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Interview: John Leguizamo of KISS MY AZTEC! at Hartford Stage

The brand new musical blends Latin-American history, comedy, and music.

Interview: John Leguizamo of KISS MY AZTEC! at Hartford Stage

Kiss My Aztec! is bringing the party to Hartford Stage, blending Latin-American history, comedy, and music in a brand new musical.

I was buzzing with excitement and couldn't wait to spill the beans to my friends. "I get to interview John Leguizamo!" Everyone immediately gushed and gave me a litany of compliments to pass along:

Interview: John Leguizamo of KISS MY AZTEC! at Hartford Stage

"Tell him he was the best in ER!"

"Luigiii! Tell him, he's amazing!"

"Tell him Moulin Rouge is my favorite movie and I love his voice!"

"Tell him he was my favorite in Romeo & Juliet!"

"No way, the real Bruno?! Tell him, it's my favorite movie!" (This prompted more than one instantaneous sing-a-long of the hit song We Don't Talk About Bruno from Disney's Encanto.)

It's no wonder that each friend had a totally different memory of Leguizamo's work: Over the last three decades, he's starred in over 100 films, produced over 20 films and documentaries, starred on Broadway, made over 30 television appearances, and received a Primetime Emmy Award, Drama Desk Award, Special Tony Award (2018, Lifetime Achievement in Theatre). His 1991 Off-Broadway play, Mambo Mouth, won an Obie Award and Outer Critics Award. Spic-O-Rama, which addressed Latino stereotyping in the USA, won a Drama Desk Award and four Cable ACE Awards. In 2017, he debuted Latin History for Morons, which was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play.

Reviewing Leguizamo's work, it's clear that this writer is on a mission to engage and educate audiences by sharing and celebrating Latin American history and culture. Now, he has found a new way to pursue his endeavors. Alongside acclaimed director Tony Taccone, Leguizamo's brand new musical, called Kiss My Aztec! is making its pre-Broadway premiere this June at Hartford Stage.

It's a hilarious title, so that's a great start. What's the story?

Kiss My Aztec! is an irreverent new musical loosely based on Latin American history. Hartford Stage writes, "Travel back to the 16th century as a group of Aztecs lead the resistance against Spanish invaders. With a fierce female warrior at the helm and a not-so-fierce clown in tow, they mount a scrappy attack - and get entangled with royalty, colonizers, pop stars, and puppets!"

Unlike Latin History for Morons, which Leguizamo describes as, "short sketches to cover 3,000 years of history, highly compressed for a 2-hour show," Kiss My Aztec! goes much deeper. "We're taking the microscope to one moment: The conquest. It was always a broad comedy about conquests because that's the birth of Latin man. It's the 1500's and we're talking about history that many people don't know about, like what happened when the Spaniards came and conquered all the Latin empires." The show focuses on particularly on the conquest of the Aztecs, "What brought them down and how they survived - because they did survive! I wanted to tackle the brutality of it, the end of religions in our culture, our language, and the beginning of something new. That's what this piece is about."

Getting a Latin-American story out to audiences is a challenge. Latinx artists struggle to be heard today, but Leguizamo had an idea that would make sure this broad, touching comedy reaches its audience. He originally wanted to bring the concept to film, but explains, "[It's] difficult it is to get Latin content through the Hollywood gatekeepers and theaters have always been so kind to me, just like Lin-Manuel Miranda. There are just less obstacles being a Latin person getting your content in theater than it is on film. So, I thought, why not make it a musical?"

"Musicals have been a big part of my life: West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and the Wizard of Oz were bigs ones for me. I like the classics, but Hamilton changed my world," Leguizamo shares.

Directly influenced by Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights and Hamilton and pushing-the-envelope comedies like Book of Mormon and Monty Python's Spamalot, Kiss My Aztec! is a full-on contemporary musical featuring entertaining song titles like White People on Boats, Spooneth Me, and New Girl New World.

Kiss My Aztec! Presents a unique opportunity to bring Latin-America's wide variety of music to the Broadway stage and features salsa, gospel, hip hop, merengue, funk, reggaeton, and cumbia. Leguizamo says, "The music is a Latin mix tape that you would hear at one of my parties. The [show's] music makes me wanna get up out of my seat and dance." It definitely sounds like a great party!

The show is, first and foremost, a broad comedy, but with real history and artistry behind it. "It's bawdy and raunchy. [Think] Low brow comedy about very high brow things."

The show infuses bilingual elements (Spanish and English), but don't worry, you don't need subtitles. Leguizamo brings us back into the 16th century with a creative patois to differentiate the Aztecs from the Spaniards, so expect to hear a brand-new mixture that's "a little bit of street" and Elizabethan. He reassures me, "You'll get the feeling, you won't need a translator. You may have to dip into your Google translator to get some of the juicier expletives though," and chuckles.

Leguizamo began writing the show about 8 years ago and gave valuable insight into the process, particularly how the creative team came together. "I wrote the book with some poems, but then I met Benjamin Velez. His [work] was my favorite music of all the young composers out there. I thought his melodies were really unique and beautiful. Then, it was like The Wizard of Oz, and I got David Kamp, who is a brilliant comic writer and lyricist. Kamp came in and made the songs even funnier and sharper. Then, we got Tony Taccone, the first Puerto Rican director to run a major theater for 30 years, who also directed Latin History for Morons. There's no one like him in the world! He's a master of all crafts who can understand music, dance, comedy, acting, storytelling."

Before coming to Hartford Stage, the show was at La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theatre (where Tony Taccone served as Artistic Director), but Kiss My Aztec! has dramatically changed and evolved gearing up for its Broadway run. "We've expanded the cast to deepen the choral voice and we have a new, outrageous choreographer, Mayte Natalio," Leguizamo gushes, "who just did For Colored Girls... She brings flavor, humor, and staging." You can expect to see everything from tango to flamenco, as the team definitely tapped into the wealth and variety that Latin music offers. The costumes (by Scenic Director and Costume Designer Clint Ramos) have changed significantly along with the premise. In previous productions, "We had street performers taking us back in time to what happened, but now that's done. Now, we're totally immersed in the 1500's and our Aztecs are dressed in Aztec garb, con-temporized a bit. The Spaniards are full-on in period correct [pieces]."

Kiss My Aztec! features a diverse and wonderfully representative cast with Broadway performers, many of whom starred in the original productions at La Jolia Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Leguizamo clearly adores his cast, "We've been very loyal and had some great cast members. They have evolved into such great stars in their own right." Surely, you'll recognize many of their names and work:

Krystina Alabado (Broadway: Mean Girls) Angelica Maria Beliard (Broadway: Summer: The Donna Summer Musical), KC Dela Cruz (Kiss My Aztec! for La Jolla Playhouse), Chad Carstarphen (Kiss My Aztec! for Berkeley Rep/La Jolla Playhouse, National Tour of In the Heights), Nicholas Caycedo (Regional: In the Heights), Eddie Cooper (Off-Broadway: The Cradle Will Rock), Richard Ruiz Henry (National Tour: Urinetown), Z Infante (Off-Broadway: Fairycakes; Regional: Kiss My Aztec! at Berkeley Rep/La Jolla Playhouse), Jesus E. Martinez (Film: In the Heights; Regional: Kiss My Aztec! at Berkeley Rep/La Jolla Playhouse), Maria-Christina Oliveras (Broadway: Amélie), Joel Perez (Broadway: Fun Home; Film: Tick, Tick...Boom!), Geena Quintos (Broadway: Miss Saigon), Daniela Rodrigo (Regional: Heathers), Desiree Rodriguez (TV: Orange is the New Black; Regional: Kiss My Aztec! at Berkeley Rep/La Jolla Playhouse), and Matt Saldivar (Broadway: Bernhardt/Hamlet).

Kiss My Aztec! is a huge step forward in presenting Latinx works and Hartford Stage welcomed it with open arms. The Artistic Director, Melia Bensussen, is Mexican and has shared that she is especially passionate about bringing bilingual, Latinx work to the theater. Leguizamo says he specifically chose Hartford Stage because, "[It] is one of the most important theaters in America. They gave us so many huge plays and powerful pieces, like American Buffalo. They're the springboard for Broadway."

Latinx artists frequently fight to be seen. Leguizamo spelled out the hard truths and disheartening facts: Less then 4% of the performers on Broadway are Latinx, yet Latin-Americans make up almost 30% of the New York City population (and 20% of the United States). Stages and audiences are hungry for more as there's a huge market for Hispanic American and Latinx art. "They've shown that with Hamilton and In the Heights, that Latin people come from the tristate area - Connecticut, Washington D.C., Massachusetts... everywhere just to see themselves on stage being celebrated and represented. It's a necessity and not just us being inclusive. I know Latin people will be filling up that house and everybody will follow suit and enjoy the party."

What can audiences expect?

Audiences can expect an incredible evening of humor, history, and uplifting storytelling about the birth origins of America. "It's one of the funniest shows out there. I know I'm biased, but I've gotta say I laugh so hard and the music makes me wanna get up and dance. We need something desperately to uplift us and remind us that we're better together, stronger together, and greater together."

Ain't that the truth? I cannot possibly think of one musical that has attempted to break barriers with such a novel idea. This is sure to be ground-breaking and I, for one, cannot wait to see it. Previews start June 1st and the production runs through June 26th.



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