Years before Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda rose to Broadway prominence when he wrote the music and lyrics for and starred in In the Heights, his Tony Award-winning hit about growing up in New York’s predominantly Dominican and Puerto Rican barrio of Washington Heights. The show, which reflects upper Manhattan’s vibrant multicultural community through the stories of rising rents, changing cityscapes, and romance, closed its original Broadway run in 2011. But the production opening Thursday at DC’s GALA Hispanic Theatre will be special as the first US version of the show to be performed entirely in Spanish.
The original show, with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, was in Spanglish: mostly English, with Spanish sprinkled throughout. A production in the Dominican Republic was the first to attempt an all-Spanish version in 2014, when professor and composer Amaury Sánchez translated the musical’s mix of salsa, merengue, and hip-hop. Now, with Miranda becoming a global star through Hamilton and film roles like Moana, GALA is banking that In the Heights will find a new audience.
“I think that here, it’s going to be truly and honestly better than Broadway,” says GALA co-founder Hugo Medrano.
GALA acquired the rights to Sánchez’s adaptation about a year ago, as well as the production rights from Miranda. Medrano and his team understood it would be an ambitious undertaking for the small theatre company to cast In the Heights’ 12 characters and large ensemble with Latino actors skilled at singing, dancing, and acting. Many of the actors in GALA’s show are from New York, as is Puerto Rican director Luis Salgado, and rehearsals are taking place there, too. Yet the producers are very aware of the new “heights” context in DC: Columbia Heights.
“We really wanted to bring this piece to Washington,” Medrano says. “It is very much close to our community and it relates to the story of a dream of many Latinos in this country.” Medrano believes the current political situation makes it ideal to stage In the Heights as a way to demonstrate that a “strong Latino community could face problems and go ahead with life.” Both Medrano and Salgado pay tribute to Miranda’s original while creating a multicultural cast that would more accurately represent the Washington audience that’ll buy tickets. While the original production’s cast was mostly Dominican and Puerto Rican, GALA’s cast includes actors from Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela.
“We keep in mind what kind of neighborhood it is, what kind of barrio it is, which is much more diverse [and] multicultural than in Washington Heights,” Medrano says.
According to Salgado, the biggest challenge has been the Spanish language, which he describes as a kind of “invader in the English version” and a “character itself.” With different Spanish dialects intertwined, he hopes audience members of different Latino ethnicities will sense their efforts and appreciate inside references and various slang.
Salgado says that the linguistic conflict is crucial to have in DC. “If Trump is saying I want to build walls, what is Kevin Rosario”—he says, referencing one of the lead characters—“saying when he says you can’t be with my daughter because you don’t speak the language?”
Salgado has been connected to In the Heights since the beginning, having performed in the original off- and on-Broadway iterations. He’s worked at GALA before, as the choreographer for 2013’s DC-7: The Roberto Clemente Story. “It was a matter of time,” he says of his transition from performer and choreographer to director. “Now is the time for me to tell stories.” Although he was working on another Broadway production—On Your Feet—when he got Medrano’s call, he jumped at the opportunity to direct this adaptation. “I am not throwing away my shot,” he says, echoing one of Hamilton‘s most quoted lyrics, to describe how he felt.
In the Heights runs at GALA Hispanic Theatre from April 20 to May 21, performed in Spanish with English surtitles. Tickets $60; galatheatre.org.