BWW Interviews: JOSEPH MORALES Takes On 'IN THE HEIGHTS'
On the surface, taking over the lead role of Usnavi in the National Tour of IN THE HEIGHTS-now performing at the Orange County Performing Arts Center through August 15-seems like a daunting task to tackle, especially after observing first-hand the man who created the role reprising it for six weeks in the tour's celebrated Los Angeles stop. But for actor Joseph Morales, assuming the role full-time directly following Lin-Manuel Miranda is nothing short of a realization of a dream.
Fulfilling this dream required a few stops along the way: he was in the original cast of the off-Broadway show Henry and Mudge, toured with The Road Company of Bombay Dreams, was in the L.A./Las Vegas cast of Rock of Ages, and also appeared in Paper Mill Playhouse's stage version of High School Musical. He even had a brief (but quite memorable) role in the indie comedy sequel Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds.
Morales is also no stranger to the O.C., having spent some time performing the title role of Aladdin in the stage musical showcased at the Hyperion Theatre in Disney's California Adventure park (that other theme park across from Disneyland).
And, of course, he's logged in plenty of performances since last year as an ensemble player in the tour of IN THE HEIGHTS, occasionally stepping into Usnavi's sneakers at various times (including Miranda's days off during the Pantages Theatre stop). He finally took over the role full-time last week during the tour's San Diego stop, which he will now proudly carry over here to Costa Mesa.
A few weeks ago, before stepping back into rehearsals, Morales spoke briefly with BroadwayWorld's Michael Lawrence Quintos to talk about getting impromptu rap lessons directly from Lin-Manuel, his personal and professional background, and what it means for him to play the lead role in one of musical theater's biggest new hits.
BWW: Hi, Joseph! How are you enjoying being back in Southern California?
Morales: Oh, it's been amazing! Actually, I used to live here, so it's nice to be back!
Oh, cool! Where exactly?
I used to live in North Hollywood, and I was working for Disney for about a year and a half. So, yeah, I actually lived in the Valley for a little bit.
So how have rehearsals been going?
They're going really well. We're bringing in a few new cast members [to the tour], so we're just having a few more rehearsals to get them ready. They are all going to debut in San Diego.
Have you had many chances to play "Usnavi" during the L.A. run?
Yes, I have! Actually, I was just on last week... Lin was sick last week. And then I will be in for the next two Sunday matinees.
Great! So, you have been a member of the ensemble since the tour started, and now you're stepping into the lead role full-time. How has the transition been?
I mean, I'll know in two weeks [in San Diego]. [Laughs] I don't know how it feels to play the role eight times a week yet, but I've done it enough to know that I'm going to love it! But as far as, you know, the amount of work, I don't know what that's going to be like yet. But I do know that it's an incredible opportunity and I'm very grateful, thankful and humbled. I'm still kind of on cloud nine about it! It still hasn't really set in.
How did it feel, then, to actually watch first-hand the very guy who originated and created the show night-after-night at the Pantages Theatre?
Ah! It's been so incredible! It's the perfect scenario, actually. I can just sit back and watch him do his thing, and then... you know, take notes and [rehearse] it once a week to kind of try things before I have to take it over officially. I mean, it really is the best of both worlds.
Has he given you any specific advice about how to best handle the role?
Oh, yeah, he has! Lin is full of advice and he's such an open book. You can ask him anything! Most recently though-which was kind of terrifying-he made me freestyle with him, which was a very humbling and, actually, terrifying experience! [Laughs] He'd always play around saying, "Hey, Joseph, okay today we're gonna freestyle!" because he knows I'm afraid of it. But, geez, you know, there's no way to go up against Lin when it comes to that. I mean, he's just incredible. I don't know how he comes up with the things he comes up with. We were actually at our 4th of July barbecue that the Pantages Theatre threw for the cast, and he pulled me aside-well, me and Rogelio [Douglas Jr.], the actor who plays Benny-he just threw us into this freestyle session. And it was [Laughs]... crazy!
So how did you do?
How did I do?! [Laughs] Uh... well... let's just say that I'm glad there were no recordings of that! [Laughs]
Awww. You mean we won't see it on YouTube or anything?
No! Absolutely not! You know, I don't think I did very well, actually. [Laughs]
Now, can you share briefly what the audition process was like for getting into a show as huge as IN THE HEIGHTS?
Well, it took about a year-from my first audition to actually getting cast. They were not messing around. I think I was in maybe, like, eight times. Towards the end, they actually had two whole days of just the "potentials" working with [director] Thomas Kail, [musical director] Alex Lacamoire, and [choreographer] Andy Blankenbuehler in just, like, one-on-one work sessions.
Is that pretty standard, to go through such intense callbacks?
I think it depends on the show. It wasn't normal for me... I've never been through something like that. But I know that for something like JERSEY BOYS, there's a "Frankie Camp" and for HAIRSPRAY, there was a "Tracy Camp." They do them for roles that are really... well, you know, they want to make sure that they can find people who can carry a show, because these are roles that can't just go to people who happen to come in with [one] good audition. I think they want to really dissect them as people, just to make sure that they are capable doing everything they need them to do.
Now, I'd like to know your perspective on what your character is all about. Who is Usnavi to you?
Hmmm. My character. Well, Usnavi is... he's kind of like Tevye [from Fiddler On The Roof]. He narrates the show and he's a big part of the plot. But all these stories are weaving around him and his bodega. In a lot of ways the bodega is also kind of a character in the show. But, yeah, there are all these stories that weave in and out, and Usnavi just kind of guides the audience through [them all]. It's interesting because he's still so involved with the plot and he's affected by the plot. He's the narrator, but he's flawed like everyone else. He makes mistakes, but he's always trying to do the right thing. So you're riding through the stories with him.
Do you see any part of yourself in Usnavi?
Um. I would say that we're both big dorks. [Laughs] Absolutely. Well, and we're both family guys. I love that he really puts his family first. And I feel like I do as well.
Great! So let's talk a little bit about your background. You mentioned that you were from L.A. Where were you trained?
I went to Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. But, you know, like [the character of] Nina Rosario, I also dropped out! [Laughs] So my training, literally, was in just pounding the pavement and just doing shows. I got a little anxious in college and just wanted to be in New York. So I decided to just, you know, do it.
Where did you grow up?
My dad was in the military, so we moved around a lot. I grew up in El Paso, Texas until I was about 11. Then we moved to Virginia and then Hawaii, actually. So, I went to high school in Hawaii.
Cool! What's the theater scene like in Hawaii?
Actually, the theater scene in Hawaii is incredible! I mean, they really put a lot of value in the arts. I was actually really fortunate. I pretty much think that's the reason why I continued with it because I had such an amazing experience in Hawaii with their community theater. They are just the most incredible, supportive people, and is really a huge reason why I'm still doing it. I loved it then so much that I couldn't imagine doing anything else.
Did you know all along growing up that you wanted to be an actor?
Absolutely not. I was never one of those kids who, like, would break out in song and dance. I was always pretty shy. The only reason why I ever auditioned for my first show, which was in middle school, was so that I could meet other kids, because we moved around all the time. It was a way for me to just meet people. Then it just kind of grabbed me.
Who were some of your influences growing up?
Acting-wise, Meryl Streep has always been somebody that I just... If I could just get into her brain... she's just amazing! You know that song in Fame, "Think of Meryl Streep?" [Laughs] I always think, "what would Meryl Streep do?" And now, I think that was really stupid and I'm mortified that I just said that out loud. [Laughs]
You could make a bracelet out of that! "What Would Meryl Streep Do?"
[Laughs] I could! Um... but, let's see... who else... I mean, there's a ton. Edward Norton has always been a big one. I was always more into Film and TV actors rather than theater actors. I mean, there are Broadway stars that I love, but in terms of, like, acting and performances and things like that, those are who I always gravitate to.
As for musical theater, who are some of your idols?
Well, I grew up during the RENT days, so there are guys like Adam Pascal. Norbert Leo Butz. I loved Jason Robert Brown's stuff. What else? Oh, Alan Cumming! I was obsessed with CABARET!
Great! So, you'll continue with the show in L.A. for six weeks and soon you'll be doing a two-week run here in Orange County, which is, as you know, the home Disneyland! I understand you were in Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular, the stage show at Disney's California Adventure!
I was! I played Aladdin.
Can you talk a little bit about that experience?
Sure! I actually just moved to New York and then booked that show out of New York. So I went right from New York to Disney and L.A. It was a great experience! It was, like, my first big job, and Disney is... quite the company. They have everything down to a tee. But, yeah, it was exciting. It was my first time moving someplace and really being entrenched into a show and getting to meet all these amazing new people. I was kind of getting a taste of what showbiz life is all about. So, yeah, it was a great experience. I met a lot of great people who are still my really good friends now.
Now, were you there when Eden Espinosa was starting out there?
No, I wasn't. But I would hear stories about her all the time! I think she did Step In Time, which was the [musical] show that was there right before Aladdin went into that theater. But a lot of the cast members would talk about her a lot, and I even remember her coming through backstage, but I was always just too afraid to say hi. [Laughs] I was a little star-struck at the time, and I still am. Actually, we just saw her when we were playing up in San Francisco. She was [back playing] Elphaba in WICKED.
So, over the years, of all the roles you've taken on, does any one stand out as your favorite?
Um...This one! [Laughs] Absolutely. This is like... the dream role. I still can't believe that I'm doing it. I mean, I've been one of the biggest fans of this show when it came out. I still have to pinch myself. [I thought] just being in the ensemble was enough, you know? And now that I'm stepping into Usnavi, it's just so incredible.
That said, are there any other dream roles in other musicals you'd like to maybe take on someday?
Absolutely. There's going to be a new [Broadway] revival of EVITA, and I would love to be Ché. I know Ricky Martin is doing it, but I'll take Standby! [Laughs]
Well, let's put it out there! Someone could be reading this and....
Yeah! Let's put it out there! [Laughs] I'll put it out there in the universe and let's see what happens!
I would love for someone to do Children of Eden on Broadway. Actually, I would love to do ANY production of Children of Eden. I would love to play Adam and Noah. It's an incredible show that hasn't been done nearly enough.
Great! So, now before I conclude our interview, I'd like to throw out some rapid-fire questions at you. Just tell me the first thing that pops into your head, okay?
Oh, God! Okay. This is going to feel like I'm freestyling... [Laughs]
[Laughs] Well, it will be good practice then. And your answers don't have to rhyme! Okay. What's your favorite musical of all time?
Children of Eden.
What song do you like belting in the shower or when you're all alone in the car?
OH! This is embarrassing! I like singing "This Is The Moment" a lot, from Jeckyll & Hyde! [Laughs]
Who is the person you admire the most?
Oooh... right now? It's gotta be Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Good answer! What scares you the most?
Lin-Manuel Miranda. [Laughs]
Okay, now why is that?
Well, you know... He's just... [Pauses] I don't know! I mean, it's a little intimidating! You know, the whole circumstance of like... the show... and understudying him and ... it's just this whole process right now. As amazing as he is, it's still intimidating... because I want to do it right, and I want to make him proud, you know?
Understood. Okay, what is your one guilty pleasure?
Oh... reality television. Hoarders! Have you seen it? It's amazing! Ohmigod! [Laughs]
I agree! Alright... what or who irritates you the most?
What or who... [Pauses] I have to say... people who just don't know how to eat...like snacks. I don't like snackers. Always been my biggest pet peeve.
Care to elaborate?
Oooh! Would you like me to? People... just chomping away, having no idea that they're in a public setting, and are just, like, being so disgusting! [Laughs]
Ah. Gotcha. Well... the opposite of that question: What instantly puts a smile on your face?
If you weren't an actor, what other career do you see yourself doing instead?
I know that I'd probably be doing something like real estate. Or the idea of "flipping houses," although that's illegal now. [Laughs] But if it wasn't illegal, then that's what I'd be doing.
What is the one piece of advice you'd like to share to young theater students hoping to one day do exactly what you are doing right now?
Never give up! Don't let anybody tell you that you can't do anything. It takes persistence. I mean, yes, a lot of it is [based on] talent, but most of it is persistence. It's about being ready for the right opportunity.
Alright. One final question. What can Orange County audiences-those who have never seen the show-expect to see once IN THE HEIGHTS comes here?
Now, I'm speaking as a fan of the show-as an audience member-not even as an actor in the show. This show is so incredibly special. I don't think that anything like it has been around, for sure, while I've been alive. I mean, I've never experienced anything like it. And the heart that is on that stage... the people on that stage who do it every night want to be there. It's a magical experience, and you can just feel the love on that stage. The story is universal, and I guarantee that anyone can take something from it... and it's told in a way that's never been seen on stage before.
Well, yeah! There you have it! [Laughs]
Performances of the 1st National Tour of IN THE HEIGHTS at the Orange County Performing Arts Center continue through August 15 and are on Tuesdays – Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
Tickets to see IN THE HEIGHTS start at $20 and are available online at OCPAC.org, at the Center's Box Office at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa or by calling 714.556.2787.
$20 STUDENT RUSH tickets are available for students 1 hour before showtime with required valid I.D. (Cash only, strictly one ticket per student, excluding Saturday shows). For inquiries about group ticket discounts for 15 or more, call the Group Services office at 714.755.0236. The TTY number is 714.556.2746.
The 2 p.m. performance on Saturday, August 14 will be sign-language interpreted.
For more information, visit OCPAC.org. For more about the IN THE HEIGHTS tour, visit www.InTheHeightsTheMusical.com.