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A Latinx theatre fan recounts the barriers she had to break through in order to attend shows
I first fell in love with Broadway musicals listening to the original cast recording of Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights in my house in Puerto Rico. I was enthralled by the opening notes of the title song, marked by the beat of the palitos right before Miranda raps, "Lights up on Washington Heights." It reminded me of the lively Puerto Rican Christmas songs I grew up with. I've been hooked on Broadway ever since.
I learned about In the Heights from the local news. It was the summer of 2008 and I was 14. A clip of Miranda's Tony speech played -- the one where he took a Puerto Rican flag out of his suit pocket and waved it. The reporter succinctly explained what Broadway was, and how Miranda's achievement was one for all Puerto Ricans. Then footage from the show closed the segment.
Soon after, my mother and I drove to Plaza Las Américas shopping mall hoping to snag a copy of the original cast recording. Back then, Borders was the place I was most likely to find it because the bookstore had the largest selection of soundtracks in English. I now know soundtracks and original cast recordings are not the same, but at the time I figured they'd be grouped together. I was right: A copy was waiting for me in the M section of soundtracks for Miranda.
From then on, I devoured anything to do with Broadway. Particularly illuminating was watching Legally Blonde: The Musical on MTV. It didn't make me jump up and say, "That's me on stage!" But I was captivated by the fact that it was an actual filmed musical, making me feel a little bit closer to Broadway.
I also picked up books about Broadway. Many titles explored classics like Rodgers and Hammerstein's works and Hello, Dolly!; others delved into newer shows such as Wicked and Hairspray. Once I read about those musicals, I bought the original cast recordings. Sometimes, I purchased albums of productions I knew little about, like Next to Normal and Billy Elliot. Every recording gave me a buzz in the pit of my stomach, yet I longed to see more Latinx names like mine in the liner notes. Only In the Heights gave me that thrill.
When I moved to Philadelphia in 2011 to attend college on a scholarship, Broadway was no longer a plane ride away, just a two-hour drive. Yet I would soon discover that there are other obstacles besides geography for many of us who want to see Broadway shows.
My school offered complimentary copies of The New York Times, and I started reading the theatre reviews to decide which Broadway production should be my first. Even though Peter and the Starcatcher was a play, not a musical, I was intrigued by Ben Brantley's description of Christian Borle's performance as "a blend of Groucho Marx, Peter Allen and the ultimate Shakespearean ham." Once I realized I'd seen Borle in Legally Blonde: The Musical, that connection sealed the deal.
The ticket was approximately $85, which I couldn't afford without some planning. I worked overtime at my array of campus jobs for two months to earn the extra funds and purchased my ticket though the production's website. Like so many others who love Broadway from afar, I didn't yet know about TDF or other discounted ticket options.
When I told my mother about my trip, she asked, "Who goes to New York City by herself and spends too much money to see a show she knows little about?" She didn't understand, but she supported me. In fact, as a protective Latinx mom, she decided to come with me. (She paid for her own transportation and theatre ticket.)
In May 2012, we arrived in New York City to see the show. Borle was hysterical as the bombastic Black Stache, and his chemistry with the cast was electrifying. The scenery and costumes were even better than what I'd imagined -- a lagoon made from painted backcloths, a gold pineapple in the middle of the proscenium arch, a bra made of ketchup bottles.
Yet the high of seeing my first Broadway show wore off when I started to think about going back. Money was always going to be a hurdle.
I spent the next three years interning and working part-time jobs. Saving money so I could see a Broadway show or two each season became a priority. After graduation, I moved to New York City. By then, I was up on everything playing. That's when I started to notice things that bothered me.
Everybody, including me, likes to see themselves on stage. Representation is important. It sets a precedent for how I'm viewed by others, and how I see myself. The more shows I attended, the more I noticed that people of color and other marginalized communities were underrepresented on Broadway -- on stage, backstage and in the audience.
As a Puerto Rican with cerebral palsy, I was twice absent, so rarely were there productions featuring Latinx actors or performers with disabilities. In addition, I've often found myself otherized in the audience. I've gotten nasty looks for clapping and reacting enthusiastically, even though many white patrons around me were doing the same without judgment. Since I don't use an assistive device to walk, my disability is not as obvious, so I've had other theatregoers tell me to hurry up as I slowly climb the stairs to my seat.
People have told me, "Relax, it's just one comment or look." But these microaggressions, along with ever-rising ticket prices and lack of representation, are barriers for people like me.
In 2016, I learned about TDF through my job at the time in performing arts education. Unfortunately, when I switched to education publishing, I felt as out of place there as I often did at Broadway theatres. Throughout my professional life, I have stepped into spaces of privilege where I have felt like I wasn't meant to belong, and it always stings. I was so consumed with my work that I didn't have the energy for a night out at the theatre.
Happily, that job eventually pointed me to a career and a community that I adore. I have the honor of belonging to a labor union that not only has my back, but also offers discounted TDF memberships as part of my benefits. One of the first shows I saw through TDF was The Band's Visit. I felt a wave of joy and happiness move through me as I was transported to the small Israeli town of Bet Hatikva. It felt good to reconnect with Broadway, especially through a story about the meeting of two communities, Egyptian and Israeli, who are rarely seen on the New York stage. By the time the curtain went down, I was smiling with complete abandon.
I am lucky to be going to Broadway at a time when its lack of diversity -- on stage and off -- is being challenged. It is getting better, slowly. And I have worked hard to forge a life in which I'm able to boldly embrace my heritage, my disability and my love of theatre. Every time I buy tickets through TDF, I'm reminded that I do belong in the audience of a Broadway show, and I don't have to downplay any aspect of my identity to be there.
Top image: Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original cast of In the Heights on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus.
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