In 1999, the first iteration of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ’02 “In The Heights” premiered in Wesleyan’s ’92 Theater. The show follows a community in Washington Heights—a predominantly Dominican and Latino neighborhood in the Northern tip of Manhattan—as each individual character explores what home and identity mean to them. Eighteen years after the musical’s conception, Miranda is, perhaps, best known for his most recent creation, “Hamilton,” and his work on Disney’s “Moana.” With an Emmy, two Grammys, multiple Tony awards, and a Pulitzer prize all included in his long list of achievements, Miranda is currently one of the university’s most famous alumni. In 2014, the university’s music and theater departments worked together on a production of the Tony-award winning musical. This weekend, “In The Heights,” the musical that brought Miranda acclaim on Broadway, will return to its hometown—though not to the Wesleyan campus.
This production of “In The Heights” is being produced by Middletown High School’s drama club under the direction of Chris Briggs, who teaches both theater and English during the school day. Mr. Briggs is more commonly known simply as Briggs by both his students and his wife, Kendra Dickinson, who choreographed the show. After staging productions like “Rent” and “Guys and Dolls,” Briggs chose to direct “In The Heights” this year for one primary reason.
“My goal was to increase the diversity of the program because we’ve been very white up until now,” said Briggs. He went on to explain that this homogeneity was not reflective of large school community and hopes that “In The Heights” will encourage more students of color to participate in theater.
Briggs did indeed get his wish for a diverse cast: Seven of the twelve principal roles are played by students of color.
“Others shows have a predominately white casts,” affirmed first-year Jaylen Fitzpatrick (Sonny). “And doing a show that has a more diverse cast opens up what our group can do.”
What’s more, many of these leads are also first-time theater participants. Senior Jordan Perry’s (Usnavi) involvement in the musical came about in an almost fateful fashion after he transferred to Middletown High School last year. His passion has always been rapping and entertaining.
“I always knew I wanted to get involved in the arts,” said Perry. Not knowing how to get involved, Perry pondered to an entire classroom: “What does a guy around here gotta do to get in the drama club?” Luckily, Mr. Briggs was in the classroom, and Perry will be making his theater debut this weekend.
Many of the other leads shared similar stories. This is also junior Edison Byrd’s (Kevin Rosario) first show.
“I was under a lot of peer pressure to audition because of my singing,” said Byrd. “I sing randomly all the time and people started hearing it.”
Another recent transfer to Middletown, sophomore Sade Bostick (Abuela Claudia), had been looking for a way to step out of her comfort zone. Originally from Spanish Harlem, Bostick entered the play at the encouragement of her teachers.
“Coming here, being nervous and being scared and just being welcomed… it’s hard to find a group of friends,” said Bostick. “But doing this musical… such a great sense of home, I’m getting from this.”
For other students who have performed in the past, “In The Heights” provides an experience that’s different from the theater they have done in the past. This is junior Elsa Torres’ (Nina Rosario) first big role, and even the stage manager, junior Gianna Muzzio, described “In The Heights” as a new experience.
The cast recently performed the song “96,000” at a school pep rally—receiving raving reviews.
“We’re not just nerdy theater kids,” said Muzzio.
Both students and faculty team members were quick to point out the diversity of the cast, as well as the accepting nature of both the drama club and school. Kendra Dickinson shared a story about a visually impaired student who was still able to participate in the production. Dickinson and her cast and crew found creative ways to teach the student choreography and ways to enter and exit the stage.
The production reveals the deep care for the arts in the high school and in Middletown. Much of the theater club’s funding comes from its ticket sales and advertisements in their programs, which has helped fund the school’s performing arts center where the show will take place.
With regard to the connection between Middletown and “In The Heights,” Briggs affirmed that this link did indeed affect his decision, and that when he saw the University’s 2014 production he was reminded of how great the show is. It would seem that, in fact, Middletown High School maintains a relatively positive relationship with the University: Many students recalled happy memories with the school and its students.
“I’ve had some fun times with the Wesleyan community,” Perry said, who lives on the border of the Wesleyan campus and participated in Green Street Arts as a child.
Junior Veronica Meyer (Camila Rosario) talked about a health class taught by Wesleyan students that she had attended on a field trip and a music thesis she had performed in.
Others had similarly positive statements about the students, but all expressed an interest in having a better connection between their high school and the University. Overall, the consensus was that the students often found themselves attending Wesleyan events, but never feeling any reciprocal interest. The high schoolers are positive that this relationship can change, possibly with University students attending their production.
“In The Heights” will run March 2-4 in the Middletown High School Performing Arts Center. Performances are 7:30 p.m. each day, with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on Saturday. Tickets are $15 and will be sold an hour before curtain.