In the Heights

In-the-HeightsOriginal Broadway Cast, 2008 (Ghostlight, 2CDs) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Winner of 2008 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Orchestrations, In the Heights was the first Broadway musical hit to use rap as an essential storytelling component in a score that blends Latin musical styles with hip-hop sensibilities. Set in the Latin-American community of Manhattan’s Washington Heights, the show nestles sentimental stories of first- and second-generation immigrants pursuing their various American dreams and romances amid larger themes concerning notions of home and gentrification. The Grammy Award winning cast album, a two-disc set, preserves the entirety of a dynamic score with both music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also conceived the show and played the leading role of bodega-owner Usnavi. Fueled by high-octane horns and propulsive percussion, the passion-filled orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman support Miranda’s dramatic rapping and the superb singing of the other leads. If you don’t like salsa, merengue, Latin jazz, and hip-hop, you’re out of luck here; but even if the score overall is somewhat lacking in variety, the lengthy individual numbers are built of different-sounding sections. They mix diverse styles, tempi, rhythms, instruments, dynamic levels, and vocal qualities (both spoken and sung), constituting variegated musical journeys unto themselves. Most of the songs also integrate lots of funny, interestingly detailed, and/or emotionally touching dialogue, lending a potent theatricality to what is essentially a pop-music score. Album highlights include “When You’re Home,” a snappy duet performed by Mandy Gonzalez and Christopher Jackson as the show’s young lovers, Nina and Benny; the tear-jerkers “Everything I Know” and “Inutil,” gorgeously sung by Gonzalez and Carlos Gomez, respectively; “Benny’s Dispatch,” a rhythmic treat; and the exciting ensemble number “Carnaval del Barrio.” — Lisa Jo Sagolla

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 2021 (Atlantic) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Retaining the Broadway show’s heart-warming plot lines, likable characters, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s infectious rap and Latin-pop score, the movie adaptation of In the Heights shifts the focus of the musical’s exploration of “home” from the inter-personal dynamics of a family unit to the larger sense of community shared within their urban neighborhood. The film excises six of the show’s bittersweet, family-related and character-developing solos and duets, and evolves most of the remaining songs into huge production numbers that fill the screen with hordes of dancing bodies. The resulting soundtrack album is, thus, an invigorating collection of mostly upbeat, similarly structured tracks of pop music that may launch quietly but build into full-blown ensemble excitement. Produced by Miranda, Alex Lacamoire, Bill Sherman, and Greg Wells, these percussion-heavy tracks often strike an imperfect balance, volume-wise, between vocals and instrumentals. Unlike the original cast album, with its bright Broadway voices bursting out amid lots of brassy punctuation, here we have thinner pop-style singing competing with louder, fuller orchestrations. One often wishes the words were easier to discern, as the soundtrack CD’s accompanying booklet provides no lyrics. Though shorter than the Broadway recording by about 30 minutes, the soundtrack album contains one newly-written song by Miranda, “Home All Summer.” Featuring the singing of Latin-music superstar Marc Anthony, it exudes a Latin dance-club sensibility as it plays over the film’s closing credits. The soundtrack outshines the Broadway album on two tracks: “The Club,” with electrifying instrumental dance breaks arranged by Oscar Hernández; and “When the Sun Goes Down,” its shimmering orchestrations enriching the ballad’s romantic qualities. Otherwise, one’s choice of the more satisfying album may depend largely on whether one prefers Miranda’s bitingly rhythmic, musically exhilarating rapping or the less-stylized, emotion-laden delivery of Anthony Ramos, who in the film portrays the leading role of Usnavi, created onstage by Miranda. In the climactic “Finale” on the Broadway recording Miranda’s rapping thrills with sharp, spine-tingling musicality, while on the soundtrack, Ramos’s more actorly approach makes one genuinely feel the musical’s celebratory message. — Lisa Jo Sagolla