Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Lost in History vol. 63: Uptown Song & Dance

It’s a safe assumption that many New Yorkers have never been to Washington Heights. Tucked up far away at the northern-most end of Manhattan, accessible by the A, C and 1 trains, Washington Heights has for the past 40 years been one of the few immigrant enclaves in Manhattan that still sees hardworking, lofty-dreaming, high-strivers arrive monthly. Chinatown in Lower Manhattan is the another such hustling and bustling ‘hood (and your urban journalist’s favorite Manhattan neighborhood) — but Chinatown’s never seen the lights of Broadway. With the arrival of the incredible new musical In The Heights, which we had the pleasure of seeing last week, it’s time to tell the vibrant story of this north side ‘nabe — both historically and through song and dance.

The “Washington” in Washington Heights is Fort Washington (the “Washington” in Fort Washington is General George), which once occupied the highest point on the island, making it a natural defense line against the Brits during the Revolutionary War. The Fort was constructed by the Continental Army and almost immediately seized by the British during the Battle of Fort Washington on November 16th, 1776; the site of the Fort is now a park, Bennett Park, just north of the George Washington Bridge. As the Industrial Age gave way to the Gilded Age, Washington Heights became popular amongst the monied crowd because of the spectacular views on the high ridge along the Hudson. When the IRT Broadway line reached the southern edge of the hood in 1904, it brought immigrants, mostly Greek and Irish, with the Jews were soon to follow. Along with the working classes came major organizations, such as the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, museums and scholastic institutions at Audubon Terrace and Yeshiva University.

As is always the story in 1960s, 70s and 80s New York City, out flowed the Jews and Irish, in came the black and Latino communities; in particular, Washington Heights became the go-to neighborhood for the surging Dominican population. There were Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans moving in as well, but throughout the 1980s, no other area in the city attracted more people from the DR than Washington Heights — it was the largest DR community in the country and substantially larger than the Dominican Republic itself. Racial strife was prevalent throughout these decades, and in order to give these NY citizens a more substantial voice on the City Council, the district lines were redrawn in 1991; the same year, Guillermo Linares became the first elected official of Dominican heritage in the country.

That’s the past to Washington Heights. The present is reflected in the phenomenal In The Heights. Conceived by 28-year-old wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the lyrics and music to most of the show as a sophomore at Wesleyan University seven years ago, In The Heights is the standard immigrant striving story of trying to make it in an unforgiving city, surrounded by the people you love. The twists and turns that it takes in the interim are aided by the supernova energy of the young cast and the hyperkinetic choreography that reflects modern break-dancing, hispanic meringue, classic Jerome Robbins-style dancing and standard street moves. The songs, a powerhouse charge of salsa, hip-hop, power pop, American Idol-style solos and Broadway group numbers had one woman in the audience screaming out her passion as if she were at a concert. Upon walking out of the theater I felt revitalized and energized, that I had just seen the new face of the modern Broadway musical. And best of all, it’s a new New York musical. In The Heights is a lock for the TONY for Best Musical (who else is going to take it? Xanadu!?). And it’s about time that more of ethnic NYC got its turn on the big stage.

(originally published on 6/2/8 on www.thelmagazine.com)

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