PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: In the HeightsStreet Scene, Spanish-Style

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: In the HeightsStreet Scene, Spanish-Style The Drama Desk pick for 2007's Best Ensemble — two dozen strong — stormed the Richard Rodgers stage March 9 in the Lin-Manuel Miranda-Quiara Alegría Hudes musical, In the Heights, and collectively made a case for a comparable Tony category for teamwork.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegr
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegr Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Other subliminal Tony messages were imparted as well — most of them centered squarely on Miranda, the solar source for this salsa-shaking, hip-hopping exuberant musical. He wrote the songs — a Wurlitzer mix of merenge, reggae, rap and all manner of new Now Sounds. In addition, he rates a "Conceived by" credit line (having written the first draft of the book while a sophomore at Wesleyan), and he sets the over-the-top energy level for the show as its narrator, Usnavi, who runs a bodega around which the neighborhood conflicts twirl.

He literally lunges onto the stage, scatting away the local graffiti artist from his store like a common alley cat, and immediately begins rapping out a surging, insistent sound alien to Broadway ears (but refreshingly welcome for that), and his 23 cohorts on stage follow his pulsating lead, abetted by Andy Blankenbuehler's hard-charging choreography.

It's not surprising, given the level of energy at which the cast is laboring, that the show short-circuits toward the end of the first act, plunging the stage into pitch-blackness. But this is the 21st century, and it soon flickers back to life like fireflies via cellphone screens.

Basically, this is another midsummer stoops-eye view of life, death and lottery — not unlike Elmer Rice's Street Scene, only moved uptown to the Washington Heights barrio under the George Washington Bridge. This universe, by Anna Louizos' design, consists of three shops cramped together on an unprepossessing street corner — a gypsy cab service whose owner (Carlos Gomez) wants to cash in his chips to help daughter (Mandy Gonzalez) through Stanford and into a better life than he has had; Usnavi's bodega; and a Salon Unisex run by a rent-worried diva (the hysterically funny Andréa Burns).

The dreams and concerns of the denizens are human-size and universal. The matriarch of the block, Usnavi's grandmother-in-name-only (movingly played by Olga Merediz), longs to return to her Dominican Republic roots. His teenage cousin (a delightfully dizzy spin by Robin De Jesús) makes a fumbling play for a long-stemmed beauty-shop worker (Karen Olivo) who's also eyeing the exit — for an exposed-brick Greenwich Village pad, which was heaven for out-of-towners and My Sister Eileen 67 years ago. And so it goes. Although it is an ensemble piece — with everybody having their own story to tell — Miranda is the life force that illuminates the work, in every sense. He has written his own ticket to stardom, and it has already won him a Theatre World Award and the Clarence Derwent Award. The performance he gave when the show was done last year at 37 Arts rolls off naturally and effortlessly like the constant torrent of rap words coming out of his mouth.

At the end of the evening, he retook the center of the stage a last time, mike in hand, and said with a deliberate and measured fashion: "Forgive . . . me . . . for . . . speaking . . . slowly. I will never want to forget this moment for as long as I live." Then he proceeded to bring out for bows the design team and key people who helped the show happen. They raced out down an uninterrupted gauntlet of high-fives from the wet-eyed cast.

Two unsung and largely unseen champions who were unsaluted were the lead producers Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller. In the Heights is a continuation, begun with their Tony winners Rent and Avenue Q, of the quest to enlarge the boundaries of Broadway.

The last person Miranda thanked was the teenage-looking 31-year-old who directed the show, Thomas Kail. "I met this guy in the Drama Book Store basement six blocks up in the summer of 2002," he recalled, "and he said three things to me: 'Usnavi should be a narrator. You should start with In the Heights and not make it the third song. And you are perfectly hip-hop — you should play Usnavi.' And he was right on all three counts."

He used a movie allusion to introduce Kail, "One of his favorite movies is 'It's a Wonderful Life' and so I say — to the richest man in town, our friend and our director."

Buttoning up the evening, Miranda signed off with what seemed to be the sentiments of everyone on the stage: "Ay! Mama! What do you do when your dreams come true?"

Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce, Anthony Rapp, Sherie Rene Scott and Kurt Deutsch, Brian d'Arcy James, Heidi Blickenstaff and Michael Berresse, Sutton Foster, Stephen Schwartz, Angela Christian and Thomas Kail
photo by Aubrey Reuben

A veritable caravan of mini-vans carried first-nighters to the Chelsea Piers, where a band was in full salsa-seasoned swing 'n' sway and a spread of Spanish delicacies was laid out. Interviews were conducted at the opposite end of the vast waterfront ballroom from the orchestra — which was not nearly far enough — but a happily hectic hub was had by all.

"I was trying to write the show I would have died to see when I was a little kid," Miranda offered by way of explaining his inspiration for creating In the Heights. "I clung to Morales in A Chorus Line, I clung to Raul Julia in Nine — and I always wanted more. I wanted more Latinos on stage because I knew our music belonged on Broadway — and so here we are."

Getting to Broadway was the rub, and it required considerable rewriting and reworking of the show after it bowed Off-Broadway. "There are four new songs in Act II," he was quick to point out. "We really decided to take it slowly — it was perverse — we took our time in Act II. Most shows, when they go to Broadway, they're, like, 'What do we cut? What do we cut?' With this, we cut two songs, but we added four. And we were really, like, 'Let's take our time.' The audience is okay with spending time with these characters, and so we did our best to just really tell those stories as honestly as we could. That was our goal."

He had introduced Hudes, his book writer, from the stage as his sister, but he meant it in a spiritual sense. "I was speaking hypothetically," he clarified. "She's not really my sister, but we are twins. We had exactly the same upbringing — her in Philly, me in New York."

She seconded that motion. "I'm from a smaller version of Washington Heights in Philadelphia — North Philly — and I'd been writing about it in all of my plays up until then."

She made her New York debut Off-Broadway at the Culture Project with one of those plays, Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue, which became a 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist. "That was a play dealing with North Philly, which I brought here. Lin and I eventually met and said, 'You know what? This is going to be right. Let's get together and tell our story together.'

"What Lin came up with is a lot of the characters, who they were, and obviously the sound of the show — that pulsing spirit of energy. He had a different story when I came on board — it was more of a love triangle —and I said to him, 'Why don't we keep a lot of these characters but start from scratch and make it a story about a neighborhood in transition. Just exactly what does it mean when this neighborhood is changing?'"

Both contributed autobiographical flourishes to the book. "One or two of the stories in there are actually family stories from my family," Hudes admitted. "One of them is a story from my dad about him shining shoes for a nickel and spending his profits on more shoe polish, saying, 'I've always had a mind for investments.' That's his story, and he hadn't seen it on Broadway until tonight. I didn't tell him that the story was in there. He said, 'When did I tell you that story?' I said, 'About 20 times, Popi, about 20 times.'"

The comedy was sharpened for Broadway. Two jokes survived, by the actual count of the author, "but I figured, since we got a second chance, why not do new jokes for people who'd already seen in Off-Broadway since our characters have a great sense of humor?" There's a secret universality in the setting of the show, contended Hudes. "One of the things we like to do is test people," she said. "A lot of people come who are from Washington Heights and say, 'That's. My. Block. That's exactly the block I live on.' In truth, it's Everyblock. We do mention 183rd and Fort Washington in the opening number, but I think everyone from the Heights claims a little bit of ownership over that block."

Raul Julia's spirit probably haunts In the Heights, but Miranda was able to secure the services of Morales to play a hard-working mother in the show — Priscilla Lopez (for now, the lone Tony winner in this 'hood). She gained a new song, getting the show to Broadway. "It's called 'Enough,' and it's a very emotional moment in the show with my character, the mother Camila, really giving it to the daughter and husband to get their act together. 'Enough of this fighting. We gotta work it out. We gotta go forward from here.'

"This was a wonderful, special opening night," said the lady who's seen a few. "The audience was crying — always a good sign. It's reciprocal, y'know. It kinda bounces back and forth. We dance and we give and we get and we give." She has been at this a while, Actually, her star was still-born. "I debuted in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and it never opened. Previewed two nights and died. It was the first flop poster to be put up on the walls at Joe Allen's. That was 1966. I was only two." The following year she had her first official opening night, playing one of the schoolgirls in Henry, Sweet Henry. She got her Tony for a Harpo impersonation (!) in A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.

But the evening had a real resonance for her. "I am so grateful that Lin-Manuel is in our world and has given us, all of us, this gift — the Latino community, to represent us in such a positive light, and, two, to the non-Latino community to experience us in such light."

One of the evening's flashiest dancers, Luis Salgado was still reeling at the party from the ecstasy of his Broadway bow. "We did this prayer right before going on stage, and the emotions were erupting," he said. "We all got together and collected the energy before going on stage, and we felt like we needed 30 more minutes to get ready after that because the emotions were so high and the stakes were so high. On a night like tonight, when dreams come true for so many people, Lin-Manuel Miranda put together a show that represents the Latin community — yet it's open to the world. How thrilled can you be!"

Among the first-nighters: Spamalot Tony winner Sara Ramirez (now of "Grey's Anatomy"), Curtains' David Hyde Pierce, Sports Illustrated 2008 swimsuit model Jessica Gomes, Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears, Latin singer Huey Dunbar, Yerba Buena band member Andres Levin, New York secretary of state Honorable Lorraine Cortes-Vazques, art curator Yvonne Force Villareal, Sarah Paulsen ("Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and Crimes of the Heart), "Jumper" director Doug Liman, a foursome from Next to Normal (actor Brian d'Arcy James, composer Tom Kitt, director Michael Greif and assistant director Anthony Rapp), Oscar-winning songwriter Stephen Schwartz, Tony-winning songwriters Lynn Aherns and Stephen Flaherty, Young Frankenstein's Sutton Foster, Senator Frank Lautenberg, "Imus in the Morning" regular Bo Dietl, Alexie Gilmore of "New Amsterdam," Zoe McLellan of "Dirty, Sexy Money" and Jim Cramer of CNBC's "Mad Money."

The cast of <i>In the Heights</i> takes its curtain call.
The cast of In the Heights takes its curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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