Welcome To Washington Heights!
By Carly Vester
The lively, real-life neighborhood of Washington Heights lies just over 2,800 miles away from Seattle in Manhattan, New York. Bordered by Harlem to the south and the Hudson River to the west, Washington Heights has a distinctive gritty personality to its streets— a unique personality that was a pleasure for Scenic/Lighting Designer Tom Sturge, a former resident of the Heights, to bring to life on our stage.
Since the early 1900s, the Heights have been a haven for minorities; populated by various groups of immigrants, largely including Dominicans and Jewish residents. Tom was truly able to transform our stage into Washington Heights by pulling from his own experiences in the neighborhood. He first moved to Washington Heights in 1987, living about 12 blocks away from where In The Heights takes place. He spent about ten years in this apartment and was struck by the melting pot of culture just in this area.
“A lot of buildings were built in the 1950s and have this really cool Yiddish quality to them, melded with a Dominican flare,” he explains.
In 1997 he began teaching in Boston, but kept his apartment in New York and ended up returning back to the Heights in 2000— the same summer In The Heights and the infamous blackout during a sweltering 110-degree heat wave took place.
Some of Tom’s most prominent memories of the neighborhood have made it into the scenic design for this show, including the little details.
“One of the things you always noticed while walking around the Heights was the elevation. You got a lot of vistas with trees and buildings, since Washington Heights is the highest point of Manhattan,” he describes. “New York was—and still is—a pretty gritty place. In the Heights people would chew gum and just spit it out on the pavement, smashing it down with their shoe. You’d walk the streets and see 40 years of gum imprinted on the sidewalk,” he laughs. “We even brought that detail to the floor of this set.”
Between these little details, the In The Heights set remains pretty consistent with the Broadway set design.
“I think it’s one of the best sets that has ever been on Broadway and we weren’t interested in trying to reinvent that,” Tom notes. “But we are hoping we achieved that authentic look, staying true to the neighborhood with the bodegas and stunning George Washington bridge as a centerpiece.”
Though the Heights has integrated into the Upper Westside of New York in the past 14 years (that’s to say fancier shops throughout and yellow cabs zipping around), those who live there have retained the spirit of the Washington Heights community.
“This show is about enjoying life as much as possible; enjoying the ‘now’ in life rather than waiting for ‘later.’ And that’s very much how the Washington Heights neighborhood lived life,” Tom says. “I hope people take away the sense of loving life and making the most of what they have right here and now.”
Published September 2014