Dissecting In the Heights’ Flow

18 03 2010

Apologies for the lack of posts recently!  It is finals week at UCLA, and I am hard at work finishing two seminar papers and grading 130 undergrad papers.  You can expect reviews of the Morgan-Wixson’s production of Urinetown and Havok Theatre’s Story of My Life soon!

In the meantime, I thought I would share a little segment of my scholarly work.  One of my papers this quarter is on representations of Latinidad in the Broadway musical, with a particular focus on In the Heights – one of my personal favorites.  A section of my paper is about the recent controversial casting of Corbin Bleu in the lead role of Usnavi.  Broadwayworld.com message boards were swarmed with comments on Bleu’s inappropriate ethnicity when the casting announcement was first made.  In my paper, I point out how racial identity is not stable or fixed, but performative, by analyzing my favorite section of Usnavi’s rap in the musical. Enjoy!

Lin-Manuel Miranda took the time to rap a reply to rwu2010’s concerns on broadwayworld.com message boards, noting the complex hybridity and performativity of race – which he initiated by writing his character Usnavi as Dominican, although Miranda is himself Puerto Rican.

Now THIS is sensitive, and I’m hesitant to begin again

But I’m a Puerto Rican-Mexican; I PLAYED Dominican.

And everyone’s from everywhere, we are reppin’ so many things

Andrea [Burns]’s Venezuelan and Jewish, Karen [Olivo]’s like twenty things

So yes, I see your point, but ethnicity’s just a factor

They’ve gotta play the part: in the end, dude is an ACTOR.


For Miranda, the most important quality for the character of Usnavi is not “authentic” Latinidad, but performative “flow,” which Adam Krims defines as “the MC’s rhythmic delivery” in Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity (Krims 14).  According to Krims, flow generally falls into one of three styles: sung, percussion-effusive, and speech-effusive.  Lin Manuel Miranda hybridizes the percussive and speech-like effusive styles characteristic of the post-1980s “new school” of rap, often marked by “a tendency to spill over the rhythmic boundaries of the meter [and] the couplet, staggering the syntax and/or the rhymes, [and] creating polyrhythms with four-measure groupings of 4/4 time” (Krims 50).

How does Usnavi perform this “flow”?  In the midst of Vanessa’s dreams to move downtown in “It Won’t Be Long Now,” Usnavi’s younger cousin Sonny pops the question: if Vanessa will go on a date with his cousin, who dances “like a drunk Chita Rivera.”  Vanessa agrees to go out with Usnavi later that night, and Usnavi’s excitement propels him into a memorable section of rhythmic flow:

As detailed in the above diagram, Usnavi’s rap shows a vibrant rhythmic fluidity. Shocked at Vanessa’s response, Usnavi’s sharply-articulated, syncopated “Oh snap!  Who’s that?” surges into a quickened “Don’t touch me I’m too hot!”  After another taken-aback, offbeat exclamation of “Yes!”, Usnavi releases another form of flow: fluidity between Spanish and English.  In accordance with a hybrid identity, “Que pasó?” (What happened?) and “Here I go” parallel in rhythm and rhyme; the final vowel of each word is both accented and elongated, forming a rhythmic contrast to the earlier choppy pulsations and creating a driving bridge from line to line – and from language to language.

The word “flow” points not only to a rhythmic quality of the vocals, however, but to a characteristic of Usnavi’s accompanying embodied performance – as well as a fluidity or performativity of identity.  In Black Noise, Tricia Rose reclaims hip hop as more than a mass commercialized product; this cultural form continually negotiates “marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within the cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean history, identity, and community,” she argues (Rose 21).  While Krims focuses on close musical analysis, Rose draws vital connections among breaking, graffiti style, rapping, and musical construction, using the connective tissue of “flow, layering, and rupture in lines” to understand hip hop’s performative engagement with postmodern – and particularly racialized – identities (Rose 38).

In this rhythmic flow of “It Won’t Be Long Now,” Lin Manuel Miranda’s body plays off the rhythms of the words.  While the stilled Usnavi tries to mentally process what just happened, Sonny bounces in excitement on the first line, then bounds forward to embrace his cousin.  His chest crashes into Usnavi on “Don’t touch me, I’m too hot!”  Movement flows from Sonny to Usnavi, who reels sideways from the push – hopping aside on his left leg until he regains balance on “Yes!”  Shoulders hunched forward, Usnavi’s body pulses on the downbeats of “Que pasó?” and he elevates his left leg on “Here I go,” which propels a turn to address his cousin on the next line: “So dope! Y tu lo sabes!”  (And you know it!)  Small hand punctuations of each beat turn into exaggerated pointing in Sonny’s face on the accented “tu” and “sa” (of sabes).  This braggadocio is playful, though; Usnavi would have never secured a date without Sonny’s brashness, and Usnavi affectionately wraps his right arm around his cousin’s back at the same time.  Despite the emphasis on pulse and accent in this short sequence, Usnavi also maintains a notable fluidity of motion.  In pop and lock, for instance, Rose illustrates how the body’s joints snap into angular positions – “and, yet, these snapping movements take place one joint after the previous one – creating a semiliquid [or wavelike] effect” (Rose 38).  The continual flow between Usnavi’s accented movements, as well as the flow and interplay between Sonny’s and Usnavi’s bodies, characterizes this section of rap as much as the vocal flow.

With a slightly lower timbre, Corbin Bleu maintains the musical flow of Usnavi’s rap: the continual rhythmic push and pull of the lyrics, as well as the fluid movement between Spanish and English. “We’d NEVER cast someone unless they proved that they could spit it,” Lin Manuel Miranda assured rwu2010 on the message boards (broadwayworld.com). Although slightly more choreographed, the flow of Blue’s body maintains a similarly playful fluidity with and against the vocals.  Rather than hopping aside to regain his balance, Bleu’s Usnavi scuffles backwards with his arms extended forward to avert Sonny’s embrace on “Don’t touch me,” then he collects himself by moving to a stalwart, standing position on “I’m too hot!”  The following exclamation of “Yes!” propels him into a (rather obviously choreographed) sauté.  His right leg in passé flows from the jump to into second position; Usnavi then swings his hips as if he’s already hitting the clubs with Vanessa.  A goofy, endearing grin spreads across his face as he turns to tap Sonny’s chest in appreciation of snagging him this date.  Usnavi is ultimately characterized less by his racial make-up (skin tone), and more by this vocal and embodied “flow.”




One response

16 12 2010
A Year in Theater: 2010 « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] the Heights (Richard Rodgers Theatre and Pantages) – Essay Fragment Classic, “integrated” musical form with a fresh dance and music style. This show gives me such […]

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