An Easy Introduction to the Heights
Before Lin-Manuel Miranda was the talk of the town for his recent sold out success Hamilton, he was making quite a stir on Broadway in 2007 for his Best Musical Tony Award-winning musical In The Heights. At the time this musical premiered, it was quite a departure from the traditional Broadway style – but it contained one very clever mechanic to acclimatise people quickly.
If you were to stumble across an interview with Broadway writer, composer, lyricist and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda from the last eighteen months, it would only be focussed on his latest show Hamilton which mixes the story of the forgotten founding father with modern hip hop and rap. To say this show which Lin-Manuel wrote, composed and starred in was a success would be an understatement. It is currently sold out until November and almost received a clean sweep at the Tony Awards. But before he tried his hand at the story of the founding fathers, he started with a narrative closer to home.
However, this week I stumbled on a pre-Hamilton interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda in which he revealed a very clever secret to welcome an audience into this unfamiliar musical territory.
In The Heights created a name for Lin-Manuel Miranda as an innovative theatre creator. Noticing a significant lack of diversity on the Great White Way, he wrote his own show based on experiences growing up in the Washington Heights community. Bringing influences from hip hop music, stories from his friends, and a fresh perspective, this innovative musical went on to cause an enormous frenzy with its unconventional score and stories.
While it certainly attracted a new demographic of people into the theatre (especially those who weren’t currently fans of the traditional medium), it also didn’t alienate the traditional audiences by which every musical lives and dies. For a musical based heavily on hip hop and rap, this is quite a remarkable feat . . . So how did he do it?
He kept the audience within their comfort zone at the beginning and gave them time to acclimatise.
The opening number had a special purpose. In addition to setting up the story, introducing the characters and giving the audience an idea of what to expect from the next two hours, it also taught them how to listen and enjoy the new style of music. In a vein that is very similar to the current songs blowing up the popular music charts, the opening number featured rather basic rap verses with easy to understand lyrics that remained accessible to a non-rap audience while shifting them a little bit outside their comfort zone. Then, they gave them a reprieve with a chorus that was very much based in traditional theatre techniques. Stretching the audience enough to prepare them for some of the numbers they would encounter, but also allowing them access to some familiar musical language which they could grasp onto.
Art loves to push boundaries, but remember that you are pushing those boundaries with a paying audience who want to have a great experience (and you want to turn into brand ambassadors). Good things never came from pushing someone in a deep end, but if you gently guide them through to the deeper water then they will learn to swim.