A willingness to remember the past, and the trailblazers who made a way for today’s Latinx artists to shine on stage, is at the core of this post celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month (NHHM) in the U.S.  

In 2023, Broadway got the party started early in September with the ¡Viva! Broadway concert. It was a showcase of current Latin excellence on Broadway. Some participants were asked: “Who is a Latin performer in the industry who inspires you?”  

Today’s artists provide shoutouts to some of “the five you want to know” when it comes to musicals with Hispanic heartbeats. 

1. West Side Story

Yani Marin, proud daughter of Cuban immigrant parents and an actress, dancer, singer, and producer from North Bergen, NJ, named living legend Rita Moreno her inspiration. Marin said, “I am inspired by Moreno’s phenomenal career, and I pray I can still be doing what I love when I’m her age.” Moreno is 91 years old at the time of this post and most recently served as an executive producer on the 2021 remake of the film West Side Story. 

Moreno is a Puerto Rican actress, dancer, and singer who has performed on stage and screen in a career that spans seven decades. She starred in the 1961 film adaptation of the 1957 musical West Side Story. The story is an updated telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – star-crossed lovers struggling in modern-day New York City.  

While West Side Story was (and is) a popular production, it’s vital to note that the 1961 film in which Moreno appeared is a source of controversy because it was written by non-Latinos: the music was written by Leonard Bernstein, and the lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim. Brown face was used on many of the actors, including Natalie Wood, who played Maria. In fact, Moreno was the only Latina involved in the production! Still, it has an enduring place in the American musical theatre cannon and more recent productions (including the 2021 film adaptation) have striven to bring a higher level of authenticity to the material. 

2. In the Heights

Jaime Lozano, musical theatre composer and self-proclaimed dreamer was asked to name a Latin performer who inspires him and named Lin-Manuel Miranda. Lozano said, “Lin-Manuel has been always an inspiration and a great supporter of what we [the Viva Broadway organizers] are doing.”  

Miranda made his Broadway debut in 2008 with In the Heights, for which he wrote the music and lyrics, while also starring in the leading role. The story revolves around a street corner in the Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan in New York City, where everyone pursues their sueñitos (little dreams) for a better life. 

3. Hamilton

Miranda returned to Broadway in 2015 with Hamilton, another show for which he wrote the script, music, and lyrics (sung and rapped) while assuming the lead role. Hamilton earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards (winning 11).  

If you’re a musical theatre lover, you’d have to have been under the proverbial rock not to know that Hamilton has become a pop-culture phenom. It’s the story of U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton’s fight for honor and love, striving to leave a legacy that helped shape a nation.  

4. Kiss of the Spider Woman

Thirty years ago, Kiss of the Spider Woman ran in the West End and on Broadway. The show won the 1993 Tony Award for Best Musical. The story is based on the Manuel Puig novel El Beso de la Mujer Araña 

The story is about two prisoners in one dank cell somewhere in Latin America: A Marxist guerilla named Valentín and a gay window dresser named Molina. As the story unfolds, they learn to understand their differences and respect one another.  

A movie by the same name was made in 1985 starring William Hurt and Raúl Juliá. (Yes, you may be more familiar with Juliá in his role as Gomez in the 1990s movie versions of The Addams Family!)  

5. On Your Feet

To round out “the five you need to know” when it comes to Broadway musicals with Hispanic influence, check out the 2015 jukebox musical On Your Feet. It hit Broadway at the Marquis Theatre. The story showcased the pop-music hits of Gloria Estefan, her husband, Emilio Estefan, and their group Miami Sound Machine. Give the soundtrack a listen – the rhythm is gonna get you. (Sorry, not sorry.)  

The History of National Hispanic Heritage Month 

In the U.S., National Hispanic Heritage Month began as National Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968. Then in 1988, the celebrations were extended to a full month running from September 15 to October 15. We’ll let you explore on your own why the festivities straddle both September and October and learn what the Cry of Dolores refers to; a phrase you may hear associated with NHHM. 

Patty Craft is a regular contributor to the Educational Theatre Association. 

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