This is a story about my first trip to New York in 2010, and it involves two Broadway shows.
I don’t even really remember why I was going to New York in the dead of winter, other than that I had worked through the summer and hadn’t had a ‘proper holiday’ in 18 months, and my friend Ben from high school was out there learning how to act and developing an American accent that, in hindsight, was pretty cool if you’re all nerdy teenagers from the Isle of Man.
Ben had a pal called Luke, who from memory was extremely tall and wore a lot of fur. He was fabulous and I liked him immediately. Luke had two tickets to a Broadway show and Ben was called into work last-minute, and so I was offered the spare.
We met outside the Richard Rogers theatre.
‘So what is this about, again?’
‘It’s this hip-hop musical about Latinx people who live in Washington Heights, and it’s won a bunch of Tony awards because everyone thinks it’s amazing. It is amazing.’
I thought about how I really wanted to go and see something I already knew the songs to, something like Wicked. But hey, the ticket was free, so I was game.
I sat down in my seat, thinking the stage and seating layout was a bit weird and not like the Frank Matcham-style theatres I was used to back in the UK. The stage went dark and I heard birdsong and a simple clave rhythm.
Lights up on Washington Heights, up at the break of day
I wake up and I got this little punk I gotta chase away
Pop the grate at the crack of dawn, sing
While I wipe down the awning
Hey y’all, good morning.
THE SONGS! THE WORDS! THE RHYTHMS! THE SINGING! ALL THE THINGS! You know when you have a musical experience and you walk out a changed human? That’s what In the Heights did to me on that freezing December night in Manhattan. I still remember snorting with laughter at learning the origins of the title character’s name:
Remember the story of your name…
It was engraved on a passing ship on the day your family came
Your father said “Usnavi,
That’s what we’ll name the baby.”
It really said “U.S. Navy,” but hey…
I worked with what they gave me okay…
People who are clever with words are my favourite artists. I loved studying Shakespeare at school and I can always be charmed by a guy with a decent grasp on the English language. The language in this musical was game-changingly good. I knew this was going to be the start of something, but at age 20 couldn’t really articulate what.
Weirdly, and unknown to me at the time, the second show I saw (thanks to the lottery ticketing system – woo!) was a reworking of West Side Story with a Spanglish twist. The magic of Bernstein, Laurents and Robbins was updated by none other than Usnavi himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Everyone knows him now as the guy with the amazing wedding video and ‘The Hamilton Dude’, but back in 2010 I was a young music student and totally overwhelmed by the transformative experience of seeing his new work in more than one place on Broadway. It wasn’t the same old tourist-pleasing crap, it was refreshing and exciting. You already knew the story and the music, but the words were better. You had to check yourself sometimes in order to keep up. You had to really pay attention.
We now know that Hamilton is the most tourist-pleasing show of the history of the world (if anyone has a ticket for later this year they don’t want that is under £200, can I have it please? Asking for real. Not a joke). If it’s anything like In the Heights was, let me say that I get it. I get it.
In the last 48 hours I’ve listened to the Hamilton soundtrack three times in its entirety and started learning a couple of the Eliza Schuyler songs. I’ve watched all of the clips on YouTube and I’ve dreamt about being in it (literally had a dream about it because of all the listening). I admit to initially being a bit cynical about how it might fare on a British stage, given that we don’t learn American history as part of our school curriculum. But now I’m in London, I forget that everyone is London is from somewhere other than London. It’s a city of immigrants, a lot like New York. I’m one of them now.