"In the Heights" takes Wesleyan theater in a new direction and provides a home for its cast.

Tricia Merlino/Contributing Photographer

The cast of “In the Heights” knows that Miranda Haymon ’16, their stage manager, isn’t kidding when she calls out, “Places!” Those who have been practicing outside, dancing in high heels and ruffled skirts in the hallway, immediately enter the studio. Other members of the cast, who have been spinning on the floor in front of the mirror, singing by the piano, and running their lines on the sides of the room, also assemble.

Associate Professor of Theater and show director Claudia Nascimento is ready to go. Her feet are bare and she carries a songbook.

“Get your scripts,” she instructs. And then, when there seems to be a hold up: “Please close the door. Let’s go! Places!”

This is Act 2, Scene 6 of “In the Heights,” which opens November 12. When Nascimento is satisfied with the level of quiet in the studio, she begins to block her cast, moving slowly and deliberately.

“I would like Sonny in the bodega,” she says, and her actors fall into line. “I would like Graffiti Pete to be sitting above him with his legs dangling.”

She is sharp in one moment and laughing in the next; she berates two actors for whispering to each other and then lets out a hilariously over-dramatic “Jesus!” Nascimento’s typical loving firmness, as well as her reputation in the theater department, is what drew many of the actors to the show.

“I think a lot of draw for this production, the reason we got so many people, was because [Nascimento] was directing,” Sara Guernsey ’15 said when The Argus sat down with the cast to discuss the show. “That’s why a lot of people want to do it. This is a total different show. It’s an intense time commitment, and although Claudia might come off as very intimidating”—the cast, which had gathered in a semicircle, laughed at this—“she also, last rehearsal, was dancing around and was trying to steal everybody’s parts. She makes everybody really happy.”

Nascimento grinned.

“I sing along [with] them,” she said.

“In the Heights” is indeed a different show. It’s rare for the department to put on a musical, and it is a change of pace for Nascimento as well.

“I was slandered for several years,” she said. “Everyone said, ‘Claudia hates musicals’….I decided to shock everybody and said, ‘I’ll be doing a musical.’”

The show’s incorporation of song and dance was another factor in many actors’ decisions to audition. Aileen Lambert ’16, who transferred to Wesleyan from a conservatory, remembers being told upon touring that the University does not produce musicals.

“When [Nascimento] said that she was doing a musical, and that she was doing ‘In the Heights,’ it was really exciting because of the alum connection [with original ‘In The Heights’ star Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02], but also just the fact that it was a musical,” Lambert said. “That’s why I auditioned.”

Marcos Plaud ’18 also said that music sparked his interest in the show.

“The way I found out about Wesleyan was by Lin-Manuel Miranda, because I found the soundtrack of the show,” Plaud said. “So thanks to ‘In the Heights,’ I knew that Wesleyan existed. I’m from Puerto Rico, I guess—”

A cast member interrupted indignantly:

“You guess?”

Everyone laughed, and Plaud continued.

“No, I am from Puerto Rico,” he said. “Very proudly. And I loved the soundtrack, and since it’s Latin music I thought it would be awesome to be in it.”

The show features not only Latin music but also many characters of color.

“What first led to me wanting to audition was that I was talking to [Nascimento] in our performance class, and she was making a comment about how all of the shows at Wesleyan are typically cast with kids who are white, and that was really interesting,” Cheyanne Williams ’17 said. “Musicals and Second Stage [shows] are always with kids who are not a minority, and when I found out she was doing ‘In the Heights,’ I was like, ‘I don’t really know that show, but I know it’s all about the Latino community, and that’s really cool.’”

Naomi Wright ’17 agreed.

“I think a lot of us, especially the minority students who I’ve talked to in the show, strongly identify with the storyline and some of the struggles of the characters,” Wright said. “The musical is all about finding home, finding the place that means home to you. And so I think the story speaks to a lot of us.”

For Nascimento, too, the musical is an opportunity to celebrate diversity.

“Last year, when I finally said I was going to do the musical, I had a lot of students come to me and say, ‘Oh, I can’t audition because I’m white,’” she said. “So I’ve been trying to make it clear from the moment that I made the decision that the show is really about community. And therefore it should reflect the diversity on campus, and not be just Latino actors, or just black, or just white. I tried to cast more Asian people, but was not successful. So Rebecca [Hsieh ’17] is our token Asian.”

The cast laughed.

“Actually,” Nascimento continued, speaking to Hsieh and smoothing her hair, “our lighting designer is Korean. So you’re not going to be the only Asian anymore.”

Hsieh smiled, and then spoke up.

“It’s a show with such great characters of color, [and] growing up you don’t see that a lot,” Hsieh said. “I’m Asian, so…I’ve always had to pretend to be white. Having the opportunity to play a character of color is really refreshing.”

Hsieh remembered fighting against her original impulse not to audition for the show.

“I originally wanted to be in the pit band, but I decided that I couldn’t play piano well enough for that, so I thought I might as well audition,” she said. “But then I thought that I couldn’t sing very well, or dance very well, so I decided that I wasn’t going to audition. And then [Nascimento]—was it you who told me to audition?—it was a combination of her and all my friends, so I thought, I might as well.”

Henry Lombino ’18 also had his reservations about signing up for auditions, which were attended by about 100 people, according to Nascimento.

“I was not going to do any theater this year, to have a pretty calm first year, but our stage manager, [Haymon], roped me into auditioning, and then I got cast,” Lombino said. “And that’s the story. And now I’m really happy.”

Haymon jumped in to explain why she’d been so eager to recruit newcomers such as Lombino.

“I think that the department shows are usually limited to theater majors, or people who are connected to the theater community directly, and what was really important for me…is that we have dancers and we have non-dancers; we have theater majors and we have non-theater majors; we have people who have maybe never done theater in their entire lives, and we have people who are going to pursue theater for the rest of their lives,” Haymon said. “We had Middletown High School kids audition! It’s given the sense that you don’t have to be a theater kid, you don’t have to be this, you don’t have to be that, to be in the show, and to be part of something that makes this community. And ‘In the Heights’ has spread its wings throughout the entire community. I have basketball players coming up to me and saying, ‘I’m so excited to see the show!’”

Once the hollers, cheers, and applause for Haymon’s comment had died down, Guernsey spoke up in agreement.

“I love musical theater; it’s one of my favorite things in the world, and I’m so excited that the Theater Department is finally doing that,” Guernsey said. “But when Claudia told me, I said to her, ‘I totally want to be in that…but I can’t dance!’ And she looked at me and goes, ‘Go take hip-hop.’ And so I literally took hip-hop all summer. Still not a dancer, still suck at hip-hop, but I’m still here. It’s a nice, refreshing thing: not all of us are the best dancers, not all of us are actors, but we’re all sort of helping each other out, which is kind of nice.”

The show has welcomed newcomers and veteran singers, dancers, and actors alike. Kimora Brock ’15 has been involved in theater throughout her years at the University, yet “In the Heights” has been an especially exciting opportunity for her.

“This is what I want to do with my life after I graduate Wesleyan, so I’m really excited to be part of this production,” Brock said. “It’s like a launching pad. I get to work with a really awesome director that I haven’t worked with before.”

She looked over at Nascimento, who was speaking quietly to Marcela Oteíza, Assistant Professor of Theater and set designer of the show.

“Claudia, she’s complimenting you!” Guernsey admonished. “You missed a compliment.”

Nascimento jerked to attention.

“What did you say?” she demanded. “What did you say? Repeat!”

Brock laughed.

“I just said I get to work with a really awesome director,” Brock said. “So I’m really excited about that. And I get to learn the process in a really safe environment and use that knowledge for when I go somewhere else after Wesleyan.”

The show has also provided safety and comfort for Plaud.

“Honestly, being here has actually helped me transition into Wesleyan a little bit better,” he said. “Because I’m used to speaking Spanish 24/7, and at least here I get to listen to little bits of it now and then. And I get to listen to music that I’m used to hearing—maybe not music that I would always listen to myself, but the type of music I’d listen to in the streets, or something like that. It’s a familiar feeling to be here.”

The cast cheered: “We love you, Marcos!”

The rehearsal process has not, however, come without its challenges.

“I think the struggle is that we’re Wesleyan kids, and Wesleyan kids are always crazy busy,” Williams said. “You do one million things on the side. It’s really hard in terms of time commitment.”

Ari Markowitz ’17 also spoke to the way in which the show has encroached on his free time.

“Oftentimes, the schedule can be overwhelming, because we’re spending so much time here,” he said. “You’re like, ‘Whoa, why am I spending so much time here?’ But the way that it makes it worth it, especially as someone who doesn’t feel completely confident in some aspects of what I’m bringing to the table here, is that you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m going to come and put as much effort into it as possible and learn as much as I can.’”

Nascimento nodded.

“Well, the other side of it is that I’m trying to teach them that sometimes you have to make choices,” she said, “so that when the production opens, and there are 400 people sitting, and you’re on stage, you won’t regret not having been part of the Tri-State Knitting Meeting instead of being in rehearsal.”

The cast was confused by this.

“Claudia! What?” Guernsey asked.

“That was a weird thing to say,” another cast member agreed.

When the laughter and chatter died down, Daniel Maseda ’16 was reflective.

“I think it’s important to consider that we’re kind of putting on three different shows: we’re doing a dance show, and a concert, and a play at the same time,” he said. “And we’re doing the whole thing in less than eight weeks, more or less. We’re all helping each other, but there’s this immense amount of responsibility to be accountable and respectful of each other. We do have an enormous amount of trust in [Nascimento], but I think [Nascimento] also has an enormous amount of trust in us. She expects a lot of us, because we are capable people. And even if we don’t know that already, we’re learning that by working with each other through this whole process.”

Haymon spoke up again.

“I think what a lot of you are speaking about, and one of the reasons that I do theater, and put in these hours, and send thousands of emails a week, is because it’s a family,” she said. “One time I wasn’t in rehearsal for an hour, and I literally freaked out. It’s a lot about ensemble…like, what we create here as a family, as an ensemble, as a community, learning from each other. As cheesy as it sounds, that’s what gets me out of my bed at 5 p.m. when I just took a nap. I’m like, ‘I’m going to go work with my play.’ Bam. We are all here together trying to make this one thing happen. So let’s just do it.’”

The online version of this article was updated on October 17 to correct the following inaccuracies: Marcos Plaud’s first quotation was misattributed to José Sanchez, and the lighting designer, rather than the set designer, is Korean. 

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