Everything wonderful about the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical In the Heights is captured in the new PBS documentary “In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams.” (The show airs at 8 p.m., Wednesday, May 27 on KQED Channel 9)
The program, part of the “Great Performances” showcase, is only an hour, but in exploring why the musical is so special, it manages to capture the fire, passion and youthful spirit of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s still-running hit.
Credit director Paul Bozymowski and his crew for having the foresight to see that In the Heights, about an immigrant neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, had the potential to be a game-changing musical. As the show transitioned from being the toast of off-Broadway to its opening on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Bozymowski and his camera crew were there, following cast members and building tension and a host of expectations as opening night loomed.
Because the program begins with that exuberant night at last year’s Tony Awards, when, after winning four trophies, the cast hoisted Miranda (the show’s composer, lyricist and star), onto their shoulders, it’s a given that everything works out in the end. But exposing the emotion, the stakes, the work that goes into that happy ending is what this rewarding documentary is all about.
In deep close-up, Bozymowski interviews Miranda, director Thomas Kail and other members of the cast and crew – and it’s a testament to these artists that even with a camera all up in their faces, they can be candid and warm and insightful (especially Miranda, whose giant brown eyes were made for such cinematic close-ups).
Then the cameras follows certain cast members into their lives outside the theater. We meet Christopher Jackson (he plays Benny in the show) and his wife and autistic son, CJ. We’re there with dancer Seth Stewart (Graffiti Pete) when, after downing the joint-bolstering dose of glucosamine for the day, he sees a seven-story-tall poster of the show – and of him – being unfurled in Times Square. Other cast members we spend time with include Mandy Gonzalez (Nina), achieving her Broadway dreams and bonding with her character, and Priscilla Lopez (Camila), a Tony-winning Broadway veteran getting her portrait unveiled at Sardis.
The very American experience of In the Heights, which is to say its exploration of “home” and how where we come from helps make us who we are, comes through powerfully in both the interview segments and the lengthy clips from the show itself.
Miranda is the hero, of course, running around like an excited kid on Christmas morning as he shows everyone in the theater a Time magazine article about the show. We get glimpses into his past (“I wanted to be Chuck Jones and Steven Spielberg when I grew up.”) and into his sense of humor. Surrounding all the fuss of opening night, he quips: “It’s like prom night with career ramifications.”
He also makes me wish I could work on a show with him. Sure, he’s talented and charismatic and all that but here’s the real reason: his gift for fellow cast mates on opening night was homemade CD mixes.
“In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams” is at 8 p.m., Wednesday, May 27 on KQED Channel 9 and again at 2 a.m., Thursday, May 28. On digital cable’s KQED Life, the show is at 7 p.m. May 28, 1 a.m. May 29 and 5 p.m. May 31.
Next month offers another “Great Performances” Broadway treat: Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal and Josh Groban star in a concert version of the musical Chess, with a score by Benny Anderson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice. “Chess in Concert” is at 8 p.m. June 18, 2 a.m. June 19 on KQED Channel 9 (repeates on KQED Life at 7 p.m. June 22 and 1 a.m. June 23). Visit http://www.kqed.org/ for information.
And stay tuned. In the Heights is hitting the road and may be coming to San Francisco. You’ll find out here when it’s official.