Tag Archives: In the Heights

Thoughts on Theatre Under The Stars’ IN THE HEIGHTS

After I saw In the Heights on Broadway in 2008, I left the Richard Rodgers, went to my hotel room, and immediately tried to break dance. Hilarity ensued. Graffiti Pete I was not. Fast forward 8 years to Theatre Under The Stars’ (TUTS) production of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ hit musical, and I am still trying to move like the fictional residents of Washington Heights.

Dear reader, I have never and likely will never be able to break dance, pop-n-lock, or anything in between. No amount of In the Heights will fix that. But that doesn’t change my relationship with the show. As a musical theatre-phile and Spanish-speaker, seeing the show in 2008 was the first time that I felt these two worlds collide. Even though I am not Latino and don’t necessarily relate to the characters in the show, I felt represented in some odd way.  And, as a Latin@ theatre scholar, I’m invested in the skyrocketing careers of both Miranda and Hudes, two of only three Latin@ playwrights to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the other is Nilo Cruz).

In many ways, I feel like In the Heights always keeps coming back to me. And then one night you are scrolling through your Facebook news feed and there is In the Heights embroiled in controversy over the casting and hiring of artistic staff at Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre. Enraged, I checked my facts, and wrote a blog, thinking that no one would read it (See: “Casting an ‘Authentic’ In the Heights”). The next day it quickly went viral (well, viral for trevorboffone.com). All of a sudden, people were citing me and interviewing me about my thoughts on race, ethnicity, and casting in the show. Soon thereafter, I started writing an article about race, ethnicity, power, whitewashing, and representation in post-Hamilton productions of the show to submit to a peer-reviewed academic journal. And all the while, I was keeping my eyes on TUTS’ 2016-17 season opening performance of the show.

While I won’t formally review the show here and will save my detailed thoughts for later, I do want to take some time to address several thoughts about TUTS’ production of In the Heights.

Usnavi is everything—When Usnavi makes his entrance at the top of the show, he introduces the audience to the familia to which we are about to bear witness. He is the show’s narrator and, therefore, we enter the community through him. Given this, the actor must be able to carry the show, not in the same way as Mamma Rose or Tevye, but Usnavi must make the audience fall for him. We need to not only want to visit his bodega, but we need to feel like we already frequent it and take our coffee light and sweet. This is to say that casting this character is pivotal to a successful production that speaks with the Latin@ community. As such, Usnavi is a beloved musical theatre character and one of the few Latin@ characters to lead a Broadway musical. TUTS made a great choice in casting Anthony Lee Medina as Usnavi. Medina’s tweet below just shows how much this role means to him and the Latin@ community. Not to mention it reiterates the importance of casting this role with a Latino actor. How often do Latin@s get to play dream roles that are roles specifically written for them?

Stepping into a role so closely associated with Lin-Manuel Miranda surely must have been daunting, but Medina delivers as the man in the Kangol hat. Medina is charismatic, funny, and engaging. In addition to being a first-class actor, he raps with ease and dances like a drunk Chita Rivera. Medina is ready for the spotlight and there is no reason he shouldn’t play Curly, Pippin, or Bobby (give him a few years!).

Jonathan Arana as Piragua Guy & Anthony Lee Medina as Usnavi. Photo by Os Galindo

Jonathan Arana as Piragua Guy & Anthony Lee Medina as Usnavi. Photo by Os Galindo

Sheldon Epps—Last week, I told The Houston Chronicle’s Theatre Critic Wei-Huan Chen that Sheldon Epps leadership as Artistic Advisor at TUTS was a big move in a city whose major arts organizations are so heavily run by Anglos. Given the fact that Houston is the nation’s most racially diverse city, a black person in such a high leadership position shouldn’t be surprising nor should we consider it a “big move,” but here, in 2016, it is. That Epps came in and replaced Shrek, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Grease with In the Heights, Into the Woods, and Dreamgirls just demonstrates that he is looking to center TUTS as one of the leading producers of musical theatre in the country and produce work that speaks to Houston in 2016. While In the Heights and Dreamgirls offer a rare opportunity for local audiences to see people of color on a major stage (How many times have you seen two dozen people of color on stage at the Hobby Center?), Into the Woods also offers the opportunity to cast people of color in leading roles. Why not a black Baker? Or a Latina Baker’s Wife? An Indian-American Jack? Simple casting choices could potentially have a significant ripple effect in Houston. Just look at the new layers that The Catastrophic Theatre added to their 2016 production of Buried Child by casting a black woman as Shelly. To put it simply, it was a revelation and shed new light on a show that has been around for almost 40 years. We need more of this work and TUTS can be be a leader in providing access for actors of color in Houston.

Hopefully, programming diversity on stage will bring more diverse crowds into the Hobby Center. However, if TUTS really wants to build audiences and draw new people to the theatre, then it absolutely must address the high cost of tickets. The cheapest seats for In the Heights are $46.50 including fees, not to mention parking which is $12 in the Hobby Center garage. Why not offer discounted tickets for veterans and people under 35, rush seats, etc? TUTS does have a Student & Senior Rush Policy (Student and Senior (65+) rush is available starting one hour before curtain with valid id. Tickets are 50% off in price levels 2-5). However, this information is not easily accessible on their website, leading many to believe that they don’t offer such discounts. I recognize that with touring shows discounted tickets might not be possible, but for TUTS-produced shows such as In the Heights, discounted tickets have the potential to be a game changer. In the Heights should not be a luxury. People should not be turned off from seeing this important show based on ticket prices alone.

The Cast of In The Heights. Photo by Os Galindo

The Cast of In The Heights. Photo by Os Galindo

Casting an “Authentic” IN THE HEIGHTS

In July 2015, I spent four days experiencing Chicago’s robust Latin@ theatre scene as a participant in the Latina/o Theatre Commons’ Carnaval of New Latina/o Work hosted by the Theatre School at DePaul University. Aside from Latin@ theatre companies such as Aguijón Theater, Teatro Luna, Teatro Vista, and Visión Latino; Chicago is home to a rich talent pool of directors, producers, designers, dramaturgs, and playwrights that were on display at Carnaval. But above all, my biggest takeaway from the weekend was the amount of talented Latin@ actors that performed in the 12 play readings at Carnaval. I simply couldn’t believe that Chicago had so many high-quality Latin@ actors. It blew me away. Many people commented on this. On Café Onda, Tiffany Ana López noted, “Nearly all of the presented work was distinguished by strong dramatic writing that, without exception, was well directed and superbly acted. The consistent strength, sophistication, and nuance of the performances made Chicago appear a veritable mecca for Latina/o actors.” By any measure, we all can agree that Chicago has a talented and deep acting pool. Yet, the recent casting announcements of Evita and In the Heights in Chicago have been met with resistance due to the lack of Latin@ talent on and off stage. So what’s going on in the Windy City? Let’s look at the two instances.

First, in March 2016 the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois (just north of Chicago) announced a cast for the musical Evita that included only one Latin@ actor. This outraged the Latin@ and allied theatre community, not only locally but nationally, as well. Chicago actor Bear Bellinger spoke out against the casting announcement, “Using only one actor of Latin descent is irresponsible to that truth and a lost opportunity to feature a group of people who are regularly ignored on our stages.” Marriott Theatre soon responded. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, executive producer Terry James claimed, “If we had our choice, the entire cast would be Latino. It’s not a conscious choice. We can only cast the actors that audition for us.” Director and choreographer Alex Sanchez reiterated this point,

We obviously were looking for Latin American actors. There weren’t very many, like a handful, that we had seen. (…) It think if there was a gripe about it, what I have to say is then to come out and audition. Put yourself out there. Take the risk and audition for these shows. We can only hire the people that come.

Yes, it is true that you can only hire the people who come. But, what kind of outreach was done to the Latin@ acting community to ensure that information was widely distributed and accessible? Did Marriot Theatre reach out to the Alliance of Latino Theatre Artists in Chicago?

On the Chicago Inclusion Project, director-playwright Tlaloc Rivas even saw this moment as a tipping point.

This Hemisphere of the Americas—that includes North, South, and Central territories—is not the same one that allowed Evita to emerge in the 80’s. The world is much more fluid, dynamic, multiethnic – and to ignore that in 21st century is akin to claiming men should only perform the works of Shakespeare.

Has Evita, along with West Side Story, reached its Mikado moment? Has those musical’s origins—with its inauthentic portrayal of ethnic or foreign life, written by white men and originally played by a predominantly white casts—to be done today? Or should it not be done if it can’t be cast authentically?

Musicals that take place within a Hispanic/Latino culture but that have historically excluded any creative or artistic input from Hispanic/Latino artists and performers haven’t necessarily had to face such a measurement in any significant way. Until today. Because today, there are no excuses, and to claim that all efforts were made for diversity in casting falls rings false. I’m surprised that the producers didn’t cite the recent casting call of Hamilton in Chicago as the reason they couldn’t find any performers of color.

After all, Evita was originally done with few Latin@s and featured Anglo actors Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin as Eva Perón and Che Guevera, respectively. But as Rivas notes, in 2016 there are no excuses. This is not the 1970s in which Evita premiered. Casting an inclusive Evita shouldn’t be an option, but should be a requirement of producing the show.

Carnaval 3

The Latina/o Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Work at The Theatre School at DePaul University

Fast forward to July 18, 2016. Porchlight Music Theatre proudly announced the cast for Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ 2008 Tony Award winning musical In the Heights which featured a white actor playing Miranda’s theatrical doppelganger Usnavi, the musical’s main character. Additionally, as many social media users have pointed out, the creative team is predominately non-Latin@. While we cannot determine if someone is or isn’t Latin@ based on name and appearance alone, casting a white actor as Usnavi is egregious enough. Nevertheless, there are still obvious missteps on Porchlight’s part. Artistic director Michael Weber noted:

After an exhaustive audition process, during which we saw hundreds of the Chicago-area’s diverse music theater talent—both established and new—and even reached out to our city’s vast hip-hop dance community, we are excited to introduce the cast…We have made every effort to present a company that reflects the true spirit of this story of community…

Every effort? While Evita is a British musical written by white men telling an Argentine story, In the Heights is a Latin@ musical in every regard and, as such, has been well-received by the Latin@ community. This is to say that to miscast Evita is one thing, but to whitewash In the Heights takes the issues of race, ethnicity, and casting to a new level. By all means and purposes, casting white actors in roles written for Latin@s in professional theatre is unacceptable (See: Should Latina/o Roles Be Cast with Non-Latina/o Actors?). Moreover, as arts advocate Howard Sherman notes, “Without ever using the word Latino (let alone Latino/a, Latinao or Latinx), this statement comes off as Weber patting his own theatre on the back for working so very hard to meet the basic requirements of the musical he chose.”

As some have pointed out (on Facebook), this casting decision gentrifies a show that is about a community fighting against gentrification. Evidently, Porchlight fails to comprehend the lived realities of Latin@s all across the nation who face many of the issues seen in Miranda and Hudes’ musical. This especially rings true when a white man is cast as Usnavi. These roles were written by Latin@s for Latin@ actors. The Latin@ community wants their stories told, but in an ethical way that speaks with the community in question. To gentrify In the Heights is to completely miss the point of the musical.

Furthermore, the casting announcement by Hedy Weiss of Sun-Times refers to the cast as “unusually ‘authentic.’” Aside from the use of the word “unusually” here, I am left questioning authenticity. How do we measure authenticity? While I am certainly not the judge of this, I would argue that, given the In the Heights casting, Porchlight Music Theatre is surely not the best judge of authenticity and Latinidad. What is more, much of the creative team is not Latin@, including the director and designers. Weighing in on the discussion of authenticity, Howard Sherman also wonders about the use of the word “authentic”: “Aren’t all casts authentic, in that the actors are who they say they are and will be playing the roles they’re announced to play?”

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Georgia, Aurora Theatre and Theatrical Outfit are mounting a co-production of In the Heights with that features Latin@s in the principal roles (and much of the ensemble), with Diego Klock-Perez as Usnavi, Courtney Flores as costume designer, María Cristina Fusté as lighting designer, etc. That in the Atlanta metropolitan area these two companies can produce the show as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes intended and a theatre company in Chicago cannot is mystifying.

While there are certainly many factors at play, perhaps this is a testament to Anthony Rodriguez’s leadership at Aurora. Nevertheless, a theatre company need not have a Latin@ artistic director to produce a Latin@ play. But the company does need to do the community outreach to ethically produce shows such as In the Heights, Anna in the Tropics, and Zoot Suit. If you can’t field a majority Latin@ cast and hire a predominately Latin@ creative team, then perhaps do a different show. While non-Latin@ theatre companies should be encouraged to produce Latin@ work, this goes beyond simply mounting a show. If theatres truly want to engage in conversations of equity, diversity, and inclusion, then they first need to look at how their company is run from top-to-bottom. For starters, what is the racial and gendered make-up of your staff? What are your audience demographics? What stories are being told on your stage? In the end, being an ally isn’t about patting yourself on the back. It’s about recognizing your privilege and how you can use it to enact change. It’s about listening and putting your own self-interests aside. Be committed, hire a more diverse staff, do the outreach to actors of color, and engage with the local community. Then mount In the Heights when you can ethically do so, in a way that truly connects with the community by speaking with the community and not for it.


***For more on this conversion, please see:

***Update, 8:06 pm, July 20, 2016*** The original version of this blog said that few Latin@ actors were cast in principal roles for In the Heights. As more information has become available, this has been redacted.

Carnaval 2

The Latina/o Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Work at The Theatre School at DePaul University

Que Onda? with Alex Lacamoire, music director of HAMILTON

Here, Trevor Boffone interviews Hamilton’s music director, orchestrator, and co-arranger Alex Lacamoire about his journey as an artist, his Cuban heritage, and collaborating with Lin-Manuel Miranda on In the Heights and Hamilton.

Alex Lacamoire Grammy

Alex Lacamoire with the 2016 Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album. Photo courtesy of Laura Heywood Media.

Trevor Boffone: Growing up, who had the greatest influence on your decision to become a musician?
Alex Lacamoire:
Probably my cousin Linda, who bought me my first piano when I was four. One of my earliest memories is of walking out my front door to find Linda on the street, standing behind a moving truck that was unloading an upright piano and bringing it into my house. Linda was young, still in college, and not wealthy by any stretch, yet she still shelled out her own money to buy that instrument as a gift. Years later, just after Heights had become a hit, I asked what compelled her to do that for me. She said: “Primo…When you were two years old, you would sit in front of your home-stereo speaker and just stare into it, hypnotized by the sounds coming out of it. You were born to be a musician. Your parents couldn’t afford a piano, and I couldn’t let the opportunity for you to learn be denied.” Naturally, I cried when she told me that story.

Continue reading at Café Onda/HowlRound.