'In the Heights' brings first tour to C-bus
Check out our in-depth Q&A with cast member Arielle Jacobs
The musical took Broadway by storm when it opened in 2008, garnering four Tony Awards (after being nominated for 13) and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. Most remember the 2008 Tonys for "Heights" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda's unforgettable acceptance speech.
It was hailed by critics across the country as revolutionary, and some said Broadway had been forever changed.
It all started with Miranda when he was age 19 (he's now 29), which is when he was first doodling about his hometown in class instead of paying attention at Wesleyan University. Now the show is in the midst of its first national tour (on which Columbus is the fourth stop). Plus, the musical is the subject of a popular PBS documentary ("In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams"), and Universal Pictures has acquired the rights for a film based on the show—it's slated for release in 2010.
The musical details a day in the life of the residents in Washington Heights, a Dominican-American community on the verge of a social shift, and infuses it with the sounds of salsa, meringue, hip-hop and reggaeton.
We were able to track down Arielle Jacobs—a California native who already has quite a bit of experience after originating the role of Gabriella in the wildly popular "Disney's High School Musical: On Stage!" national tours—who plays Nina in "Heights."
Jacobs dished on how she landed the role of Nina and the backstage dynamics with the cast.
Congratulations on the great reviews in Tampa. How does it feel to know the tour is getting such a great reception?
It feels really good to get some responses from the audience, and it's great to hear some laughs and start to hear the rhythm of the show. You finally get to see how it resonates with the people. It's also kind of weird because we don't expect people to know that much about the feel of the show in these cities, because it's about a very specific place in New York City. But a lady came up to us after [a show in Tampa] and said she was from Washington Heights, and [she said] how much she appreciated the show because she had her first baby in Washington Heights. It's cool to hear those stories.
Tell us about your theater background and how you landed this role?
I was in New York City in rehearsals for [Disney's High School Musical 2: On Stage!] and I had seen "In the Heights" previously when they were doing the initial previews. I remember when I first saw it, I was so blown away. I cried twice ... I hadn't ever been moved by a piece of theater like that before. I told my agents right away that I really wanted to do this show. Finally, I heard they were looking for replacements for the Broadway cast, so I read for Vanessa, Nina and Carla. When I finally got word, they told me they gave the Broadway part to someone else, but they wanted me for the tour. But that didn't start for another year. And now I'm finally here. [Laughs]
The musical's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has become the face of the show in a way, and he's definitely someone who's dedicated to its success. What is it like working with him?
He is just the brightest light. He carries so much energy. He and [director Thomas Kail] have these bright personalities, which make it feel like play and not really work. Yet we were at the theater 10 hours a day for rehearsals. During every break [Kail and Miranda] and the creative team would go outside and throw Frisbees for 10 minutes. It just made everything feel so fun. They were having fun, so we were having fun. It also made us feel like we were all a team and equals. We're all friends. There's not this hierarchy that you sometimes feel in a lot of other shows.
You originated the title role of Gabriella in the national "High School Musical: On Stage" tours. What was it like going from that pop music atmosphere to "In the Heights," which has an extremely different fan base and soundtrack?
Playing Nina feels like it's just Gabriella went to college [laughs]. She's very sweet and very real and really honest. Hip-hop doesn't really play into my character like the others, but it's definitely not a kid's show [laughs]. There's a point when I come on stage wearing Benny's shirt—you know what just went down, and the audience definitely reacts to that [laughs]. It's also a lot more fun. We're not doing the High School Musical pop moves; we're doing the salsa and meringue.
For those who don't know the basics, what's the story line of "In the Heights," and how does your character fit into the plot?
It's all about a neighborhood in Washington Heights, and it follows the story of several different characters in the city. It's also about how the city changes. People are having to rediscover what home and community mean to them. Usnavi [played by Kyle Beltran] is the main character, and he really wants to leave and get out of the neighborhood, but by the end he's completely changed that mindset. It's that typical archetype of the hero in a lot of stories. They go away and experience something, and they come back and they rediscover an appreciation for their home. The characters and the families in the show grow so much in terms of healing conflict within their families.
"In the Heights" is about a very specific group of people in a very specific place. How is it relatable to everyone?
It could be any community. The focus on a Latina community and salsa and hip-hop make it a fun show to watch, but that's not all. There's a line in the show where [Abuela Claudia, played by Elise Santora], the main matriarch of the show, says the whole block used to be Irish. And that's pretty powerful, because this is also the Irish experience—they experienced exactly what the Latinas are experiencing with the changing neighborhood. Everyone kind of has to experience the change of their community or surroundings at some point in their lives. Rediscovering home and family for yourself is a universal thing; everyone relates to that. It's also about experiencing the Latina community in a different way. No one's carrying guns, there are no gangs. A lot of people in minority communities think the only way they're going to see themselves on stage is in those types of roles, and this is definitely not like that.
Nina is one of the musical's major characters and is a part of one of the show's key love stories. The "When You're Home" duet with Benny is one of the play's staple songs. How did you approach rising to the task?
I tried to tell the story as honestly as possible. It's really important when you're doing "When You're Home" to just play it as a conversation and not a love song. Benny is trying to get me back on track and is saying that people are still going to be there for me. I also relate personally to Nina. If I have a problem, I try to fix it on my own before I ask anyone else for help, and in doing so, I push away a lot of people who love me and genuinely want to help. Nina does that with her parents, which creates a deep cavern between her family.
There are quite a few people familiar with the ITH experience in the tour cast. What's it like performing with people who were in the show on Broadway?
They really brought us into the sense that we're all a big family. We didn't try to re-create the exact show that was on the Broadway stage. We're different actors and we're trying to find the characters for ourselves, and they let us do that. They were also really understanding. In one scene, Usnavi pretends to open a bottle of champagne, but [Beltran] ended up opening the bottle of champagne for real on opening night. And champagne went everywhere. And [Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who plays Sonny] played Usnavi on Broadway, and the exact same thing happened to him. Just having people there who'd had those kinds of experiences really helped us out.
How fun was it making the "Run this Tour" (a "Heights" rework of Jay Z's smash hit "Run this Town") video that's gone viral on YouTube? What's the story behind that?
It was a blast. On one of our days off of rehearsals in New York City, they said meet at the theater at 7 p.m. and wear all black. We had no idea what was going on. We didn't realize until we got there that [Miranda] had completely rewritten the lyrics. And it took less than an hour, surprisingly. The guy who shot it was the same guy who shot the PBS documentary. Lin had all the shot lists already sketched out. It was kind of funny because the lighters you see in the video kept going out because it was so windy. We kept having to reshoot it. [Laughs] Also the Broadway cast was actually in the middle of their show and kept popping their head out of the doors to see us make the video. They were jealous they couldn't be in it. [Laughs] Then [Robin de Jesus, who currently plays Usnavi on Broadway] pops out of the show wearing a wig, and [he] randomly jumped into the final shot.
That was him!?
Yeah [laughs]. That was him. It was so much fun.
I hear they're going to make the musical into a movie. Have you heard any details about where it's at in production? Who do you think should play Usnavi? Nina? Benny?
I know they're making a movie, but I haven't really heard any other details. I haven't really thought about who should play who. I would love to play Nina. [Laughs] I think Jennifer Lopez would be great in it; I think she's one of the producers. I think she would be fantastic as Daniela. I remember when [Miranda] gave that speech in Tampa, he said it's crazy to see this incarnation of the show. He started this whole thing 10 years ago when he was 19. He was in astronomy class just doodling when he should have been paying attention, and it led to all this.
You're going to be here during Thanksgiving weekend and Black Friday. Why is this something people should add to their busy schedules?
They should especially see the show because it's near Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is all about reconnecting to your family, and about the love of family and community. People can just expand on that more by coming to the show. There are so many touching moments in the show that bring you to tears. ... There's so much love and forgiveness playing out on stage that you can't help but want to bring that home with you. I think that makes it the perfect show to see over Thanksgiving.
"In the Heights" opens at the Ohio Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 24 and runs through Sunday, Nov. 29. Tickets are $22.50 to $69.50 and can be purchased by calling 614-469-0939 or visiting the Broadway Across America Web site. For more information about the musical, visit the official "In the Heights" Web site.
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