After months of planning, yesterday the George Washington Bridge finally arrived on stage at the United Palace, the scenic backdrop for tonight’s one-night only performance of “In the Heights: The Concert.”
Five years ago this week the musical, which went on to win two Tony Awards, opened its first preview at the Richard Rodgers Theatre at 226 W. 46th Street. It played 29 previews and 1,184 regular performances there while launching national and international touring companies.
But tonight it makes its debut at an actual Broadway address (the United Palace is at 4140 Broadway) and, more importantly, comes home to Washington Heights. It will be the concert version of the musical, performed by the original Broadway cast with members of the touring company taking part at select moments. It will also be a benefit, with proceeds from ticket sales going towards the Broadway League’s Family First Nights, the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA), and the United Palace of Cultural Arts.
I don’t use the word “perfect” with much frequency: far too often it’s used to label something that is far from it. But I’ve had a difficult time describing the significance of mounting “In the Heights” in the Heights at the United Palace without using that word.
What makes this such a perfect fit? It starts with the musical.
When it was still Off-Broadway “In the Heights” was opening eyes because of its mash up of musical forms, including generous scoops of salsa, merengue, and hip-hop, none of which have enjoyed much play in Broadway theatres. Not only did it speak to Latinos but its musical language and contemporary choreography awakened younger generations across the country to the magic of the theatre.
Two anecdotes. Last week I was contacted by a mother who is taking the train from Tuscaloosa, Alabama with her two children to see the show at the Palace. Need I mention that it’s a 22-hour train ride to New York City and an 11-degree drop in temperature? Then Saturday I received an email from a man who lives just outside of Seattle who informed me his son, a high school senior, was not going to be able to fly out to the concert after all. He wanted to know if I could give his ticket to another young person “who appreciates the amazing show and message Mr. Miranda has created.”
It’s a brilliant work of art that Lin-Manuel Miranda created and a multi-talented cast and crew brought to life to get a kid from the great northwest to fall in love with the streets and characters of a neighborhood 3,000 miles across the country, Washington Heights, where he’s never set foot.
For the Northern Manhattan community, primarily Latino, the musical tells a story honestly that everyone can take pride in. It brought dozens of Latinos to the cast and thousands of first-time theatre-goers to the performances. It marked the first time Washington Heights had been portrayed so warmly, so positively on such a big scale. MTV is currently broadcasting a docu-drama called “Washington Heights” that finds kinship with the bodega owners, hair salon denizens, cab drivers, and graffiti artists of “In the Heights.” Many people consider the MTV show the anti-“Jersey Shore” since it treats its characters so intelligently and respectfully, a lesson it could have learned from the musical.
For a musical so steeped in a sense of home and community, it’s fitting that tonight’s performance involves two families who have done so much for Northern Manhattan: the Mirandas and the Eikerenkoetters.
Luis Miranda has provided nearly three decades of nonprofit service uptown (he’s donating his time producing tonight’s concert). His son Lin-Manuel continues to pay back the community that inspired him by being accessible to young people who seek inspiration and career advice (he’s also donating his time for the concert). Luis, my former boss and partner at the Manhattan Times community newspaper, and I first discussed mounting “In the Heights” at the Palace last July. A few days later Lin did a walk-thru: it was the first time he was ever inside the theatre.
The Eikerenkoetter’s relationship with Washington Heights begins in 1969 when Reverend Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, better known as Rev. Ike, purchased what was then called the Loew’s 175th Street Theatre. It was on its last legs after serving as a movie palace for nearly 40 years. But Rev. Ike preserved it, both for his congregation and posterity. Last year his son, Xavier, launched the United Palace of Cultural Arts, a nonprofit that pursues his vision of how art can transform lives. He wants the Palace to serve as a home for Northern Manhattan’s ongoing “Uptown Renaissance.”
The community is blessed to have enjoyed the contributions of these two families. Bringing them together under this roof tonight underscores the United in the name United Palace.
For UPCA, hosting “In the Heights” demonstrates our ambitions to mount productions of this magnitude. We know audiences in Northern Manhattan hunger for quality theatre, dance, and music. (When the theatre opened in 1930 the tag line was “Times Square entertainment nearer your home.”) We also believe that Washington Heights is ready to be a destination for audiences from around the metropolitan area and beyond, particularly if we present art experiences that can’t be found elsewhere in the city, serving our mission to be a theatre for the world.
Much of tonight’s audience will be from Northern Manhattan, enjoying the opportunity to experience great art in their own neighborhood. Hopefully some teenager gets turned on by the story and the spectacle and decides then and there that he wants to grow up to create the next generation’s Usnavi. This idea of using art to transform someone’s life, to open doors to new possibilities through music, dance, performance and other art forms, describes the heart of UPCA’s mission.
It couldn’t start happening with a more perfect event.