Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, which is currently playing at the King’s Cross Theatre, is wonderful. Go and see it.
Beyond that – bullet points, because it’s been a long week.
- If you’ve read anything about Lin-Manuel Miranda, the first word you’ll associate with him is probably ‘rap’. There’s a lot more to his music than that. This is a wonderful, inventive score; there’s a lot of rap in it, but there’s also an abundance of more conventional musical numbers incorporating a wide range of influences from white pop to salsa to Sondheim. The music is often thrilling, and so is the wordplay – this show’s text is dense, clever, funny, touching when it needs to be, and often as dazzling as the music. As a Broadway debut, this score is a staggering achievement.
- It’s served well here by a spectacular cast led by Sam Mackay as Usnavi, the bodega owner at the centre of the show’s (loose) plot. That’s the role Miranda played himself on Broadway, so he has big shoes to fill, but he’s terrific.
- The ensemble dance their backsides off – you could work up a sweat just watching them – and sing gloriously; this is a Southwark Playhouse production, which means it was staged on a budget of about £2.50, which means there isn’t much of a set to speak of, but Drew McOnie’s breathtakingly energetic choreography provides more than enough spectacle.
- Standout supporting performances from Lily Frazer, whose incredible voice threatens to blow the roof off the theatre, as well as Jade Ewen, David Bedella, Josie Benson, and Eve Polycarpou as everybody’s favourite Abuela. Bedella and Benson are particularly fine as a pair of bickering/loving parents whose daughter is on the verge of dropping out of college; Benson’s big second-act number – ‘Enough’ – is probably the evening’s dramatic highlight.
- Sensational band somewhere backstage, led by Phil Cornwell. Nine musicians – fewer than the show used on Broadway, but I think one or two more than it had in the original off-Broadway run before it transferred – and that’s particularly impressive given that it’s hardly unusual, these days, to see a much bigger show with fewer musicians on the payroll.
- Unusual to see a musical in a traverse staging – the playing area down the middle of the auditorium, with a bank of seats on either side – but for this show, it works very well. The unusual configuration is used because the theatre’s other occupant, a couple of shows a week (and more in the school holidays), is a stage version of The Railway Children, for which a real, full-sized train is used (the tracks are covered by a temporary deck for In the Heights). Luke Sheppard’s direction makes the most of a difficult space and a limited budget; by West End standards, this is a very inexpensive production, but it doesn’t feel like one, and it delivers just as much in terms of pure entertainment as the original Broadway production (or at least, the iteration of it that I saw in California) did.
- The show has been compared, here and there, to West Side Story, which doesn’t strike me as a particularly apt comparison, other than that they’re both set in New York and they both include a number of Latino characters.In The Heights is an urban story, but not a particularly gritty one – it’s essentially an amiable, sentimentalised love letter to the neighbourhoods Miranda grew up in and the people he grew up with. Quiara Alegria Hudes’s book is arguably short on incident – it feels a little like a movie-of-the-week in which nothing much happens and the loose ends, such as they are, are all nicely tied up at the end of the final act – but the music and the performances are so vivid that it doesn’t really matter.
If nothing else, given the extraordinary success of (and buzz surrounding) Hamilton, Miranda’s second musical, which is enjoying once-a-decade levels of hype and acclaim (and ticket sales) on Broadway right now, it’s fascinating to go back and look at Miranda’s first show – particularly since it’ll be next year at least before Hamilton makes it to the UK. Miranda is a major, distinctive talent; the show’s book may not be entirely without fault, but it’s refreshing to see a musical in which the jolts of electricity come courtesy of the music and lyrics rather than the special effects.