Salsa on Stage

Thursday, October 26, 2017 by Morgen Stevens-Garmon

Rhythm & Power: Salsa in New York tells the story of how a distinct blend of up-tempo percussive rhythms infused with Afro-Caribbean became the movement that is salsa, the dance and the music. The exhibition (on view through November 26) digs into salsa’s history as an art form and social movement. In this Story, we’ll look at how that movement translated and transferred on stage.

Robert Iulo. Salsa Dancer, Central Park, 1976. Museum of the City of New York. 2017.17.7.

Since developing in the 1960s, salsa has grown into a global phenomenon, but only recently has it begun to appear regularly on the New York stage. Saturday Night Fever, the 1999 musical based on the movie included the film’s disco-salsa dance number “Salsation” in its original cast recording. For the most part, salsa was used as a way to evoke particular feelings of passion or exoticism. Musicals like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2005) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005) feature salsa in one-off songs. The practice is not new; Leonard Bernstein borrowed Latin rhythms for On the Town back in 1944.

Theater program. Saturday Night Fever, 1999. Museum of the City of New York. F2017.41.16.

The past ten years have seen at least two major consistent uses of salsa on Broadway: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 musical In the Heights and the 2015 On Your Feet!. Both make salsa integral to their score and choreography. In the Heights was billed as an “original hip-hop-salsa-merengue musical” bringing the form front and center. Set in upper Manhattan, Miranda’s musical is in some ways a reflection of the origins of salsa — a combination of influences from different immigrant cultures resulting in the creation of a new sound.

Theater program. In the Heights, 2008. Museum of the City of New York. F2017.41.17.

On Your Feet! tells the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan through the popular music they created from the late 1970s through to the 21st century. Born in Cuba, Gloria Estefan became one of the most successful recording artists of the 20th century with multiple Grammy awards and an estimated 100 million records sold worldwide. In telling the story of Gloria and her husband, choreographer Sergio Trujillo relied on the dance steps of salsa to ground the story.

Theater program. On Your Feet!, 2015. Museum of the City of New York. F2017.41.18.

Salsa is also appearing more frequently on the smaller stage. Celia, a musical biography of salsa super-star Celia Cruz ran for over nine months at New World Stages between 2007 and 2008. The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater used salsa to tell the story a family living in East Harlem in the 1970s with I Like it Like That, which closed earlier this year. The sound that began in the 1960s is making a strong transition to the stage.

Robert Iulo. Salsa Dancers with Crowd in Background, Central Park, 1976. Museum of the City of New York. 2017.17.9.

Visit the Museum soon to experience the Rhythm & Power of Salsa in New York before the exhibition closes on Sunday, November 26.

By Morgen Stevens-Garmon, Associate Curator, Theater Collection

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