One of the most notable musicals ever produced on the Wesleyan campus was an original work written by a sophomore and produced by the student group Second Stage in 1999. Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02 debuted “In the Heights” in the ’92 Theater, and went on to rework the piece over the next decade until it opened on Broadway and won the Tony for Best Musical in 2008.
Last weekend, Associate Professor of Theater Cláudia Nascimento brought “In the Heights” back to the University, as part of a collaboration between the music and theater departments. The show has a closer connection to Wesleyan than perhaps any other: not only is Miranda an alumnus, but book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes began her three-year term as the Shapiro Distinguished Professor of Writing and Theater at the University this fall.
“[Miranda’s] vision was joy, and love, and respect, and honor, and celebration, and I loved that so much,” Hudes said during a question and answer session following Saturday’s performance.
“In the Heights” is an exploration of a community in Washington Heights as the neighborhood is in the midst of transition. The setting, a vibrant microcosm of Caribbean culture, is more of a central character than any singular lead, although the show has quite a few of those. The role of Usnavi (originally performed by Miranda himself) was double cast, with Eury German ’16 and Wesley Martinez-Close ’15 splitting the performances. They swapped roles in the chorus on the other nights.
German, for his part, noticed a stark difference between the chorus and lead. In the chorus, he said, he was able to have fun and perform more as a dancer.
“I feel like the energy of the show rests on Usnavi’s shoulders, which is really scary,” German said.
As Usnavi, a bodega owner, German and Martinez-Close introduced the audience to the vibrant world of Washington Heights, which was represented on stage by a set comprised almost entirely of milk crates.
The other leads each got their time in the spotlight. Daniel Maseda ’16 and Sara Guernsey ’15 in particular commanded the stage as the Rosarios, first-generation immigrants willing to sacrifice everything for their daughter’s future. Maseda’s solo song “Inútil” and Guernsey’s “Enough” were two of the production’s more memorable moments.
Each lead contributed a different tone to the cast and the show. Jillian Roberts ’15, Naomi Wright ’17, and Aileen Lambert ’16, for instance, provided ample laughs as their characters gossiped while working at the local salon. Lambert’s character, Vanessa, was a refreshing example of a love interest who was not defined by her romantic subplot. Melanie Parziale ’16’s Abuela Claudia was the moral center of the story, and her strong performance infused the show with doses of life at key points.
“In the Heights” was at its most energetic when its full ensemble filled the stage. At points the show struggled to balance two dozen bodies in the same space at once, but one got the sense that the community on stage was a living, breathing animal. Amongst the chaos, through the dancing and staging, the eclectic ensemble recreated an urban environment.
The show was able to do that and more with the sheer scale of its production. It is rare to find a musical at Wesleyan that can boast a 24-person cast, 13-person orchestra, and the show’s fleet of crew members. Make no mistake: this show is a titan of ambition for the Wesleyan theater community.
Still, titans inevitably have their weaknesses. The sound system was in constant disarray, with feedback and microphone issues galore. Many important lyrics were swallowed up by the loudness of the band. The show often became a repetition of solo numbers with leads standing center stage and duets consisting of characters singing to each other at arms’ length.
Difficulties aside, this production of “In the Heights” did understand the show’s soul: community.
“It was a love triangle,” Hudes said of an early draft, “but it seemed to me that [Miranda’s] best musical writing was about the community, so I said, ‘Well, let’s actually make the story itself about the community too.’”
Nascimento brought that sentiment to Wesleyan’s own community. From nearly 100 auditions she assembled a cast from the far reaches of the campus; as she noted in the show’s program, this was the first show many members of the cast or crew had participated in.
“I had, like, no plans whatsoever to audition for it because I absolutely hate musicals,” German said, adding that he became enamored by the show’s music and resonance with his own life.
The involvement of many first-time actors complemented one of the core tenants of the creators.
“My dream for ‘In the Heights’ was that it would create roles for all the people who never got cast in anything,” Hudes said.
From the beginning, Nascimento wanted the show to reflect Wesleyan’s diversity, which worked well with the themes of “In the Heights.” The cast appeared to pick up on that as well.
“Students collaborated in more ways than one,” Nascimento said. “They truly own the production. The process was quite synergistic and the environment very supportive.”
Many cast members doubled up as set carpenters, choreographers, and vocal coaches, which was the heart of the musical’s success. The collaborative atmosphere made such sense for what “In the Heights” preaches, and the cast was deeply emotionally attached to the production, and not just because of the long hours and 1.5 course credits. The show resonated to the cast in a rather personal way, as German pointed out.
“A lot of Hispanic people who are in the play, we just sit there and we’re like, ‘Oh my god, my mom says this all the time,’” he said.
German continued that he and many castmates saw much of their own parents in the Rosarios, and of themselves in their daughter Nina (Iliana Sofia Ortega ’15). There is a personal connection between the broader Wesleyan campus and “In the Heights” that is not as commonly seen as in other theater department productions.
What does “home” mean? Through the lenses of both Washington Heights and Wesleyan itself, “In the Heights” examined that question. Its stance was clear: home is everyone who lives in it. This production of “In the Heights” was a reflection and commentary on the very Wesleyan culture that created the original, and that relationship made it one of the more interesting productions the campus has offered. “In the Heights” is Wesleyan, with all its strengths and weaknesses, and it is us.