Where people come
Let me show all of these
People what I know
There’s no place like home! …
Where it’s a hundred in the shade
But with patience and faith
We remain unafraid
You hear that music in the air?
Take the train to the top of the world
And I’m there
Lin-Manuel Miranda, from In The Heights
It’s Saturday night at the Seattle Repertory Theater, and I can’t remember the last time I was here. I know I’ve been before, can remember snatches of productions from a decade ago, when I was under 26 and took full advantage of cheap theater tickets in Seattle. But it’s been a while, so I’m all the happier to be here tonight to see In the Heights.
A 2008 musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, In The Heights is harder to categorize than its history-centric younger sibling. The tale of the interconnected lives of the inhabitants of Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, it is both a celebration of America’s rich immigrant culture and a familiar riff on the American Dream, in its complexity and elusiveness.
If I were still teaching American literature, I’d drag out bits of it to examine as we read Of Mice and Men, turning the lyrics over like museum artifacts showing that longing for stability and peace hasn’t abated in the eighty years since George and Lennie dreamed of living “off the fatta’ the lan'” during the Great Depression, and that for many Americans, the dream is no more achievable now than it was then.
Yet while Of Mice and Men expresses the American Dream in simple terms—success looks like owning a house, tending a garden on your own land—In The Heights reveals how complicated it has become. One character wants to rent an apartment in a better neighborhood, while another wrestles with the high expectations that come with being a first-generation college student. The protagonist, owner of the local bodega, longs for a change of scene, dreaming of leaving his store and returning to the Dominican Republic, his parents’ homeland.
In The Heights tells of a neighborhood that is changing, prescient of the gentrification of New York’s outer boroughs in the last decade or so, and of the residents who are changing with it. Some of this change is welcome, and the characters don’t romanticize the real flaws of their neighborhood. Despite the changes, though, In The Heights is a tale of home. What makes a place home, and the cracks we’re willing to step over, day after day, loving one place while looking ahead to somewhere better.
Though it would have been more seasonal to use this night out to see The Nutcracker or Handel’s Messiah, it strikes me that In The Heights, this tale of longing for home, connection and redemption, also fits well in this season. The Christmas spirit of childhood—syrupy-sweet euphoria fueled by cookies and familiar tunes—has mellowed into something more complex, deeper, and ultimately stronger. As I grow older, I feel more that Advent is a season of longing, when we hold in tension the real and figurative darkness of the world around us, looking for the light and warmth that Christ has brought in the midst of it. Advent is powerful because Christ came to a broken world that needed Him desperately. We still do.
While American classics conclude with disappointed heroes and Disney movies with victorious ones, In The Heights lands somewhere in between. Living in the tension of unmet hopes and unresolved problems, the characters end the play with gratitude for each other and this place they’ve shared. And that, too, seems an apt message for this season. The best stories aren’t those that teach us that the hero is heroic because her quest is complete, her dreams wrapped up successfully. Rather, the best stories—like In The Heights or It’s A Wonderful Life— remind us to be thankful for the beauty and warmth we encounter on the journey, even when it leads us to unexpected places.
Sunday evening, as soon as it gets dark my oldest daughter and I drag on our boots and coats to walk around the block and look at our neighbors’ Christmas lights. A fitting metaphor it seems, running through the drizzly evening, skipping from one decorated house to the next, as we delight in the beauty we discover even in a dark, wet December.