A report by Tatiana Tenreyro for Bustle.
For many Puerto Ricans, seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton become the biggest musical of the 21st century instilled an immense sense of pride, since Miranda is of Puerto Rican descent and has often been outspoken about the island’s influence on his work. And for me, that feeling was magnified when I saw Miranda reprise his role as Alexander Hamilton in a performance in the island. The musician finished his Hamilton stint in Puerto Rico on Sunday, Jan. 27 after a three-week run meant to raise money for hurricane relief efforts. I was fortunate enough to travel back to my hometown for the Jan. 20 function, where, according to ushers at the Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré, people had been camping out to try their luck at buying tickets as early as 1 a.m. Some were even dressed up as characters from the musical.
When Miranda first appeared onstage, the audience gave him a standing ovation that lasted over a minute, pausing the production. For Puertan Ricans like myself in the audience, it was an incredible feeling to see him and think, “He’s one of us.” Although Puerto Ricans have long been part of Broadway’s history — Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno are theater icons — rarely have we been properly represented (hello, West Side Story). Yet With Miranda having become Broadway’s biggest star and gained an A-list status that goes beyond the theater world, Puerto Ricans are finally getting the long overdue representation we’ve been striving for.
But as someone who grew up in the island, I had mixed feelings going to see Hamilton. Despite growing up primarily in New York, Miranda has become a sort of spokesman for Puerto Rico, and many people don’t feel comfortable with someone who hadn’t spent years in the island taking on that role. There has also been some controversy surrounding Miranda’s support of The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), a federal law that is meant to combat the Puerto Rican government-debt crisis. As Remezcla writer Jhoni Jackson explained, it “brought with it a fiscal oversight board comprised of seven US-appointed (therefore not elected by Puerto Ricans) members that, since its implementation, has issued budget-reducing austerity measures — figures heavily in the opposition’s complaints.”
PROMESA has had some negative impacts on the island, with over a hundred public schools being closed, and the Universidad de Puerto Rico — where the island production of Hamilton was originally set to take place — suffering budget cuts. Even when the location was moved, theater tickets ranged from $99 to $338.40, per AFAR, not exactly accessible to the general public. Though there was a ticket lottery, chances to win were slim.
But despite the uneasiness I felt over all this, I couldn’t help but think about how important it was for islanders to see a Puerto Rican thrive in theater and give us the experience of witnessing his success. We are so scarcely represent on Broadway, that regardless of whether Miranda is the perfect person to be the spokesman for our culture, it still matters tremendously.
Before Miranda’s first hit musical, In the Heights, about a largely Latinx-American community in Washington Heights, opened on Broadway in 2008, the most notable musical about Puerto Ricans was West Side Story. But one main issue that manyislanders have with West Side Story is that it doesn’t let us tell our story. The musical was written by three white men: Arthur Laurents (script), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Leonard Bernstein (music). What makes it even worse is that both the original Broadway musical and the film gave few opportunities to Puerto Rican actors, either, per Howlround.
The first María was played by Carol Lawrence, an Italian-American actor; in fact, the only Puerto Rican cast in a main role was Broadway legend Chita Rivera, who played Anita. It wasn’t until the 1980 Broadway revival that a woman of Puerto Rican descent, Josie de Guzman, portrayed María. The film version notoriously cast few Puerto Ricans, too, per TCM’s Movie Morlock’s blog. Natalie Wood, who was Russian-American, played María, donning brownface. Bernardo was played by George Chakiris, of Greek descent. The only Puerto Rican in the film was Rita Moreno, one of the few Puerto Rican actors to thrive on Broadway (she won a Tony in 1975 for her role as Googie in the comedy The Ritz).
The lack of Puerto Rican representation and inaccuracies about Puerto Rican culture in West Side Story was even recently spoofed by Puerto Rican actor Suni Reyes, who pointed out that these inaccuracies are thanks to the lack of islanders involved in the musical. “Can we do something more authentic? West Side Story, a musical about Puerto Ricans, was not created by a Puerto Rican,” said Reyes in the video. “Do you know the only Puerto Rican in the movie was Rita Moreno and all the actors who played Puerto Rican wore brown face, including Rita?!”
Although Moreno made history with West Side Story by becoming the first Latina to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, that sadly didn’t lead to many more roles for Puerto Ricans onscreen and onstage. A study done by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition notes that in 2015-2016, 35 percent of roles in New York theater went to people of color, larger than in previous years, but only 7 percent of those roles went to Latinxs. Sadly, despite that number being low, the study notes that “this is the highest marker in the 10 years for which we have data.”
Yet while Puerto Ricans may not have historically been at the forefront of Broadway, that didn’t mean they weren’t busy writing their own plays. As detailed on the University of North Carolina Press Blog, one of the most notable Puerto Rican playwrights is Miguel Piñero, who penned his award-winning play Short Eyes — about an imprisoned Puerto Rican man who decides whether or not to expose exposing a friend’s crimes — while he was himself was in Sing Sing for armed robbery, Another notable Puerto Rican playwright was Nicholas Dante, who co-wrote the Broadway classic A Chorus Line.
But besides those two, there hadn’t been any Puerto Rican playwrights at the forefront of Broadway until Miranda created In the Heights and Hamilton. It seems clear that part of why the latter show has been a massive success, besides its catchy songs and fresh take on American history, is because Miranda has strived to make sure Latinxs are represented on Broadway by being the person who wrote the book, music, and starred in the musical. Visibility matters, and while Miranda might not be the ideal person to represent Puerto Rico, having him carve a bigger space for Puerto Ricans and Latinxs in general on Broadway is too meaningful not to celebrate.