“In the Heights” Grapples with the Pursuit of the American Dream

While people across the country have caught the Hamilton craze, the rap musical released in 2015 about one of our founding fathers is not Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first or only Broadway show. His first musical, In the Heights, made its Broadway debut in 2005 and while slightly less well known, it is nothing short of a great musical.

During the show, we follow the stories of the inhabitants of the predominantly Latinx neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. We start out with Usnavi and his younger cousin Sonny, who own the bodega on the corner. Later enters Vanessa, Usnavi’s crush who works at the neighborhood salon, as well as Nina, a first generation college student who has lost her scholarship, yet is afraid to tell her parents about it. Nina’s parents run a cab company, and Nina’s love interest, Benny, works for them. Each character has their own dreams, but money is scarce — and it may not be possible to make those dreams a reality. Throughout the ups and downs of the characters’ lives, relationships, and losses, we get to understand them, and they feel like family by the end of the show.

Prior to In the Heights, there were very few high profile Broadway musicals centering around Latinx characters and culture, with one notable exception being West Side Story, which debuted in 1957. Not surprisingly, however, West Side Story was created entirely by white musicians and authors, creating a situation where the authentic voices of the people represented in the show were not being heard. The show also fed into a common theme where non-white or immigrant characters were portrayed with violence or as gang members. In the case of In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda specifically wanted to write a show where immigrants were not “othered” or put in violent settings — but a show that had an emphasis on family life and everyday issues. In this way, he was able to incorporate both the classic themes of golden age musical theater alongside previously unseen representation and innovative musical scoring. With a soundtrack that uses elements of salsa and merengue as well as hip hop and rap, the musical fusion style of In the Heights was groundbreaking for Broadway.

One interesting theme that comes to mind when watching the show is the idealistic image of the American Dream. The American Dream is defined by Wikipedia as, “The set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success.” Most of In the Heights’ characters are either immigrants or children of immigrants, all striving towards their own versions of the American Dream. But over the course of the musical, some of those same characters are forced to face the fact that the utopia of America and the guaranteed happy ending they’ve been told it offers is a lie. However, the musical celebrates the idea that without the opportunity or motivation to try for success, it will be impossible to achieve it. Whether or not you are able to fulfill your goals in the present, it’s important to continue working towards them, in hopes that one day you will be in a position to make them come true.

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