Is the History of New York City Disappearing in Musicals and Plays?


New York City’s diverse cultural influences contribute to its unique identity. From its beginnings as a Dutch colonial town to its present-day dominance by skyscrapers, New York City has long served as a creative muse for artists of all stripes. Despite New York City’s frequent appearances in musicals and plays, there is growing worry that the city’s history needs to be addressed. This is troubling since the city’s rich and varied past gives it energy and vitality. To guarantee that New York City’s heritage will live on for future generations, the city’s history must be preserved. This article will address how New York City’s history is being lost through musicals and plays concerning “Fires in the Mirror (Anna Deavere Smith-1993)” and “In The Heights (Lin Manuel Miranda-2013),” and will also discuss what may be done to guarantee that this does not occur.

Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires In The Mirror (1993) examines the Crown Heights Riots in Brooklyn in August of 1991. The play is structured as a series of monologues delivered by characters representing different groups affected by the incident (IMDb 2). Smith’s piece is a harrowing and depressing look at the violence that erupted between the local Hasidic Jewish and Caribbean American populations. In contrast, Lin Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights is a joyous ode to life in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, which debuted on Broadway in 2008 (D’Alessandro 2). The drama depicts the life of Usnavi and the people surrounding him in modern-day Mumbai. The play’s characters are individuals with their hopes and ambitions, but they all share the same precarious existence in a rapidly changing urban neighborhood. Music and dance from various Latin American traditions are included throughout the production.

Although both plays take place in New York City, the stories they tell could not be more different. In The Heights is a joyful celebration of the lively life and culture of a Latin American-American neighborhood in the city, while Fires. The Mirror is a compelling investigation of the Crown Heights riots. It is evident from these two pieces that the theater has moved on from exploring the city’s historical themes to exploring more contemporary ones. New York has traditionally been a center for the creative industries. The theater has played a significant role in the city’s development, from productions of Oklahoma! by Rodgers and Hammerstein to In The Heights by Lin Manuel Miranda (D’Alessandro 3). Even though the city’s history is no longer the primary focus of musicals and plays, the stage is still used to tell stories set in the present day. Looking at Fires In The Mirror and In The Heights, we can see that New York City’s rich past is represented today in the city’s theater.

Fires In The Mirror is a powerful one-woman show written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith. It recounts the events leading up to and including the riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in 1991. Smith based the show on conversations with Jewish and African-American persons on both sides. Smith emphasizes the many causes of the riots by having characters deliver lengthy speeches. The narrative starts with the tragic death of Gavin Cato, a little boy of just seven years old, who was a passenger in a vehicle driven by members of a Jewish religious community (IMDb 3). This tragedy sets a chain of events that culminates in the Crown Heights riots due to racial tensions. Smith gives a realistic account of the experiences of all sides of the battle, highlighting the difficulties endured by all parties.

The drama also delves into New York’s turbulent past and the resulting conflicts. Smith vividly depicts the lives of the inhabitants of Crown Heights and investigates the causes of the turmoil and violence that broke out there. Smith vividly depicts the intense feelings on both sides of the struggle. There are many profound ideas in the play that are still relevant today. Smith teaches us that embracing diversity and building bridges across our differences is key to achieving social harmony. Fires In The Mirror delves deeply into the history of New York City and the complicated feelings of people who participated in the Crown Heights riots. Smith uses this program to highlight the difficulties experienced by both groups and the need for mutual understanding to achieve societal harmony.

Washington Heights is a largely Latino neighborhood in Manhattan, and its culture and diversity are celebrated in In The Heights. The musical depicts the challenges of the people living in Washington Heights against the background of a rapidly developing metropolis. Usnavi, a Dominican-American bodega owner born and raised in Washington Heights, is the musical’s protagonist. Usnavi’s supporting cast has interesting people with interesting backstories (D’Alessandro 4). There is Vanessa, who works at a beauty shop and hopes for a better life; Benny, who works for Usnavi and is one of her closest friends but is also trying to make ends meet; and Nina, who is the daughter of immigrants and the first person in her family to go to college.

The neighborhood’s original residents were displaced in the 1950s due to urban redevelopment, which is depicted in the musical. The spectator learns firsthand from the characters’ experiences how this upheaval continues to have contemporary repercussions. Despite their hardships, the characters in the musical are united by their love for one another, their families, and their communities. Washington Heights residents together to honor their heritage and strengthen the community via the ensemble numbers. A wide range of musical genres reflects the city’s eclectic vibe.

Recent plays and musicals have mirrored New York City’s evolving culture by shifting its focus from historical to contemporary themes. The city’s painters reflect the changing landscape in their work. Plays like Fires in the Mirror were written in the late 20th century to address the growing racial and ethnic conflicts in New York City. Anna Deavere Smith’s piece utilizes interviews with individuals to examine race and personal identification issues. The performance demonstrated the dangers of failing to recognize and address fundamental differences among people and organizations to avoid conflict. In comparison, the modern-day Washington Heights of The Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The play alludes to the difficulties of cultural differences, but it is more about the good times you may have with your neighbors. The Heights is a tribute to its residents’ fascinating history and customs.

The Heights defies many assumptions made after seeing Fire In The Mirror due to its emphasis on city living today. While Fires In The Mirror was a sobering look at the tensions between different groups, The Heights is a celebration of the diverse culture and community of Washington Heights. The changing topography of New York City is reflected in the tales about it, which has led to a change in emphasis away from the city’s historical characteristics and toward more contemporary themes. New York-based plays and musicals of late share this emphasis on the present. Among them is Rent, a musical about the bohemian way of life in New York and the characters’ struggles to make ends meet. Another famous musical is Hamilton, a hip-hop retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton that deals with modern-day themes of aspiration and legacy. Recent plays and musicals in New York City reflect the city’s evolving landscape, so they have moved away from historical themes and toward more contemporary ones. The city’s artists tell tales that reflect the city’s changing landscape. These stage productions celebrate the city’s wide cultural variety while providing a glimpse into a more optimistic future.

Modern musical experiences may be found in Hamilton, Beetlejuice, and The Band’s Visit, all of which explore ideas of identity, belonging, legacy, and aspiration rather than focusing on history. With an emphasis on Hamilton’s legacy and aspirations rather than the Revolution itself, the musical Hamilton tells the tale of Alexander Hamilton’s life from a modern point of view. The narrative of Alexander Hamilton is told via rap and other forms of contemporary music (Ferguson 12). Lyrically, the musical is just as compelling, delving into Hamilton’s inner turmoil and the dynamics of his interactions with others. The musical’s success lies in its ability to connect its audiencected to the characters and their challenges via its emphasis on legacy and aspiration rather than history.

Beetlejuice is a musical about a young man who has just passed away and is adjusting to life in the afterlife. The musical emphasizes identity and belonging more than the afterlife’s history. Beetlejuice can portray its topics in a fresh and contemporary fashion because of the wide range of musical genres it employs, including punk and rock. The musical’s funny lyrics also effectively tell Beetlejuice’s narrative (Higgins 4). Beetlejuice creates an atmosphere of personal investment in its characters by concentrating on universal issues of recognition and acceptance. A musical about an Egyptian police band that gets lost in a little Israeli village is called The Band’s Visit. The musical concentrates on universal themes of identity and belonging rather than regional history. The musical’s usage of Middle Eastern music gives it a fresh perspective that helps convey its ideas (Ferguson 14). Lyrically, the musical delves into the characters’ trials of adjusting to their new environments. These contemporary topics allow the musicals to connect with their viewers on an emotional level. These musicals are representative of the current tendency in theater toward contemporary topics rather than historical ones.

Musicals and plays reflect the dynamic world we live in by moving away from classical historical themes and contemporary ones. In an age of increasing complexity, topics like identity, belonging, and understanding are more important than ever. The conventional historical themes of many musicals and plays were built upon stories of kings and queens, heroes and villains, timeless tales that were recognizable to generations of people. However, as the world has become more interconnected through technology and globalization, the stories being told onstage today must consider the realities of our globalized world. Musicals and plays may be both enjoyable and informative by exploring the complexity of identity and belonging through the lens of contemporary concerns.

Gendered, racial, cultural, and sexual issues may be addressed in today’s musicals and plays. The tales shed light on our unique personalities and our relationships with one another and the world around us. Musicals and plays that deal with contemporary topics provide audiences a chance to reflect on their own lives and those of others and create an atmosphere conducive to mutual understanding (Higgins 5). In addition to questioning accepted narratives, contemporary musicals, and plays may probe the limits of societal acceptability. Musicals and plays are useful because they bring attention to and spark discussion of important societal problems via entertainment and deep reflection. These tales have the potential to test our beliefs and introduce us to new ways of looking at the world through the use of comedy, drama, and music.

The changing times are reflected in the trend away from classical historical themes in musicals and play in favor of more contemporary ones. The stage productions we put on should reflect the complexities of modern life, which have increased due to technological advancements and globalization. Musicals and plays that deal with contemporary topics may be fascinating and educational because they provide audiences a chance to think deeply about questions of identity and community while also providing enjoyable entertainment.

In conclusion, New York City’s past has played a significant role on Broadway. However, the city’s history has taken a back seat to more modern topics in musicals and plays in recent years. Hamilton, Beetlejuice, In the Heights, and The Band’s Visit are just a few musicals and plays that represent the times and address of identity, belonging, and acceptance insurance. Broadway has gotten more progressive and accommodating throughout the years, and this trend toward the present reflects that. The Broadway theater is a powerful medium for telling tales that delve deep into the human condition. The ability of the Broadway theater to produce tales that are interesting and relevant to current audiences is shown by this trend away from historical topics.

Works Cited

D’Alessandro, A. Lin-Manuel Miranda & Jon M. Chu Find Their Nina & Vanessa For ‘In The Heights’ Movie. Deadline, (2019). https://deadline.com/2019/04/in-the-heights-casting-leslie-grace-melissa-barrera-lin-manuel-miranda-1202593869/

Ferguson, Kevin L. Pop Goes the Decade: The Nineties. ABC-CLIO, 2019.

Higgins, Stephanie. From Classical Music to Contemporary Music Theatre: A Pedagogical Compendium for the Crossover Teacher. Diss. University of Toronto (Canada), 2022.

IMDb. Fires in the Mirror. IMDb, 2002. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106916/

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