It’s been one week since I saw Rent‘s final performance in the movie theater. I have seen five shows (all but one were musicals or near-musicals) since then, not to mention another near-musical and another play last week. And they all, in some way, can be tied back to Rent in my head. I’ll go one by one here (actually, now that I think about it, I’ll list them here and split them into smaller discussion posts; contentcontentcontent), and I’ll ask you to remember that I’m not reviewing anything here–just tossing out some personal thoughts cultivated in the glow of my reexaminations of the Rent experience. These are the shows:
In The Heights
Boom Bap Meditations and the break/s (both part of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival that I’ll discuss together)
Rock of Ages
Close Ties and Man For All Seasons (very different plays that I’ll discuss together)
So that’s the list. And I’ll start, fittingly, with a show I’ve already discussed semi-intensively here: In The Heights. This is what I wrote about the show right before The Tonys, which was right after I saw it for the first time:
In The Heights made me cry, and made me cry repeatedly (well, not cry, but tears in my eyes intermittently from the moment the music started), not because of the touching stories of love and acceptance and keeping life going in the face of all kinds of hardships (because honestly, the storylines are nothing we haven’t seen before), but because–and forgive the emotion here, but the emotion is really the point–GOD DAMN IT THOSE ARE PUERTO RICAN FLAGS UP THERE, and Dominican flags, and some Mexican and Cuban, and that’s Washington Heights, and it’s really Washington Heights, and that dude is starting the show by rapping, and it’s good rapping, really good rapping, really real rapping, and there’s a b-boy, and a real b-boy, and the Spanish fits, and no pare, sigue sigue is just, it’s just, god damn it, it’s perfect. And we’re not gang members or drug dealers or even Lothario Latin lovers–we’re people, hard-working people who struggle with gentrification and self-worth issues and questions of leaving home and putting our pasts behind us to succeed or clutching madly to keep them close and push us even higher.
And I was in the audience on Mother’s Day, and this, I can’t stress this enough, this is what I want Latinos to do on Mother’s Day, I want them to go see In The Heights, all dressed up, full families, and I want them cheering when the lights go down, and I want them cheering and “oooooh”-ing when Nina and Benny kiss on the fire escape, and I want little Puerto Rican and Dominican boys to feel like Usnavi is looking right at them when he’s rhyming the way I felt like John Leguizamo’s Miggy was looking right at me all through Spic-o-Rama. And you know what? I’ve got tears in my eyes (just barely, son, just barely) even right now–right now–as I’m writing this.
And all that is still there in a big way, although I wasn’t overwhelmed with the emotion of the whole thing this time around, probably because I had seen it and was prepared (and maybe because I was trying to be cool in front of Kitt Kittredge, who I was with this time instead of my mom, in front of whom I have no need to look cool). The pride is embedded in the piece, and I still think that’s the second biggest legacy this show will leave when all is said and done (the first being its incredible use of hip-hop within a full-on dramatic context–I’ll come back to this idea when talking about the break/s and Boom Bap Meditations later in the week/future). But the thing I didn’t originally recognize about the show — the thing I actually got completely wrong the first time around — was this:
It’s a really good show.
I think I overvalued the impact that all those Puerto Rican flags had on my enjoyment the first time around. I credited the show for a solid understanding of Broadway musical storytelling structure, but kind of downplayed the effectiveness of the story’s specifics. I wasn’t even convinced that the songs (outside of the couple of big showstoppers) were entirely new, exciting, or hummable. I was wrong on most, if not all counts. It’s a good show, a strong show getting great performances that smooth over any trouble spots for sure, but it’s well put-together and (and I hate using this word) universal somehow — you don’t have to have firsthand knowledge of Puerto Ricans or Dominicans or hip-hop or The Heights to get it. If you go with it, you’ll dig it. You’ll probably love it.
(The problem of universality, we might have discussed before, is a major point of contention for many writers of color. Our work, if it goes to “mainstream” audiences, is expected to “transcend race/ethnicity” so it can be consumed by the population at large. In other words, your “average theatergoer” (I’m euphemismising away) needs to see/relate to your Puerto Rican characters as something other than (more than?) just Puerto Ricans — they need to be “real people.” I think when I state it that way, “euphemisms” and all, it’s easy to see exactly what the problem with that “thinking” “is”. Okay, those last two weren’t euphemisms at all. I’ll talk more about this soon–specifically when we spend some time on those plays mentioned above.)
Point is, this show does the “universal” thing without compromise. It tells a good, easy to follow story, and it tells it well, and it happens to tell it through cultural forms associated with young Latino folk. That’s no small accomplishment. it’s what I attempted to do with Welcome to Arroyo’s (and if any of you reading this haven’t read that play, it’s being published next year, so there’s your chance), only my story is a little messier and militant and maybe particular to one culture. Lin-Manuel and Quiara and team have succeeded in not giving up the flavor while making the meat a little more tender and palatable for all-to-most tastes. That’s a good thing.
That night, there was a couple sitting directly in front of us (and Britney Spears about ten rows up and over), and they were white, and they were older (maybe my parents’ age), and they were reacting semi-loudly throughout the show, trading thoughts back and forth in that “ooh, I’m enjoying this” kind of way. It was good to see.
And how does this all tie to Rent? Two things that I’ve mentioned here before:
1. Spring Awakening, some say, is the logical heir to Rent’s fans, and I’d say that’s at least partially right. But some of us, we kind of needed a show about young folks in New York City to come along and fill the void Rent is leaving behind. We needed a multicultural show. We needed a show that, for all its perceived toughness in form and music, is an old-fashioned musical at heart. That’s Heights.
2. At the Tonys, the original cast of Rent came out onstage and sang, and the audience applauded…but Lin-Manuel gave them the standing ovation they deserved, shortly after giving the coolest acceptance speech ever. And it’s fitting, because as much as Rent‘s artistic success is tied up in its creator’s backstory, so is Heights‘. Historians are going to look back on this year’s ceremony and say “Paulo Szot? Really?”
This is now my longest post ever, I think, so I’ll stop and sum up by repeating all I really wanted to say about this topic anyway:
Go see In The Heights.