This show is a more conventional show than the experimental Passing Strange, which it beat out for the “Best Musical” Tony that year, but I think it earned its victory fairly. The principle force behind the show was an up-and-coming talent called Lin-Manuel Miranda, who both wrote the score and played the show’s narrator figure.
The book, which tells several story threads about a mostly Latino New York neighborhood, is paper-thin and of little consequence, but what carries the show above all else is the music. Miranda makes use of a Latin idiom, displaying the style better than anyone on Broadway since Paul Simon’s The Capeman. He is also one of the first theater composers to incorporate rap into his score without embarrassing himself.
His lyrics are generally excellent and do a beautiful job of developing the characters, giving them real depth and humanity in spite of the featherweight book; much of the material is in Spanish, which shows a visible influence from Light in the Piazza’s Italian portions.
There are several immensely moving ballads, particularly for the character of Nina, a searching-for-herself college dropout memorably played by Mandy Gonzales. Usnavi’s love interest Vanessa gets the lilting ballad “It Won’t Be Long Now”, while his surrogate grandmother has the truly epic “Pacienca y Fe”. Nina’s parents each get a key number, her father’s searing “Inutil” and her mother’s defiantly reproachful “Enough!”.
The rap numbers generally go to Miranda’s character Usnavi, fitting in with his role as the quasi-narrator of all these stories. Usnavi never sings on his own; he only raps, and in his more emotional moments his rapping slows down into a kind of soft chant, as in the elegaic “Alabanza” or the inspiring final monologue.
There are also several impressive ensembles, especially the opening, the first act finale “The Club/Blackout”, and the street festival anthem “Carnival del Barrio”. In short, the score is nearly all glorious, and it sounds even better live, especially when combined with the show’s superbly sizzling choreography.
The thinness of the book is ultimately beside the point; this is a local color show, and its various streams of narrative don’t matter as much as capturing how it feels to live in this neighborhood. It isn’t substantial enough to be a masterpiece on the level of Spring Awakening the year before or Next To Normal the year after, but it doesn’t have to be…it’s just a joyous, unpretentious evening of great music and great theater, and that’s enough to make it well worth your while.