On Wednesday January 21st the cast of In the Heights took a research trip to New York City. The play takes place in Washington Heights, a predominantly Dominican neighborhood in upper Manhattan, so it was only natural that we should visit the neighborhood and learn all we could about life between 155th and 181st streets. Neha Nascimento ’17 (who plays salon owner Daniela in our production) said, “It is one thing to look at pictures of the neighborhood. It’s another thing to actually experience and see it face to face.” Not only did we take in the neighborhood, we soaked up all of the information we could with a visit to CUNY, lunch with members of the original Broadway cast of In the Heights, and a performance of Fun Home on Broadway.
We started the day at CUNY’s Dominican Studies Institute around 10am, which houses a library and archives. We were lucky enough to talk with Assistant Professor Anthony Stevens, librarian Jhensen Ortiz, and archivist Jessy Perez. There was a plethora of incredible information they passed along to us, most notably about the strong community ties in Washington heights and the impact those ties had on changing the political landscape of New York City and empowering the residents of Washington Heights. This is part of the reason that the neighborhood, despite rampant poverty, emerged after the devastation of the 1980’s crack epidemic as a strong and stable neighborhood. The power of community is a central theme in In the Heights so the cast found this point particularly compelling. We also learned about the role music plays in Dominican culture (a huge one), and the Dominican hero, the first non-Native American resident of what would become New York City, Juan Rodriguez, who arrived in 1613 on a ship belonging to Dutch merchants.
After our work at CUNY was done we made our way to Times Square to meet Eliseo Roman and Robin de Jesus, who originated the roles of Piragua Guy and Sonny, respectively, in the original Broadway production of In the Heights. Our choroepgrapher Debra Vega organized the lunch with Mr. Roman- the two used to do theatre together in the early 2000’s. Mr. Roman is currently on Broadway in On Your Feet, a musical based on the life of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Mr. de Jesus is currently in Wicked, and has been nominated for two Tony awards (the first nomination was for his role in In the Heights). It was unbelievable to hear these two Broadway veterans talk about bringing the original production of In the Heights to life, and how the play evolved throughout the workshop process (Piragua Guy’s song was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda on a fifteen-minute break). They left us with some incredible stories. During the off-Broadway run of In the Heights there were only two dressing rooms- one for the guys and one for the girls. The actors were shoulder to shoulder every day before the show started. Sharing stories while getting into costume, hair and make-up brought the cast together. They became a family. The sense of community was palpable for the audience, and was part of what made the show so special. When the show moved to Broadway, the dressing rooms were spread out all over the Richard Rogers Theatre. Many actors would not see their costars until they got onstage. Mr. de Jesus told us that Christopher Jackson, (who played Benny and is now on Broadway playing George Washington in Hamilton) organized a group prayer before each show to allow the actors to connect before they got onstage to keep their connection alive. Mr. de Jesus implored the cast to get to know one another and not be shy about making new friends- an invaluable life lesson- and something that will make the show come alive. Both Mr. de Jesus and Mr. Roman spoke about how In the Heights made Latino stories visible on Broadway for the first time. To be a part of that experience was life-changing for both of them. For the first time they played characters whose stories were similar to their own and they were not playing stereotypes. After lunch, Mr. Roman left for a wig fitting before his 2pm performance and Mr. de Jesus prepared to take in a movie on a rare Wednesday off. To see these actors, who by all accounts are at the top of their field, so open to talk to us and genuinely excited about our production, was inspiring and humbling.
After lunch we rushed a few blocks north to the Circle in the Square Theatre to see Fun Home, which won the Tony in 2015 for Best Musical. The show is based on Allison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel which follows a young Allison as she navigates a childhood raised in a funeral home, her college years as she comes to grips with her sexuality, and her adult years as she processes her relationship with her father. Her own fully out of the closet life contributed to her father, a closeted gay man, having a nervous breakdown. The story, told in snapshots as an adult Allison struggles to write her graphic novel, moves seamlessly through time and space and does not fit neatly into categories. It is a family story told through music, where you find yourself laughing and crying at the same time. It was amazing for our young actors to see Broadway vets Michael Cerveris (who plays Allison’s father Bruce) and Judy Kuhn (playing Allison’s mother Helen) along with a cast made of many newcomers (including a cohort of child actors) give their all to their roles and bring such specificity to each character choice.
Our day finished with a trip uptown on the A train to Washington Heights itself. We got off at 168th Street and Broadway, walked west towards Jumel Place, and back toward Broadway and 175th. We were able to see Caridad restaurant (referenced in the play), a number of Bodegas (we visited my old favorite on 168th), and took in a breathtaking view of the George Washington Bridge. We were treated well at El Malecon, a Washington Heights establishment, for dinner. It would be hard to pick a favorite part of the meal, but I’d have to say the coconut flan was an overall favorite.
We left the city a little before 7pm. Tired, but enriched and ready to pour ourselves into the story of In the Heights.
In the Heights runs April 25-27 and May 5-7 at the Williston Theatre. Tickets will go on sale in early April.
The production team would like to thank the Dean’s Office, the Athletic Department, and the parents of our cast for helping to make this trip a success.
This trip was made possible in part by a gift to the theatre program from Austin Sarat and Stephanie Sandler. We are very grateful for their support.
For a student perspective on the trip, please see Nate Gordon’s article in The Willistonian.