Dallas — Before there was Hamilton, before there was Moana, before there was Mary Poppins Returns, before Lin-Manuel Miranda became a household name, there was In the Heights, the 2008 musical that launched his career into the stratosphere.
In the post-Hamilton era, In the Heights has experienced a resurgence of sorts, becoming one of the most produced musicals in the United States. Throw a dart at a map of the country and you are likely to land near a production of the Tony Award-winning musical. Dallas Theater Center’s production, which is currently in previews, opens Friday, Sept. 27, and runs through Oct. 20. The production will feature direction by James Vasquez and choreography by Rickey Tripp.
In addition to music and lyrics by Miranda, In the Heights features a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful. Among the musical’s many accolades, In the Heights won four 2008 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations. The film adaptation of the musical, directed by Jon M. Chu, will premiere in 2020.
“Despite the story on its surface being specifically about a Latinx community, In the Heights is a universally human story about searching for where you belong,” notes DTC Resident Acting Company member Tiffany Solano DeSena, who plays Nina. “It’s a multi-generational story of family, community, love and striving for a better life with a timeless message of hope and optimism.”
In the Heights portrays three hot summer days in the life of a group of people living in Washington Heights, a predominantly Latinx neighborhood in New York City. At the center of the story is Usnavi, who runs the corner bodega that serves as a focal point of the community. At the top of the show, once Usnavi shoos Graffiti Pete away from the bodega, Usnavi begins his rap, introducing us to the family to which we are about to bear witness: Nina, who returns home after losing her scholarship to Stanford; Benny, Nina’s love interest who is not Latino and works for Nina’s father; Daniela, who runs the local salon; Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood’s communal grandmother figure; Vanessa, a hair stylist who wants to move Uptown and get out of the barrio; and several others.
Throughout the musical, these characters present dignified portrayals of Latinx identities, rejecting the stereotypes that the mainstream media so often presents. In many ways, the residents of Usnavi’s block are the antithesis to the Sharks depicted in West Side Story. As anti-Latinx and anti-immigrant rhetoric continues to pervade the national discourse, theatre such as In the Heights is positioned to demonstrate the humanity of the Latinx community.
Miranda began working on In the Heights while he was a sophomore at Wesleyan University in 1999, taking nearly a decade to premiere on Broadway in 2008 (Hudes would come on as the show’s book writer later in the process). The humanity of the show extends beyond what is seen on stage but is an integral part of the show’s ethos and origins. For example, during an early performance for potential investors, Miranda received feedback that the central conflict of the show, namely Nina dropping out of college, was not a high-enough stakes conflict for a commercial Broadway musical. Investors wanted Nina to struggle with something “bigger” such as drug addiction or teen pregnancy. In other words, investors didn’t think the show could be a success unless it relied on stereotypes. Miranda stood firm because Nina struggling with being a first-generation college student is high stakes. Stanford University boasts an acceptance rate of 5 percent and its student body is around 16 percent Latinx. For Nina, as a child of Puerto Rican immigrants, to merely be in a place like Stanford is incredibly high stakes already. She doesn’t need to be pregnant or turn to alcohol to be relatable to audiences.
This is precisely the beauty of In the Heights. The show is built in such a way as to present characters from everyday life. Even if someone isn’t Latinx or doesn’t live in New York City, they will inevitably recognize the world that In the Heights portrays. To put it into simple terms, the show is incredibly relatable.
For Solano DeSena, the significance of playing a character like Nina is not lost on her. “Nina Rosario instantly went to the top of my list of dream roles when I first saw In the Heights on Broadway in 2008. I felt inspired seeing my culture represented on stage in a way that felt authentic and devoid of typical stereotypes,” she says. “When we played our first weekend of previews, the audience response was filled with young women thanking me with tears in their eyes because they’re seeing themselves represented onstage in a positive light with drive and determination. That’s why playing this role is important.”
Ultimately, In the Heights is a feel-good show about the importance of community and home. For Solano DeSena, she hopes audiences leave the theatre inspired: “The energy of this cast is contagious, and I hope people walk out of the theatre inspired to keep dreaming.”
DTC’s cast includes DTC Resident Acting Company members Tiffany Solano DeSena (Nina), Christopher Ramirez (Sonny), and Tiana Kaye Blaire (ensemble). Joining them are Xavier Cano (Usnavi), David Lugo (Kevin), Crissy Guerrero (Camila), Devin Roberts (Benny), Marina Pires (Vanessa), Nancy Ticotin (Abuela Claudia), Talia Thiesfield (Daniela), Lorens Portalatin (Carla), Michael Anthony Sylvester (Graffiti Pete), and Kevin Solis (Piragua Guy), with the ensemble of Traci Elaine Lee; Emmanuel Hernandez; Delaney Love; Jorge Guerra; Jeremy Tyrone Saxton; Christina Austin Lopez and Neville Braithwaite.
» Trevor Boffone is a Houston-based scholar, educator, writer, dramaturg, and producer. He is a member of the National Steering Committee for the Latinx Theatre Commons and the founder of the 50 Playwrights Project. Trevor has a Ph.D. in Latinx theater and literature from the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston where he holds a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. He holds an MA in Hispanic Studies from Villanova University and a BA in Spanish from Loyola University New Orleans. He is coeditor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Teresa Marrero (University of North Texas) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (May 2019, Northwestern University Press).