BWW Interview: Doreen Montalvo of IN THE HEIGHTS Talks About Progress in Theatre, Latin Communities, and Performing in the Round
In the Heights-it's the show that brought Lin- Manuel Miranda fame, before Hamilton catapulted him into the stratosphere of Broadway legends. In 2008, In the Heights was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical. Broadway at Music Circus has gathered a cast that combines years of experience in this show, from Broadway to Westport to the national tour. Doreen Montalvo, who is playing Camila in this production, was with the show from 2002-2011 in a variety of roles. As an indisputable Washington Heights expert, she was the natural choice to interview about the show that Sacramento has been waiting to see.
You're making your Broadway at Music Circus debut! What is your favorite thing about working there so far?
I love everybody there at the theatre-the crew, the staff, my castmates. Working in the round has been pretty wild. I've done this show a few times and this has been challenging because of the round. It gives the audience and us a sense of community. It's like the neighborhood is surrounding you.
You were in the original Broadway cast of In the Heights, which features Hispanic-American experiences in the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights. What is your background and can you relate to the characters in the show?
Oh, absolutely. Both of my parents are from Puerto Rico, born and raised there. They came to New York in the late 50s. I'm the only one who was born and raised in the states. My brother and sister were born in Puerto Rico. My father called me the Yankee, born and raised in the Bronx. It's very similar to the neighborhood where I grew up in in the Bronx. We had the community, the local bodega, and everybody kind of congregated there. There was a sense of community, a matriarch in the community, everyone went to the same church and school. It's not very far from what I grew up with. My mother was an Abuela Claudia. We had the neighborhood gossip who sat on the bench and saw everyone come and go.
You were also in the original Broadway cast of On Your Feet, the musical about Gloria Estefan. Was the Florida Cuban experience different than that of In the Heights?
Absolutely different. The sense of home and community is the same. Latin communities tend to support each other and lift each other up. The Cuban Miami experience and the New York Urban experience are two totally different things in the neighborhood sense. In the Latinness of it, it's the same. You don't have bodegas, you have panaderias. You don't take the A train, you drive. I've been with In the Heights since 2002, since the very first reading. My journey with the show was from 2002-2011. It's been life changing and fabulous.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has been very vocal about creating roles in theatre for underrepresented groups. Do you think attitudes about casting minorities were changing when you did In the Heights or do you feel that the success of Hamilton pushed that idea to the forefront of the theatre community?
I feel like In the Heights did it, or started it, because it took me until years later to realize when I walked somewhere and someone would say, "You were in In the Heights!" and I was woman #4 on the fire escape and they would say that the show changed their life because they saw us (Latinos) up there. When I was growing up, I saw Chita and Rita, but not my neighborhood up there. I didn't see brown girls with curly hair.
Was West Side Story the only show that represented you?
We were knife-wielding gangsters. There was nothing that represented love and community and our neighborhood. It didn't hit me until after, like wow, we really did do that. People are bringing in their Playbill now and saying, "Wow, you were in this when I was 9!" It was awesome. It's a really beautiful, heartwarming feeling to know that you were a part of something like that.
When you got your start in theatre, were there many roles for minorities?
I did West Side Story and Man of La Mancha, but I also did a lot of shows where I was the one Latina girl in the cast.
What is the biggest challenge facing a Latina actress today?
I don't think there's as much of a challenge now as before. It's so much more open. The casting has become much more diverse than it has been. Things are changing and I'm ready to do Mama Rose!
Yes! Broadway at Music Circus was the first to cast an African-American Ado Annie in Oklahoma! It's wonderful how they are at the forefront of change.
Yes, it really is! It's an exciting time.
You are playing Camila in this version of In the Heights. Can you tell us about your character?
She is a mom, Nina's mother. She's a strong Latin mom who helps her husband run the cab company and she also wants the best for her daughter. She wants her daughter to do better than she did, go to Stanford, which is why she's so disappointed that Nina has come home and dropped out of school. She wants the best for everybody, especially her child and her husband. She's a tough, hard-working, no-nonsense mom. She's successful but she wants her daughter to get out of the barrio, too. I played her many times and understudied Priscilla Lopez on Broadway and went on often. I'm wearing Priscilla's original Broadway dress in the dinner scene and I am so excited because it fits and everything. There are a lot of original Broadway and tour costumes. It's lovely because the original design is there. I don't know how they get them but Sacramento's costumes are amazing.
You're an expert on this show now. In addition to the tryouts, original Broadway cast, and national tour, you'll be in the movie version in 2020! What can you divulge about that?
Here's what I'll say. It is In the Heights 4.0 for 2020. The songs are the same, some of the storyline has changed, but all the changes are for the new generation. It's been amped a little bit for what we as a Hispanic community are going through right now. I'm so excited to have been a part of it. I am the neighbor lady and in the finale and also recorded a lot of the soundtrack vocals.
Experiencing that same show so many times has got to be either boring or comforting. Do you discover new things about the show every time? What keeps you coming back?
Absolutely, because every director has a different vision, so it's really kind of neat to experience that. Working with Marcos Santana and Rickey Tripp, who were in the original company with me, and seeing their vision come to life has been really beautiful. From working with them on stage to having them actually create this is really wild. It's never boring and never the same twice. The different casts and personalities bring new things to it, as well.
Do you have any words of advice to minority performers that are just starting their careers?
Don't give up on that dream. If it's the only thing that you can eat, sleep, breathe, then continue to follow that dream. It's never, ever too late for them to come true. I made my Broadway debut with In the Heights at 41 years old. I was someone who had always wanted to do Broadway and I never thought it would happen. As a kid in the Bronx we didn't go to Broadway shows because we couldn't afford to go. I was 16 when I saw my first Broadway show. My aunt and uncle took me to Sweeney Todd, of all things. It changed my life. It's all I ever wanted to do.
You have an album out, American Soul/Latin Heart. What can you tell us about your music? What does the title mean to you?
It pretty much says it all. It's a really cool album, a juxtaposition of songs I grew up with and Broadway songs that were done in English and we created a Latin arrangement for it. If it was in Spanish, we created an English arrangement. That was me. I was a Latin kid, I was my dad's Yankee in the family. I lived both lives growing up. We spoke Spanish in the house. If my parents started a conversation in Spanish, we had to continue it. If I started a conversation in English, we had to continue. My mom ended up being a schoolteacher for 25 years. That's how I feel, that's me. I have an American soul and a Latin heart. I have the best of both worlds.
Tickets for In the Heights start at $45, and are available by phone at (916) 557-1999, online at BroadwaySacramento.com, or in person at the Wells Fargo Pavilion Box Office, 1419 H Street in Sacramento. Evening performances are Tuesday through Saturday, August 20-24, at 7:30 p.m.; matinee performances are Thursday, Aug. 22 and Saturday, Aug. 24 at 2:00 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 25 at 3:00 p.m. For more information, visit BroadwaySacramento.com.