Although Monticello High School’s production of “In the Heights” hasn’t opened yet, Italyia Lee can’t help thinking about Sunday, when the cast will take its final bow.
“It will be hard to adjust to going home, instead of going to rehearsal with my friends,” said Lee, a junior at MHS. “It’s always sad to look at the set, when it’s all over... your heart just breaks.”
Students in the cast have enjoyed being part of a musical that has changed the way they think about their own lives, and the communities they belong to.
“In the Heights” is the first Broadway musical by “Hamilton” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda. It takes place in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, which is home to a large population of Dominican immigrants. Its score features many brassy, up-tempo salsa numbers with rapped dialogue.
“This musical is a window into another culture that many people don’t know about,” said sophomore Abi Lainez. “Some of the songs frame a moment in one character’s life. But they are all connected to each other.”
Over the course of three days, the musical’s young protagonists often find themselves at odds with previous generations in Washington Heights. All of the characters are forced to reckon with the looming gentrification of the neighborhood.
MHS senior Courtney Grooms said “In the Heights,” unlike many high school musicals, is inspired by the struggles, dreams, and daily lives of everyday people in a real place.
“Plays like this make you understand more about the real world, and build you as a person,” she said.
MHS also performed “In the Heights” in 2013. “It was the show that put Monticello Drama on the map,” Grooms said. “It made Monticello different.”
“I want to do this show every four years, so every Latino student at this school has the chance to see it and act in it,” said MHS theater director Madeline Michel.
Lainez acted in the 2013 show in middle school. She said she at first felt apprehensive about bringing the musical back to MHS so soon.
“We didn’t want to be compared to the last show, and we didn’t want the last show to be compared to ours,” she said. “We were afraid it was going to be a competition.”
However, Grooms said that this year’s cast quickly became excited about putting their own stamp on “In the Heights.”
“We are a totally different place now, as a department,” she said. “We are more diverse. It helps a lot with our energy... We have cast members who can relate to the experiences of the characters.”
MHS also has become more racially diverse overall since the last production. About 13 percent of students identify as Hispanic this year, up from 8.6 percent in 2013.
Emma English, stage manager for the musical, said that she has made friends with fellow cast members who are learning English as a second language.
“Those people haven't been accessible to me before... I haven't been able to have conversations with them and learn from their experiences,” English said. “For me, drama is changing how the school community works... there are friendships and relationships that wouldn’t have been built, if we weren’t here.”
Neishlianne Isaac said dancing in the show helped her transition to her new life in Albemarle County after moving from Puerto Rico last year.
“I didn’t know English, and I didn’t understand anything,” Isaac said. “But going to rehearsals has made me feel more comfortable here, and I have made friends.”
Some characters in the musical are especially relatable for MHS students who are immigrants, or those who hope to be the first in their family to attend college.
One character, Nina Rosario, returns to Washington Heights after dropping out of Stanford University, and feels shame for letting down her family and her community.
“When Nina went to college, she thought: ‘I have to do everything on my own, I can’t depend on my parents anymore,’” said Lee. “She worked two jobs to pay for books that she didn’t have time to read, because she worked so much.”
Grooms, who will be a first-generation college student this fall, said she felt empathy for Nina and her father, Kevin.
“[Kevin] has worked his whole life to make sure his kid can go to college and go farther than he did, and still falls short,” Grooms said.
“My parents did more than their parents did by graduating from high school. Now, I have to do more than my parents did by graduating from college. There is a lot of pressure there.”
“It’s harder when your parents didn’t go to college,” said Lee. “They don’t know a lot about what you need... They just know that you need to go there, and you need to graduate, and you need to get a good job right after. It puts a lot of pressure on you.”
Grooms said she was inspired by the story of Usnavi De La Vega, a young man who dreams of moving to the Dominican Republic and reconnecting with his relatives there.
“The older you get, the more you think: am I going to do the things that I want to do with my life?” She said. “Am I going to dream big, or am I going to ‘dream safe’?”
“In the Heights” runs from May 11-14 at Monticello High School. Advance tickets are available for purchase online.
Proceeds from Saturday’s matinee performance will be donated to Creciendo Juntos and Sin Barreras, two nonprofits that serve Latino immigrants in the Charlottesville area.
“We’re thrilled and honored that Madeline and her students are doing this on our behalf,” said Daniel Katz, chair of Creciendo Juntos.
“The show has a diverse cast with a spirit of togetherness and camaraderie. I’m excited to be there, and to engage with young people who are beginning to have more of a sense of responsibility for affecting change in their community.”