Sunday, November 23, 2008

Rhythm Of Change

Broadway has a new, energetic voice. After the closure of Rent and the somewhat contentious Spring Awakening (which will close next year, and God knows when it will appear on this island), comes another sensational work that manages to take musicals to a new height – In The Heights. I would modestly describe this spirited musical as West Side Story meets Rent with a tiny tinge of La Boheme minus all the human tragedies. At the core are the themes of dreams and hopes, intersperse with the subjects of self-discovery and finding one’s true home. An enthralling tale set in the panoramic New York City Dominican-American district of Washington Heights, the musical’s melodic thread lines deviate partially from Broadway's typical measures, considering that the narration propels via hip-hop, salsa, rap riffs, soul and merengue – a Latin music fiesta driven with stylized street choreography, engaging enough to make even the laziest non theatre-lovers tap their feet or hit the floor. A fresh shift from the otherwise threadbare series of screen-to-stage adaptations that are currently flooding the arena, the musical explodes with vibrant sound colours, epigrammatic phrases and infectious dance routines that never fail to pulse. As a whole, it is evident of the possibilities that contemporary musical language can be smartly woven onto a primal medium to bring about an off-the-wall change, and at once presenting a novel face in the musical scene – one that is already on the brink of losing its new age audience.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s multi-talented composer and lyricist, conceived In The Heights as a campus project during his sophomore year at Wesleyan University. Only 19 and home sick, he created a work with a flavour that’s closer to his roots. In 2002, Miranda worked with director Tommy Kail and wrote five separate drafts during which he worked as an English teacher at his old high school. Fast-forward to 2007, In The Heights was developed for an off-Broadway production with a book written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Quiara Alegria Hudes. After a critical success with numerous theatre award nominations and wins, it went on to The Great White Way with the same winning team that produces Rent and Avenue Q. It has received positive reviews praising its upbeat score, young and talented cast, a blend of neoteric and classic Bob Fosse-inspired dance moves, and breathtaking sets consisting of aging flats, crumbling storefronts and a grand backdrop of George Washington Bridge. It was not a surprise then that In The Heights was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and garnered Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestration this year. And just a month ago, Universal Pictures announced that is has acquired the rights to produce In The Heights as a feature film.

The producers described In The Heights as “a quintessential New York musical about a tight-knit community at the top of Manhattan. Songs and dances throb with the dreams of three generations as they struggle to forge an identity in a neighborhood which is facing a major transition."

At the centre of the vignettes is the ultra-vivacious rap-narrator and protagonist Usnavi, who runs a small bodega (a grocery store, sometimes combined with a wineshop, in certain Hispanic communities), who serves his coffee a little light and sweet. The child of immigrants, he was raised by Abuela Claudia who acts as the resolute matriarch of the barrio. Together with his cousin Sonny, Usnavi struggles financially and wonders about his life’s purpose, all the while trying to court the beautiful Vanessa who works as a hairdresser at the salon next door. Vanessa longs to escape from the Heights and into downtown Manhattan. Her boss is the nervy Daniella and the wide-eyed Carla who contemplates on moving her salon to the Bronx. The secondary love story involves Benny who works for the gypsy cab company owned by Kevin and Camilla, who disapprove Benny’s relationship with their daughter Nina, who had just return after a bad first year at Stanford.

With a blackout, a graffitist, an Independence Day fireworks and a winnng lottery ticket of 96K, Washington Heights became a busy place for the weekend. Here we have characters who are striving to make life better – Nina on whether to return to college, Vanessa on how to make it out of the barrio, Daniela on how to survive after moving the business to new territories, Benny on his drive to be a good businessman and attracts Nina despites her parent’s remonstrations, and Usnavi on whether to return to his homeland or stay in the Heights with Sonny, happily serving the community with his bodega and his famous light and sweet coffee. Some of them will find their answers, while others remain unresolved. Their battles never end despite the transition they had to face. No matter what’s the culture, their problems are indubitable, and audience will find it extremely easy to invest in these common, but not cardboard, characters.

In addition to writing the musical numbers, Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Usnavi, the leading man who bounces and jumps and acts as the engine of the populace, the heart of the neighbourhood. For his outstanding work, he has won the 2007 Theatre World Award, the Equity's Clarence Derwent Award and the 2007 Obie Award for Outstanding Music and Lyrics. We can perhaps consider Miranda as the Latino equivalence of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim half-combined. It is fascinating to hear a rapper cum hip-hop singer arranging lyrical ballads and making freestyle modulations, fixing spotless rhymes and rhythms effectively in a theatre with, needless to say, a decent plot. What’s more, Miranda understands the musical genre inside out and recognizes the factors that make an old-fashioned musical workable, making In The Heights a show that fulfills the Broadway musical standards and beyond. It is a two-acts operatic anecdote with an urban twist, accessible for anyone, at any time. In fact, the rhythm is gonna get you and you wonder if you are watching a musical at all. This new-born material, hip and modish, dazzles in ways we never come to expect.

Catch their 62nd Tony Awards performance here or on Whoopi Goldberg’s The View here.

After searching high and low but to no avail, I am now waiting patiently for my copy of The Original Cast Recording, purchased from Amazon. Here’s also hoping that they will plan a tour to Singapore soon.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Bond Free

SPH Art Dip Scholarship ~ Signed: 01/08/2000 - Conclude: 06/11/2008. ~ The Next Big Plan in progress.