‘Hamilton” may have made Lin-Manuel Miranda a megacelebrity, but it was “In the Heights,” which opened on Broadway in 2008, that established him as a musical-theater composer. And, unlike “Hamilton,” “In the Heights” was autobiographical: Miranda grew up in the Manhattan neighborhoods of Inwood and Washington Heights in the 1990s.
In his dialogue as well as his songs rooted in salsa, hip-hop and Sondheim, Miranda brought to life those neighborhoods, where Latino immigrants squabbled and dreamed of better lives in an unruly mix of Spanish and English. To reach as broad an American audience as possible, Miranda tilted the ratio of Spanish to English words decidedly in the latter direction. But some audiences longed to see that reversed.
Some wanted it so much that unauthorized Spanish versions of the show started popping up across Latin America. Miranda finally approved a translation into Dominican Spanish, and that’s the script having its U.S. premiere as “In the Heights en Español” at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Shepherding the production is director Luis Salgado, who not only performed and served as assistant choreographer in the original production, but also grew up in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, the same town from which Miranda’s family hails.
“A lot of people in Latin America want to see ‘In the Heights’ because American musical theater has become very popular there,” Salgado says. “When I grew up in Puerto Rico, our teachers in dance school, in music school, loved American musicals, because they had grown up with the old films. But it has blown up now, thanks in part to YouTube, where anyone can see the dances and hear the music. When I went back to Puerto Rico, nine, 10 dance schools had sprung up since I was last there. Peru, Colombia, Mexico — it’s expanding everywhere.”
Salgado was one of those Latino kids who fell in love with musicals. His father wanted him to box, but he had a different kind of dancing in mind. On the island, he performed in “Peter Pan” and “Annie,” and, at age 21, left for New York. One of his first breaks was getting the part of José in “In the Heights” and working with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler.
“I learned so much from Andy, that it was better than going to college,” Salgado recalls. “Just as Lin changed what theater could do, Andy did the same thing with the choreography. What I could contribute was my heritage.” Salgado showed Blankenbuehler, for example, the moves that were a crucial part of Carnaval, Puerto Rico’s Mardi Gras celebration.
Salgado went on to perform in such Broadway musicals as “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Rocky” and “On Your Feet!” He was credited as co-choreographer on the television remake of “Dirty Dancing” and as assistant choreographer on the movies “Enchanted” and “Step Up 2.” Working again on “In the Heights” re-connects him to his launchpad.
GALA theater has a standard practice of using surtitles in its shows, but “In the Heights en Español” will feature English surtitles for the Spanish dialogue and lyrics and Spanish surtitles for the English. Although most of the show is in Spanish, it will still be bilingual. After all, why would Nina’s father, who insists that she marry a Spanish speaker, object to Benny unless the young suitor spoke only English? Benny may be a model employee at the father’s taxi company, but that’s not enough.
“ ‘In the Heights’ brings out the reality that poverty and criminality don’t have to go hand in hand,” Salgado points out. “There are so many minority communities where people go to work every day and work hard with the knowledge that they don’t have enough money for their kids’ lunch money. That doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and steal from somebody. That assumption is offensive to all the poor people who are playing by the rules. This show was important for that reason. It doesn’t lack conflict, because theater can’t exist without conflict, but there are other conflicts than violence.”
In the original production of “In the Heights,” Miranda played the character of Usnavi, the owner of a small bodega in the neighborhood. He must balance running his business with taking care of his ailing grandmother and courting the beautiful Vanessa. Within that tale, you can detect the seeds of the style that blossomed into “Hamilton.” Salgado sees obvious parallels.
“Both shows took seven, eight years to develop,” he notes. “Both are about Caribbean immigrants in America. Both use a mix of musical styles. Both have a narrator — Usnavi or Hamilton — who explains the story, so the structure doesn’t change much. One key difference, though, is that Usnavi describes his own character, while Hamilton allows the other characters to describe him. Another difference is Lin shrank the book in ‘Hamilton’ and made it more like an opera. He has grown so quickly that you have to wonder what his next project will be.”
In the meantime, here’s a welcome chance to revisit “In the Heights” in the language of the fathers and grandmothers who first arrived in the United States and paved the way for all the children and grandchildren who followed. It’s a chance, Salgado says, to counter the current political climate by celebrating these American citizens and what they have contributed to their new country.
GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. 202-234-7174. galatheatre.org.
Dates: Through May 21.