When tourists from Anywhere, USA, visit Broadway for a little New York culture this spring, their guidebooks may direct them to two productions that will improve their foreign language skills.
In the Heights—which dramatizes life in the barrio of Washington Heights—won the 2008 Tony for Best Musical and recouped its 10 million dollar investment after 10 months and 337 performances. A modernized revival of West Side Story, which includes entire scenes in Spanish, premiered to rousing critical acclaim in Washington, DC in early January and opens on Broadway March 19.
To call bilingualism in theater a trend would be wrong—the word “trend” connotes something new, and, as West Side Story associate producer Bradley Reynolds notes, something that will fade. But bilingualism on the American stage isn’t a recent invention, nor is it disappearing anytime soon. Companies such as New York-based Repertorio Español have been around for over 40 years. Other ethnic-based theater—Yiddish, Italian and Norwegian, for example—has existed in the United States as far back as the second half of the 19th century. The first performance of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts was produced in Chicago in Norwegian for Scandinavian immigrants in 1882.
The success and hype surrounding In the Heights and West Side Story indicate that American arts and entertainment have begun to accept Latino culture. This acclamation may be long overdue—and these shows might commercialize Latino culture in a way that makes some uncomfortable—but their success on Broadway shows a progression away from xenophobia on the American stage.
According to data presented by the Census Bureau in March 2007, 10.3 million immigrants had arrived in the United States since 2000, and many were Spanish-speaking. While this increase cannot fully explain why Broadway is producing bilingual shows, and while Latino and bilingual theater surely existed before 2000, theater does tend to say something about the culture in which it is created.
Because contemporary American audience members speak different languages, accessibility can be an issue. Can non-Spanish-speaking audiences still understand and relate to productions in Spanish?
Playwright Enrique Urueta, whose work includes Forever Never Comes, has confronted difficulties regarding accessibility. “I’ve experienced people’s frustration first-hand with plays that have other languages in them, not just Spanish,” he says. “There’s a lot of xenophobia, a lot of white privilege ... this desire to always be the center of attention and importance. That manifests linguistically.”
On the other hand, audiences can be receptive to the unknown and seemingly inaccessible. “Certainly this [accessibility] is a question we’re always asking our audiences. Are there places where you missed out?” says Caridad Svich, playwright, translator and founder of NoPassport—which, according to its Web site, is “an artist-driven Pan-American theater coalition/ national theater alliance devoted to action, advocacy and change toward the fostering of cross-cultural diversity and difference in the arts with an emphasis on the embrace of the hemispheric spirit in US Latina/o and Latin-American theater-making.” Svich’s The House of the Spirits, adapted from Isabelle Allende’s novel, currently plays at Repertorio Español in Spanish with live, simultaneous English translation.
But translation may not be necessary. Svich continues, “I find that audiences, if they don’t speak Spanish, find their way. Actors communicate so much with their bodies, with their expressiveness. Stories communicate often without knowing the exact words that are being said.” This speaks to the nature of theater itself—it transcends language through something more universal.
Theater companies all over the world perform in international festivals where it is assumed that audiences will not necessarily understand the precise meaning of every word. Why does this acceptance exist in other countries, but not the United States?
Playwright Elaine Romero, whose work has been produced all over the country, explains, “This gets into the issue of whether or not language is culture. I could not make the claim that it is not. My first loyalty is to meaning and to character and story. I think our culture is inescapable in writing, even when we do not refer to it in the work.”
While not everyone would agree that art and language grow out of culture, Romero’s statement forces us to question what bilingual productions like In the Heights and West Side Story say about American culture. The commercial nature of Broadway may call into question the ability of West Side Story and In the Heights to depict their cultures authentically.
But In the Heights started off-off-off-Broadway—on creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Wesleyan University campus, where ticket sales did not get in the way of his artistic vision. And although West Side Story was always a commercial venture, director and author of the musical’s accompanying book Arthur Laurents feels strongly about capturing the authenticity of the characters this time around. In a recent New York Times article, he tells a touching story about his late, Spanish-speaking partner of 52 years, Tom Hatcher, who felt that “authenticating the language” would contemporize a show that Laurents says has often disingenuously represented its characters.
In the article, Laurents said he was not a fan of the 1980 revival or of what he calls the “terribly acted” movie version‘s “bogus accents, bogus dialect, bogus costumes.” Modernizing the play through language in the most recent revival might just give the characters the authenticity they deserve.
Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for In the Heights and numerous other plays, including Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, also speaks to the important relationship between language and culture. Her insight and authority challenge the notion that Broadway is purely a means of profit.
When asked whose idea it was to incorporate Spanish into her Tony-winning musical, she responds, “It feels less like an idea and more like a simple thing that had to happen, naturally. Lin wanted the show’s music to reflect what it would sound like to walk down a street in Washington Heights on a summer day—all the different music you’d hear—reggaeton, salsa, merengue, hip-hop, pop. Naturally, the language felt the same way—you’d hear different languages, accents, cadences.”
Hudes echoes Caridad Svich’s feelings, believing that the audience will understand a play’s story even if they don’t understand the literal words. “Because my first language is English, and I am much, much shakier with the Spanish, I have a natural tendency to translate things in my head anyway,” she says. “Most of the Spanish lines are ‘translated’ in some way in the following English lines. To me, language is another form of music. So even hearing Spanish words and cadences, it creates a kind of music for the audience. Whether or not you understand every single word, you still hear the rhythm of the language.”
Laurents and Hudes’ awareness of the cultures whose stories they are telling makes their Broadway shows more artistically credible. They intend to represent the culture, not just to make a profit.
Most every playwright interviewed for this article indicated that his or her primary goal was to tell a story—whether that story was about characters, culture, or identity. The language is not the end, but rather the means for communicating the story—in Spanish or English, on Broadway, or in a small non-profit theater.
However, the battle between authenticity and accessibility persists. Despite generally positive reviews, Reynolds says that the creators of West Side Story are currently in the process of taking Spanish out of the show. The Washington, D.C., tryout of the production stuck to Laurents’ vision: when Spanish-speaking characters were in Spanish-speaking households or with other Spanish-speaking characters, they spoke Spanish. “I Feel Pretty” became “Siento Hermosa.” Now with the show in previews—which began February 23—the creative team is in the process of determining which language best communicates the story to Broadway audiences. Laurents says that they also will no longer use a “subtitles” screen inspired by operas. Changes to the piece that make it more accessible are required in a commercial venture. However, this could compromise the artists’ original vision.
It’s a misconception to think that In the Heights is the first show about Latina/o Americans to run successfully on Broadway. This is not the case: John Leguizamo’s 1998 one-man show Freak garnered sold-out audiences. In the Heights and Freak, however, may be anomalies in the world of the big box office. The 1979 Zoot Suit played for less than a month, and even as recently as 2003, Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics only ran for four months on Broadway. The show originally premiered in English in Florida and traveled to various regional companies throughout the country before winning the Pulitzer. The English version then went to Broadway, where it received mediocre reviews and little success. Interestingly, Repertorio Español picked Anna up in 2004 in a Spanish-language production that received rave reviews.
Anna in the Tropics’ journey shines light on both authenticity and accessibility. Perhaps there really is something more authentic about having characters speak their native tongues. Or perhaps Broadway wasn’t ready for a play about Cuban workers in a cigar factory in 1929 Tampa. Yet Leguizamo proved that Broadway is not entirely afraid of Latina/o plays—Cruz’s story may simply have worked better in Spanish for a Spanish-speaking audience.
West Side Story and In the Heights aren’t direct products of immigration, nor do they prove that America has fully accepted Latino culture. Nevertheless, they do indicate progress. By embracing that which is authentic and sometimes inaccessible in language and culture, these shows reflect a changing American population and the power of an art form.