GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Nina Lafarga of 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown'
Out of the whole star-packed cast of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Nina Lafarga may be the most visible performer on Broadway. Not only because of her role in the new Lincoln Center Theater production—where you’d definitely notice her as the girl on the balcony in her underwear—but also because of her prominent placement in the poster for her last show, In the Heights.
The In the Heights poster that’s been a familiar sight in Times Square, subway stations and various other places around town over the past couple of years has Nina near the front, wearing a short skirt and being lifted in the air with her leg extended. She also appeared on the Broadway Bares XX poster this year, the only woman in a group of three naked gypsies.
Lafarga was in In the Heights throughout its 2007 off-Broadway run and from its Broadway opening in early 2008 right up until this July, when she left to go into rehearsals for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The David Yazbek musical, based on Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 breakthrough film, opens this Thursday. Starring Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Sherie Rene Scott and Laura Benanti, Women is the first new musical of the season having its world premiere on Broadway. (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Scottsboro Boys ran off-Broadway last season.)
In Women on the Verge, Lafarga plays Ana, who lives in the same building as Pepa (Scott) and is often riding around on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle. Lafarga has other parts in some musical numbers, like an actress in a film-within-the-play and one in a trio of bob-haired nurses. Interviewed during the show’s final week of previews, Lafarga tells BWW: “I feel things opening inside me as an artist and a performer that had not been opened before. Watching these artists—like Patti, Sherie, Laura—on stage and watching their process, I’m just so inspired and it’s challenging me in so many ways. Every day I feel like I’m jumping over little hurdles, and I feel like I grow so much from the experience.”
Of performing in a star-laden production, she remarks, “I’m like a sponge watching them. They’re such strong women, they’re obviously incredibly talented, obviously have all this experience and are so admired in the community. They’re divas in the sense that they’re so huge. But they’re just beautiful women too—they’re honestly so caring and loving and just embracing of the entire cast at all times. That’s a wonderful feeling: To see after all this time, they have big hearts.” And there’s someone else in the Women of the Verge cast she’s happy to be working with: Luis Salgado, her dance partner from In the Heights (and the April 2007 Gypsy of the Month).
In addition to three previous Broadway shows, Lafarga was in August’s Shakespeare in the Park presentation of The Capeman and last winter’s production of Fanny at City Center Encores! Earlier, she was on the national tour of Aida for a year, then had a regular ensemble role in the Broadway production toward the end of its run in 2004. She’s also danced on episodes of 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live and performed in Broadway Bares, the annual burlesque fund-raiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, five times—dancing the lead in her number three of those years.
Lafarga’s first two roles on Broadway were as replacements, first in Aida and then in the 2005 revival of Sweet Charity. Both shows were choreographed by Wayne Cilento, and Lafarga says, “I’m so grateful to him for giving me that break.” Prior to joining the Broadway cast of Aida as a vacation swing in 2002 before she did the tour, she’d had no experience in musical theater. None. As a child, high school and college student, she was all about dance. She was in the dance program at New World School of the Arts, a public performing arts H.S. in her hometown of Miami, and majored in dance at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, expecting to join a modern dance company after graduation. She’d begun training at age 7 when a friend started taking classes and she wanted to go along. “I was hooked, and it became my life.” Growing up, she trained at Joe Michaels Miami Dance Center, where her main teacher was Mia Michaels, now famous as a choreographer/judge of So You Think You Can Dance (Michaels was also on the New World faculty).
During Lafarga’s senior year at NYU, she was a member of the Knicks City Dancers, who perform at the NBA team’s home games. Her first jobs out of college were mostly in so-called commercial dance—videos, awards shows, backing up singers. She toured for over a year with Mya, performed in Alicia Keys’ concerts and was a dancer on one of Jennifer Lopez’s international promotional tours. She also danced for hip-hop artists Mario and Amerie.
One of her first professional gigs was perhaps the ultimate gig for a backup dancer—with Michael Jackson. She was part of the “Michael Jackson: The Solo Years 30th Anniversary Celebration” at Madison Square Garden in 2001, which featured Jackson and such stars as Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, Liza Minnelli, Britney Spears and Usher performing his music (as well as the first performance by the Jackson Five in 20 years). “It was so awesome,” says Lafarga. “I literally thought: If for some reason my career doesn’t go anywhere after this, I’d be okay. Just being on stage at the Garden and seeing him on stage with me…can I top this?”
Though the intense security surrounding Jackson stands out in her mind (the rehearsal studio went into virtual lockdown when he was present), Lafarga also remembers the late icon as “very friendly, nice, soft-spoken in that way he spoke.” And, she adds, “very complimentary to the dancers, and grateful for everyone to be there. He knew what he wanted, and was adamant about the way he wanted the dance to look and the music to sound. He worked with us on the original ‘Beat It’ choreography and gave us his style.”
Getting to perform in that superstar-studded milieu early in her career is not, however, what Lafarga remembers most about the MJ concerts. The two performances took place over a weekend in late summer 2001—the first on Friday, September 7, and the second on Monday, September 10. Lafarga went to bed very late Monday night, after a joyous after-party, and was awakened the morning of the 11th by the delivery of some congratulatory flowers. The deliveryman told her to turn on her television. “A super high, and then a super low the next morning,” she says.
Unfortunately, another sad event coincided with a subsequent milestone in Lafarga’s career. A couple of months before the off-Broadway premiere of In the Heights—the first musical in which she created a role as part of the original cast—her father passed away. “I don’t know if I want to talk about it,” she says, “but it’s affected my career and myself as a performer. It’s like I was a different person than I am now.”
Lafarga’s father was from Cuba; her mother’s from Trinidad. When she was very young, Lafarga and her family lived in Miami’s Little Havana quarter—near her paternal grandparents, cousins and many other Spanish speakers (so she learned the language even though English was spoken at home). The family moved to another, non-Latino-majority neighborhood in Miami when Nina was in middle school. So for Lafarga, like almost all other cast members of In the Heights, it was a matter of personal pride as well as a professional achievement to appear in a Broadway show set in a Latino neighborhood, celebrating the variety of Latino cultures. “It means so much to all of us,” she says. “It was sort of this divine intervention in all of our lives...the fact that we could be who we are on a Broadway stage. It’s wonderful to play other parts and be other people and wear costumes, but to just be me, I don’t have to put on something, that was fun and powerful.”
Knowing the show had a similar effect on many people in the audience gave the In the Heights experience additional meaning. “We’ve influenced so many kids and people that, I think, don’t usually go to see Broadway. Seeing their faces when they could see themselves on the stage was so rewarding,” she says, adding: “Being first generation in this country, I want to inspire other people that maybe don’t grow up having certain luxuries and access to certain things that they may need to become successful.”
The Lafarga family has produced not just one but two Broadway performers: Nina’s younger sister Kelly is a swing in Wicked. She has another younger sister, Sasha, who also sings and dances but just locally in Miami. Kelly made her Broadway debut this summer, and with two of her daughters now working in New York, their mother has moved to the city from Miami. “We love each other, we support each other, we see each other in our performances, we post things about each other on our Facebook pages,” Nina says of sharing a profession with her sibling. “When she first came up [to NYC], I wanted to help her get into this so it wouldn’t be as hard for her as it was for me.”
Once Nina had decided to venture into musical theater, she learned the ropes mostly by trial and error. “I just did what I loved and never thought about these other business aspects of it that I would need. I was kinda clueless in the sense that I didn’t know anything about agents, I didn’t know how to set up a résumé, what kind of headshots I needed, what to wear, what not to wear, how to wear your hair, how not to wear your hair—all these little things that are so important,” says Lafarga, who would advise newcomers to “watch people that you admire that are successful and not be afraid to talk to people and find out what they did.”
When she transitioned into theater, she began taking acting and singing lessons, and continues with them to this day. She also had to somewhat retrain herself as a dancer. “I now have the freedom to act,” Lafarga says. “The dancers that I admired in musicals were the dancers that were not only incredibly trained and technical but were actors and could tell the story through their dancing and knew when to drop the technique and just be a person. A lot of dancers don’t know how to break out of that turnout and placement and walking as a dancer, and just be a human. I had to learn to do that, coming from such a strict training background.” Even after she was cast in a show, she was still discovering things about working in musical theater. To cite one example, she says, “I was like, There are numbers on the stage [the dancers’ marks]? In modern dance, it’s all spatial awareness.”
Whatever type of dancing she’s doing, ultimately it’s two aspects of dance that drive her. “I love the deepness of the art form of dance,” says Lafarga, “but I also love just entertaining.” She got an early jump on that with all the singing that took place at family gatherings and neighborhood parties when she was growing up. She also used to make movies with her cousins, and first performed on stage when she sang a duet at her kindergarten graduation. She was able to see shows on Broadway when she came to New York City with her studio for dance competitions; Jelly’s Last Jam and Five Guys Named Moe are among the earliest she remembers.
Her career has extended to film and television work, and she’d like to do even more of them in the future. Lafarga appears as a backup dancer for fictional pop star Cora Corman (Haley Bennett) in the Drew Barrymore/Hugh Grant rom-com Music and Lyrics and danced to the Doogie Howser, M.D. theme in a Saturday Night Live Digital Short with Neil Patrick Harris. She’s also danced on SNL episodes hosted by Antonio Banderas and Matthew Fox and had small acting roles on the soap operas All My Children and As the World Turns. Other TV appearances include the broadcasts of the World Music Awards, American Music Awards and MTV Video Music Awards, the latter in a number with Beyoncé.
Photos of Nina, from top: the two show posters that have given her a lot of exposure!; far right, with (from left) Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone, de’Adre Aziza, Sherie Rene Scott and Jennifer Sanchez of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; dancing with Lin-Manuel Miranda in In the Heights; with Paul Simon, composer of The Capeman; at right, in Heights with (from left) Corbin Bleu, Luis Salgado, Marcy Harriell and Will Wingfield; belly dancing in Fanny earlier this year.