Interview: Star, Director of IN THE HEIGHTS Orlando Premiere Chat Show's Historical Significance

By: Jun. 03, 2015

In 2007, Lin-Manuel Miranda's energetic love-letter to his neighborhood burst onto the Off-Broadway scene. From there, IN THE HEIGHTS went to Broadway, earning four Tony Awards and a Grammy, making Miranda a star. As the show's creator, composer, lyricist, and original star, Miranda has become one of musical theatre's most exciting young voices. His new musical, HAMILTON, the multi-ethnic, hip-hop infused story of America's first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, is sweeping this year's Off-Broadway awards, and transfers to Broadway later this summer.

This weekend the Great Orlando Actors Theatre and Baggy Pants Theater will debut the Central Florida Premiere of IN THE HEIGHTS at The Orlando Shakespeare Theatre. For more information on the show and to purchase tickets, visit their website.

Recently, I chatted via email with the show's star, Fredy Ruiz, and director, Paul Castaneda. They talked about what makes this show significant in musical theatre history, and why it is an important representation of Latino characters on stage.

BWW: Usnavi is kind of contradiction in the history of musical theatre; from a character standpoint, he is pretty traditional, even reminiscent of Tevye from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, but from a musical standpoint, he is unlike anything else that has come before him. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, what makes Usnavi such a compelling and unique character?

Ruiz: He is both a storyteller and a character within the story. His point of view is one that really hasn't been expressed in theatre and film until IN THE HEIGHTS. Latinos are usually seen as stereotypical characters; gang members or super flamboyant types. He is a multi-faceted character who is a regular guy. He has one skill set that no other character in the history of musical theatre has ever had, which is to rap while narrating the story.

For most fans, when they think about Usnavi they think about Lin-Manuel Miranda; how do you find yourself in a character that is so intensely associated with the person who not only created him on stage, but also actually created him?

Paul Castaneda, our director, was very adamant about not copying any cast that has come before. We all praise the original production, I, myself, look up to Lin-Manuel for his brilliant portrayal on the character. Thankfully, being Latino I am able to use my own experiences to bring a different spin to the character.

Like Miranda, you are Puerto Rican, and while Usnavi is Dominican, does being a part of this show, which celebrates so many different aspects of the Latino community, have any special meaning to you?

The show holds a special meaning to me because, although I am Puerto Rican and not Dominican, it reminds me that we all go through the same struggles, and that we are more alike than we think. The message of the show embodies love, community, family, and, most of all, the meaning of home. I believe every single person will find something to relate to on a human level that surpasses race, gender, or creed.

Did you have a lot of rapping experience before the show, or was that something you had to work on?

I did not. I am a musical theatre kid at heart and would listen to other shows that did not have rap until IN THE HEIGHTS. So, I would say the rapping was a challenge to learn, but I had a blast spending time on it. I have a lot of respect for rappers, because it is truly an art. Lin- Manuel was able to not only incorporate rap music into theatre, but is used as a narration to move the story forward.

BWW: You've said that this is the biggest production in the history of Greater Orlando Actors Theatre, so what was it about this show that made you want to take on this challenge?

Castaneda: The show really resonates with me, it was brought to me initially by people whose artistic opinion I value, chief among them, my wife. As a Latino, I think it is immensely important to present ourselves positively, realistically, and in our own language. This show does exactly that.

IN THE HEIGHTS is a story about family and community, and, despite some standout roles, it is very much an ensemble show. So, tell me about the cast that you have assembled.

This may be the most talented cast I have ever had. When I say that every member of the ensemble is capable of a lead role in a production, that is not a stretch. Add to that their willingness to push themselves physically, emotionally, and artistically, and you have a powerful force.

While Lin-Manuel Miranda has written some really cool raps for IN THE HEIGHTS, the heart of the show is in traditional musical theatre showtunes. What would you say to a traditionalist who might be unsure about seeing a musical that features rapping?

I would tell them that musical theater history shows us many points where new styles, new approaches, and new techniques were employed for the benefit of all. The rapping in this show is from the heart, serves the story and the character, and resonates in truth. Isn't that the definition of great musical theater?

Growing up in New York City, you have said that you spent a lot of time in Washington Heights, what makes that community in Upper Manhattan so special?

Washington Heights is like no other place I've experienced. The energy is palpable. The pride, individually, and collectively is apparent. The way that different little enclaves within the Heights form sub-communities of mutually supportive denizens is wonderful to see. And this show nails all of these elements.

If you could describe the experience that audiences will have seeing the show in just a few words, what would you say?

They will experience real characters going through a significant journey over the course of three days and being forever changed by it. And they will see the single best representation of the Latino community on stage that I have encountered.

Are you excited to cross the GWB into the Heights? Let me know what you are most looking forward to from this Central Florida premiere in the comments below, or by "Liking" and following BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter using the buttons below. You can also chat with me about the show on Twitter @BWWMatt.

Photo Credit: Adam McCabe