Tuesday, August 19, 2008

NYC Part 3: In the Heights vs Passing Strange

So for weeks I’ve been mulling over my initial response to In the Heights, a show that I would describe as Disney-fied opportunism of race and culture with a shallow book and spectacle that gets lost in form sans content. This performance, as well as this season’s also TONY-nominated Passing Strange, raises more questions about the role of race and culture in the theatre than any other offering in recent memory. My feelings about In the Heights runs deep, and they run political. Not political in the concept of a political message, but in the lack thereof and, therefore, an expression of the status quo that allows a show such as this to win the TONY award for Best Musical against more politically relevant, more culturally challenging works. Alas, this is the history – and the politics – of the Broadway stage.
In 1958, two shows were nominated for the TONY award for best musical that have made a significant impact on the history of the American artform: The Music Man and West Side Story. It is shocking to think retrospectively that these two shows could even appear in the same Broadway season let alone the differences in the picture of America that the shows portray: the former a well-made musical comedy which waxes poetic about Norman Rockwellian Americana; the latter a musical tragedy that confronts the issue of race relations and gang warfare. The differences between the two shows, however, extend beyond mere content into the presentation of form. Meredith Wilson wrote a nostalgic play musicalized with the most American musical idiom, the march. Whereas, the classically trained Leonard Bernstein composed a cutting-edge score encompassing the Latin-American influence on popular music of the time. Apparently the TONY voters (like the electoral college vote of 2004) were not ready for change with The Music Man sweeping the vote.
Exactly 50 years later, we have witnessed a similar coup with In the Heights winning the TONY vote over Passing Strange. When I saw the latter, I was amazed that a show such as this even made it to Broadway. Essentially a one-man show, Passing Strange tells the trials of the artist Stew, who performed the role of narrator on Broadway. However, the show developed from a monologue into an ensemble piece with actors performing both as Stew’s younger self and all the artists and deviants with which he encountered on his world travels. What struck me most about this show, besides the excellent, bring-down-the-house score, was the ingenuity and risk devoid of most Broadway shows. With a cast of only six and an on-stage band playing amidst a vacant set, the show challenged every notion of the Broadway musical delivering a winning story and receiving a well-deserved standing ovation. What I love about Stew’s work is that he raises questions about the presentation of African-Americans in performance that I don’t believe most Americans are willing to accept. One of the first scenes, for example, presents Stew the younger and his mother having a conversation in the typical “Black” vernacular. Then, Stew the elder, interjects to clarify that he was raised in a suburb of L.A. and immediately the dialect is dropped. This, to any thinking patron of the arts, is a statement upon the minstrelsy inherent in popular Broadway theatre.
I mention minstrelsy, because I feel that is the most appropriate term for In the Heights. I can only describe this show as treacle along the lines of Wicked and Momma Mia. The show played to me like an after-school special with cardboard characters, a predictable plot, and a score that was both ballad-heavy and redundant. I believe Wicked lost the TONY to Avenue Q because the New York vote was tired of the status quo and ready for change. However, this year’s decision makes me believe that TONY voters were swayed by ghetto culture presented on-stage seeing dollar signs in capitalizing on culture.
But is this an unnecessarily pessimistic view? Certainly, the audience for In the Heights was the most diverse I have ever witnessed while attending the Broadway theatre. And by diverse, I mean truly diverse in terms of skin color. When I attended The Color Purple, for example, the audience was mostly black, which was a welcome change, but not the definition of diversity. Black, white, Latino, and everyone in between were at the Sunday matinee of In the Heights – the success of which is marked by the fact that the show has repealed all half-price tickets due to its popularity. And yet, as I shared in the story with the audience around me, I realized this work did not provide any challenge to status quo, any opportunity for discussion about the presentation of race, or any intelligent observation on culture and society. It merely presented a pretty combination of choreography inspired by contemporary street dance, a score inclusive of rap rhythms, and a cast peopled by Latino/as. My biggest disappointment was that this show, that brought so many ethnically diverse people together, was easy to walk away from. By this, I mean that it left no opportunity for discussion or debate. The flimsy plot was sewn up with a nice big (painted on) bow that gave you the same feeling as the conclusion of a Golden Girls episode. As my Pollyanna side asks, “Wasn’t it enough that all these different people were brought together for this performing event? Or that the Latin culture is finally recognized in a big-budget Broadway musical?” My political activist side answers, “No, because we all left and too easily went back to where we came from.” I feel that this opinion is mostly affected by my attendance of Passing Strange – a show that made me want to talk, that made me want to debate the performance of race on the American stage, that challenged me to think. It has been fifty years since The Music Man stole the TONY award from West Side Story, when will Broadway – and, thereby, America – be willing to change?

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