as they are, are mostly a rather tepid multiculturalism. But at the same time, there's a lot to be said for allowing a new generation of American theatergoers a chance to see themselves in a Broadway musical.

1 comment:

KG said...

Sometimes, your blog makes me so happy I don't know what to say.

We should talk soon. Before I leave the country again, that is.