The Long History of Puerto Ricans on Broadway

Actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda (fourth from left) alongside cast members of “In the Heights.” (Photo by Barlow-Hartman, Joan Marcus, via El Diario)

Actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda (fourth from left) alongside cast members of “In the Heights.” (Photo by Barlow-Hartman, Joan Marcus, via El Diario)

Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, who rose to fame with his musical “In the Heights,” vividly remembers the night when his idol, Dominican singer Juan Luis Guerra, came to see the hit Broadway show. Broadway has a lot of amazing shows over the years, becoming as big a part of American culture as the West End is to the UK, so having such a Broadway show would have anyone searching to find cheap broadway tickets online so they could attend.

“Everything went wrong that night,” said the playwright and actor. “Every time someone forgot a line or the orchestra messed up a note, fellow actor Robin de Jesús said to me: ‘Juan Luis Guerra is going to think you wrote this,’” he laughs. “It was a disaster.”

In spite of this small “disaster,” the musical, written by two artists of Puerto Rican descent, won four Tonys, becoming the most successful Latino show on Broadway.

Next month, Miranda will premiere his new musical “Hamilton” at the Public Theater. “It is about the guy on the $10 bill,” said Miranda, referring to Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, who was actually born on the Caribbean island of Saint Croix. “I became interested because it is the story of an immigrant.”

His “In the Heights,” however, will always be remembered as the great Latino triumph on Broadway, diminishing the memory of fiascos such as “Mambo Kings” (2005, which never opened) and “The Capeman” (1998), written by musician Paul Simon and Nobel Prize-winner Derek Walcott. The early closing of “The Capeman” was attributed to bad reviews and also to protests that arose when it was known that the musical was based on the life of convicted assassin Salvador Agrón. Nevertheless, the show earned a Theatre World Award and a Drama Desk Award for Puerto Rican singer Ednita Nazario.

“Mambo Kings,” based on Oscar Hijuelos’ Pultizer Prize-winning novel, had Puerto Rican actors Esaí Morales (“La Bamba”) and Justina Machado (“Six Feet Under”) in its cast. “The Capeman” included Marc Anthony, Élan Luz Rivera and Renoly Santiago in the cast, and Oscar Hernández was the musical director.

The pioneers

From the early days of Broadway a century ago, Puerto Rican theater artists have seen highs and lows.

Juana de Dios Castrello, better known as Diosa Costello, is the first Latina to star in a Broadway play. The actress, singer and dancer was born in Guayama, and debuted in 1939 in the musical “Too Many Girls” alongside Cuban actor Desi Arnaz. In the film version, however, Costello was replaced by actress Ann Miller.

Deemed “The Latin Bombshell,” Costello replaced African-American actress Juanita Hall in “South Pacific” after Hall won a Tony. Some of Costello’s costumes from this show are on display at the Smithsonian Museum.

Around that time, another Puerto Rican, Olga San Juan, became the first Latina to receive a Donaldson Award, given by the New York theater community, for her debut in “Paint Your Wagon” (1951). San Juan continued her career in Hollywood, where she appeared in films starring Bing Crosby (“Blue Skies”) and Fred Astaire (“Variety Girl,” in which Bob Hope and Gary Cooper also appeared). San Juan married actor and Oscar-winner Edmond O’Brien, and they had three children.

“It was a time when variety shows were all the rage, but few actresses were able to avoid the stereotype like Olga did,” said actress and journalist Miluka Rivera, author of “Legado Puertorriqueño en Hollywood: Famosos y Olvidados” (“Puerto Rican Legacy in Hollywood: The Famous and the Forgotten”).

Film and theater actor and director José Ferrer, born in Puerto Rico and a Princeton graduate, produced and starred in the play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” for which he won a Tony in 1947 and later an Oscar for Best Actor (the only Latino to receive it to this day) and a Golden Globe in 1950 for the film version of the play.

Ferrer’s career was affected by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), created in 1938. The actor, who favored Puerto Rican independence, was included on a list of actors, producers and directors suspected of being communists. Puerto Rican actor Juano Hernández, who debuted on Broadway in “Show Boat” in 1921, and Mexican actress Dolores del Rio were also singled out.

The list of Puerto Ricans on Broadway would not be complete without the diva of musicals, Chita Rivera, two-time Tony winner (for “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) and nominated on another seven occasions. Rita Moreno, on the other hand, won a Tony as Best Actress for “The Ritz” (Rosie Pérez, another actress of Puerto Rican descent, recently played the same character).

Puerto Rican-born actor, choreographer and director Luis Salgado (“Mambo Kings,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “In the Heights”) says that he has never felt discrimination and that New York offers opportunities for everyone.

“I have always felt that I’ve been treated fairly,” said Salgado, who is currently playing Kid Rizzo on “Rocky.” “The funny thing is that they still ask Puerto Rican actors: ‘Do you have documents to work here?’ There’s so much one wants to reply to that question…”

The character of María on “West Side Story” was first played on Broadway by actress Josie de Guzmán, of Puerto Rican descent, who got her first Tony nomination in 1980. The actress, who trained at the Boston Conservatory, debuted in 1978 with the play “Runaways,” and was also in “Carmelina” (1979) and “Nick & Nora” (1991).

In 1992, she dazzled the critics with her performance as Sarah Brown in “Guys and Dolls,” alongside Nathan Lane and Peter Gallagher. She was once again nominated for a Tony. De Guzmán has recently participated in smaller-scale projects, including Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

The Public Theater

Several Puerto Rican actors who later “made it” in Hollywood honed their skills on Broadway and off-Broadway stages. “The best actors came from the stage, and they had acting training,” said Chita Rivera.

Joseph Papp’s Public Theater was a springboard for actors such as Raúl Juliá and writer Reinaldo Povod, who had a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father.

Juliá debuted on Broadway with “The Cuban Thing” (1968), which opened and closed on the same night. He then appeared in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” (1972), “Where’s Charley?” (1975), “The Threepenny Opera” (1977), “Nine” (1993) and “Man of La Mancha” (1992). He was nominated four times for a Tony award, although he never won. His last performance was on television, playing environmentalist Chico Mendes in “The Burning Season” (1994). This performance earned Juliá an Emmy, a SAG Award, a Golden Globe and a Golden Eagle. In film, the actor is remembered for his lead roles in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “The Addams Family.”

Edith Díaz, also a Public Theater alum, starred in “Popi,” the first Latino sitcom (CBS) and appeared in the film “Sister Act.” To advocate for Latino actors, she co-founded the Screen Actors Guild Ethnic Minorities Committee with fellow actors Henry Darrow, of Puerto Rican descent, and Ricardo Montalbán, from Mexico. Darrow, well known for his role in the TV show “Zorro” and “The High Chaparral,” founded the Nosotros organization to fight against Hispanic stereotyping in the media.

Actor Héctor Elizondo, born of a Puerto Rican mother, studied dance at Carnegie Hall’s Ballet Arts school. When he appeared in “The Great White Hope” (1967) with James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, he already had earned recognition for his Obie-winning portrayal of “God,” a Puerto Rican in charge of a steam room in “Steambath” (1970). He is better known for his appearances in movies like “Pretty Woman” and TV series such as “Chicago Hope,” for which he won an Emmy.

When “Anna in the Tropics” premiered on Broadway in 2003 after its author, Cuban-American Nilo Cruz, received a Pulitzer for the play, the all-Latino cast was in shock. Puerto Ricans Jimmy Smits and Priscilla López said it was a “historic moment” to premiere at the Royale Theater. Other actors in the play were Puerto Ricans David Zayas (Dexter), John Ortiz and Víctor Argo.

“I was in tears from the joy,” said López, who won a Tony for “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine” (1980) and is much remembered for her portrayal of Diana Morales in “A Chorus Line,” a character based on her own life. “For many years, I felt guilty because I was working on Broadway while many other fellow Latino actors were not,” she added.

López, who was recently honored in the Bronx Walk of Fame, said that she never felt discrimination in auditions. “Being Hispanic has never been an issue for me; at least until I moved to Los Angeles,” she said without giving details.

The actress is currently rehearsing the play “Somewhere,” written by her nephew Matthew López.

The writers

Puerto Rican writers have also left their mark on Broadway. One of the most talented ones was playwright, poet and actor Miguel Piñero (1946–1988), a founding member of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café. His story was told in the 2001 film “Piñero,” starring Benjamin Bratt.

Joseph Papp premiered the play “Short Eyes,” written by Piñero while he was in jail at Sing Sing, at the Public Theater. It later moved to the Vivian Beaumont Theater, becoming the first play by a Puerto Rican staged on Broadway. It received six Tony nominations in 1975, and won the Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards and the Obie for Best Play in 1974. Although Piñero had a promising future as a writer for film, television and stage, his drug and alcohol addictions ended his life early. In 2013, he was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame.

In 1975, “A Chorus Line” won nine Tony awards, a Drama Desk Award and a Pulitzer Prize for co-writer Nicholas Dante, a Nuyorican dancer whose birth name was Conrado Morales. Dante died of AIDS in 1991.

Today, Quiara Alegría Hudes is the most successful Puerto Rican playwright. She won a Tony with Lin-Manuel Miranda for the libretto for “In the Heights,” and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her play “Water by the Spoonful.” Still, she says that it is hard to get Broadway or U.S. theater companies interested in a Latino play.

“Broadway and [U.S.] theater in general are hard to get into and are hostile to any new writer,” said Alegría Hudes. “They mostly place their bets on plays and musicals that have been staged before.”

On the other hand, the playwright says that 10 years ago, there weren’t many new playwrights to choose from.

“We now have a broader group of Latino writers: Cuban, Mexican, Chicano, Nuyorican…”, said Alegría Hudes. She pointed out the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Nilo Cruz and Mexican Tanya Zaracho, who is writing for TV series such as “Looking,” “Girls” and “Devious Maids.”

“We need to create our own work and use our actors. We cannot have one Latino production pop up every five years. This needs to happen on a yearly basis,” said Alegría Hudes. The playwright finished a trilogy last year based on her cousin who is an Iraq veteran. She is now beginning to write a play about an undocumented Mexican mother.

Luis Salgado and Priscilla López are confident in the future of Latino and Puerto Rican artists. “We are in the ‘mainstream,’ and we will continue to be as long as we have Latino writers,” said López. And, as if it was the last scene of a play, she added: “Together, we will continue to have a voice.”

2 Comments

  1. FYI: To set the record straight: In “The Long History of Puerto Ricans on Broadway,” Pioneer’s on Broadway section of your article and El Diario Article (Spanish), was mainly based on the book “Legado Puertorriqueño en Hollywood: Famosos y Olvidados”, (an investigation of over 20 years) by Miluka Rivera (www.milukarivera.com). Although, Rivera is briefly quoted in the said articles…

  2. Carmen Rodriguez says:

    Me siento muy orgullosa de saber y entender el sacrificio y la perseverancia que han tenido para romper esas barreras que existen en Broadway pero que han logrado
    entrar y ser parte de .Se que a mi nieta se le va hacer un poco difícil pero el camino esta abierto. Lo que hay es tener las agallas para luchar, ella se gradúa este año de Suerry U niversity in London UK

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*