Amidst its recent offerings of recorded-live stage revivals of “She Loves Me,” “Present Laughter” and, coming at 9 p.m. Aug. 21, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” PBS’s “Great Performances” has scheduled a documentary about the making of a modern musical. “In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams” will air at 9 p.m. Aug. 7.
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ musical “In the Heights” explores – no, celebrates – three days in the lives of the residents of the Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. It is innovatively infused with upbeat hip-hop, salsa, merengue and soul music and told from the perspective of a young, everyman bodega owner named Usnavi.
Much of the documentary takes place on Sunday, March 9, 2008, which was the opening night of the show at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, before the buzz, before the four Tony Awards – including one for best musical – and before Miranda came up with the idea of another musical based on the nation’s first secretary of the treasury. “In the Heights” ran on Broadway for 1,184 performances, played in London’s West End for two years and was turned into a film whose release has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams” takes viewers backstage and into the tiny, cluttered apartments across the various boroughs of New York City, where the show’s young actors prepare to head into Manhattan to perform. The documentary was created by the team behind the play, so the editing reflects a similar quick tempo and the same salsa rhythms of the musical itself. And because the actors are comfortable with the filmmakers, their personal disclosures offer remarkable insight into the life of a Broadway performer – the intense pressure, the deflating injuries, the hard work – and what it took to get there.
We watch an emotional Seth Steward as he watches a seven-story Times Square billboard being construct-ed with an image of his character, Graffiti Pete. We meet Karen Olivo, who plays Usnavi’s love interest Vanessa and describes her dedication to performing as a serious “addiction.” Christopher Jackson, who plays Usnavi’s friend, Benny, does not yet know the success of that endeavor or that he will go on to play George Washington in Miranda’s mega-hit “Hamilton” when he wonders “How am I going to be an actor and provide for a child with special needs?”
The documentary’s sense of foreshadowing is never more poignant than when we are first introduced to Miranda, a first-generation Puerto Rican New Yorker who created the concept, wrote the music and lyrics, and starred in the show. Here he is still the starry-eyed dreamer who can’t believe his good fortune. He is not yet the fellow who is an Oscar away from the coveted EGOT – an acronym for having won the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards – and who sold the film rights to “In the Heights” to Warner Bros. Pictures for $50 million and the film version of “Hamilton” to Disney for $75 million.
“In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams” is required viewing for young actors in need of a 56-minute primer on what it takes to be a top-tier professional theater performer. It should be watched by their parents as well so they can get a sense of just what their kids are getting into. For the rest of us who, like Olivo, are addicted to live theater, this documentary’s extended performance sequences offer a small dose of the thing we miss most, which is both exhilarating and excruciating.