In August of 2004 on a writing retreat at Goodspeed Musicals, we wrote the songs “Shine” and “Washington Heights.” Years later, both songs made their way into our song cycle/musical revue Fugitive Songs. “Shine,” at the time, was a comment on the upcoming 2004 election. Having been launched into endless wars by the Bush administration’s incompetence, we were looking for a song of hope and optimism.
“Washington Heights” was also an attempt at levity. At the time, we were sharing an apartment just south of Washington Heights, far west of Broadway and just north of Harlem. We thought we were giving a witty, slice-of-life portrait of what it’s like to live in a place that is foreign to a couple of white dudes who had recently fallen off the turnip truck in NYC. The intent was for there to be an affection for the neighborhood in the lyric, although it’s often played with exasperation and a “Can you believe I live here?” cynicism that can feel disrespectful now, and also… racist.
In 2007 In the Heights, written by our dear friend and champion Lin-Manuel Miranda, opened and subsequent to that joyous musical taking the world by storm, we started to realize that maybe our song was a counter-argument to that show, and not in a good way. Our “jokes” felt more and more like cheap potshots at another culture.
The song stayed in Fugitive Songs as a palate cleanser against all the more angsty numbers, and although we never received any negative feedback, there was always a small voice telling us that something wasn’t right about it. It’s been 16 years since we wrote that song, and we are always learning and over time, we learned that what we had intended as a quirky musical comedy number was actually a tone-deaf, out-of-touch, white-privileged paean to living in a neighborhood that is outside of our white experience.
So, in the spirit that theatre is never finished, we have decided to remove the song from the show, the album, and across all platforms. We have also changed the album track order to match the show order. In the licensed version, “Washington Heights” will be replaced with another of our orphaned tunes, “Town Goes Boom,” a song that’s a celebration of making it in a place that isn’t home, but could be if one were to work hard enough. Miraculously, “Shine” has stayed the course with minor lyric changes over the years, because there is still hope in the forecast, and it feels as honest now as it did in 2004.
There is enough insensitivity in the world, and we hate to think we have added to it. We’d like to apologize to anyone we offended, and also thank the late Maya Angelou for the sound advice: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We are extremely relieved and happy with the change, especially in this moment when there’s a recent resurgence of licensed productions of Fugitive Songs.
It turns out a song cycle about people feeling trapped and isolated, and ultimately finding ways to break free and reinvent themselves, speaks to our times. Recent productions have swapped genders of certain roles, included non-binary characters and featured non-heterosexual relationships. We could not be more excited by these changes and love that the show continues to grow, evolve, and challenge our preconceived notions and biases. Thank you for allowing this piece (and us) to evolve with the times.
Chris Miller & Nathan Tysen