BWW Interview: 6 Questions & a Plug with IN THE HEIGHTS' Justin Gregory Lopez
The Ordway is soon to open another original production of a show that's only toured here once before and somehow I missed it. Now that I'm thoroughly obsessed with Lin-Manuel Miranda (LMM) like any self-respecting theatre lover is, I have to admit I've never seen one of his shows (what?!). I'm DYING to see HAMILTON and waiting for November this year when I'll travel to Chicago to do just that. But his first hit, IN THE HEIGHTS, opens at the venerable St. Paul stage Sept. 12 and stars a number of local and non-local actors including some through a collaboration with Teatro del Pueblo. Today, however, we get to learn more about this production and one of it's stars, Justin Gregory Lopez. And hear his great story about his past association with LMM. Read this edition of 6 Questions & a Plug and then join me in heading to the Ordway to see my first LMM show!
Justin, for those of us who have not been fortunate enough to see IN THE HEIGHTS before, can you tell us a little about the story and your character, Usnavi?
If you haven't seen this show yet, you're in for a treat! This inventive musical strayed from the status quo and raised the bar for the Broadway musical through its unique voice and sound that will undoubtedly have you running home to download the cast album and sing along.
The story of IN THE HEIGHTS is about a Latin American community in Washington Heights ("Inwood," for those who know the area, or "the upper-Upper West Side" if you're accompanied by a broker) on the verge of major changes. In retrospect, this show is a "period piece" about a time long, long ago way back in 2008 when working class people could still afford to call Manhattan home (Yeah, I said it...).
I play Usnavi, an orphaned bodega owner who has inherited his parents' "dime-a-dozen" business and dreams of the day he can leave it all behind. But in the meantime, as a mainstay of the neighborhood, he provides the audience with unique insight into the private lives of the people who live on his block during this soon-to-be, not-just-any Fourth of July weekend.
You've played this role before in a regional production in Florida -- what is your favorite part of Usnavi's story and/or a song you love, and why?
It's impossible to pick a favorite song; I'm pretty sure at one point or another, I've claimed that each and every song in the show has been my favorite. I can say that one of my favorite aspects of this show-and playing this role-is the use of rap to aid the storytelling process. Usnavi has a whole lot to tell the audience from the get-go, so rap is by far the best method to catch up an audience on years of stories in about a seven-and-a-half minute opening number.
Obviously, people are more familiar than ever with Lin-Manuel Miranda from HAMILTON, and this is his first Broadway hit. I heard that you actually were a HAMILTON standby during the Hamilton Mixtape early days. What can you tell our readers about that experience and working with Lin?
Being a part of that early incarnation of HAMILTON (then, THE HAMILTON MIXTAPE), was career changing for me on such a deeply personal level. Right around that time, I was going through some personal issues: growing pains, financial struggles, crushing self-doubt-you know, standard-issue challenges that come with being an aspiring artist in New York. I was having a hard time trying to find an identity in an industry that seemed intent on pigeon-holing me into unsavory Latinx stereotypes.
When I got the call about HAMILTON and realized I'd be stepping into the role for the first week while Lin was still writing it, I think I was in shock. I was working a late-night job and then tirelessly during the day to catch up on what Lin himself said was the "equivalent to learning two full Jay-Z albums" in about four days. The whole experience was fast and furious and surreal, and I remember stepping away from it thinking, "New York is not ready. They're going to rename the Tonys after this."
As for a fun Lin-Manuel Miranda story, I recall him poking his head in on one rehearsal looking exhausted, but restlessly optimistic, wearing pajama pants, some slippers, and a black t-shirt that said "Genius" on it, and just casually dropping off three brand new songs that he just wrote... like, no big deal. "Wait For It" was one of those songs and the whole room lit up when he performed it for us for the first time.
After that week, being around that team, witnessing their resolve, their hard work, and their dedication to their craft was inspiring and life changing for me. It was the first time I realized that my standard-issue BFA theatre training was not going to be enough for me if I was to succeed in this industry; especially as a person of color. I was going to have to supplement my education by learning to communicate music that was newer and more challenging than the traditional musical theatre repertoire that I learned in college.
That's an amazing story - thanks for sharing that! Do you hope to get a chance to play a part in HAMILTON again now that it's a worldwide phenomenon? What other roles are you dying to play?
Oh, absolutely. It's probably the only show I wouldn't mind covering a number of roles for just for the opportunity to play them all. I imagine being an understudy/stand-by/cover for HAMILTON is uniquely fulfilling in that way. I would revel in the opportunity to do the show again, especially now that I have had some experience doing IN THE HEIGHTS.
As for favorite roles I'm dying to play-Judas in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, Che in EVITA, Quasimodo in HUNCHBACK; deeply flawed, conflicted characters with layers. But even more so, I'd love to originate a role. There's nothing more gratifying than working on new material.
You were in St. Paul at the Ordway last year in PAINT YOUR WAGON so you may be familiar to many regular patrons. What did you take away from your first experience on the Ordway stage?
To be completely honest, I had no idea how PAINT YOUR WAGON was going to be received in Minnesota. From what I understood about the Twin Cities' musical theatre scene, audiences are very savvy and have very high regard and high expectations for their classics. In we came with a modern spin on one of the most heralded songwriting teams in classical musical theatre, while I was playing a role that told a long-forgotten story about the Mexican-Indigenous roots in the fabric of American history, during an election season that featured heightened racial tension and social conservativism.
To put it mildly, I really didn't know what to expect at first, but it became clear after the first few performances that this is a city that really knows its theatre. It was humbling to be received so warmly by audiences, to read the insightful reviews and social media commentary (yup, guilty), and to share the stage with local favorites Ann Michels and Dieter Bierbrauer who incredibly stepped into the show [and KILLED IT] on only a few days of rehearsal. It was an amazing experience. It showed me just how strong and thriving the theatre scene is here in the Twin Cities.
Where are you from originally and what brought you to acting professionally for your career?
I was born and raised in New Jersey, the first of three children to Puerto Rican parents. My folks were from the 'hood, so they worked their fingers to the bone to make sure my siblings and I were able to easily assimilate into working-to-middle-class Americanized culture. They settled on the town of Vernon, NJ, where my mother ran a daycare out of our house and my father commuted an hour-plus to work and back every day to manage a Catholic cemetery.
I'm very fortunate for my parents' sacrifices and for my upbringing in Vernon, where I was able to find solace in a community theatre organization headed by a man we just lost this year, Mr. William Donald. It was during his summer theatre program where I got my first opportunity to perform on a stage and I just fell in love with it. Mr. Donald made sure we all understood and respected the many moving pieces that made the whole production come together, and I'll always be grateful for that invaluable education.
As for becoming a professional? I don't know when it dawned on me to pursue it as a profession. I think it just happened. Funny, I never think of it as work. Anyone who does this knows the real "work" is everything you do in between the gigs. Although I am technically a professional, I am always, always, ALWAYS a student first and foremost.
We always end on a chance to plug your next project -- what is up for you after IN THE HEIGHTS closes on Sept. 24?
After IN THE HEIGHTS closes at the Ordway, we'll be taking the show on the road to the Victoria Theatre in Dayton, Ohio, for a week in October. After that, I have a couple of regional productions coming up soon (as well as something brand new, never-before-seen that will be going into development soon in NYC), but I am under strict gag orders until the official press releases come out. I know I'm being cryptic, but I can say that I am excited to play a dream role up next.
Learn more about Justin and keep up with his next projects at: http://www.justingregorylopez.com/
IN THE HEIGHTS is directed and choreographed by Teatro del Pueblo Artistic Director Al Justiniano and Ordway Vice President of Programming and Producing Artistic Director James A. Rocco, in association with Alexander Gil Cruz, Giselle Mejia and Ashley Selmer.
Featuring music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, IN THE HEIGHTS opened on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in March 2008, running for 1,184 performances. The original production was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning four: Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations. It won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album and was also nominated for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
IN THE HEIGHTS plays Sept. 12-24. This Ordway Original production will be brought to life through a collaboration with Teatro del Pueblo. Tickets start at $37 and can be purchased online at www.ordway.org, by phone at 651-224-4222 or in-person at the Ordway ticket office.
Photo: Justin Gregory Lopez (Usnavi) - courtesy of Ordway Center for Performing Arts