Who’s in Town?: Luis Salgado, Director and Choreographer of GALA Theatre’s Spanish Language ‘In the Heights’

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¡No pare, sigue, sigue!

Hamilton lovers rejoice! Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights premieres tonight at GALA Hispanic Theatre in the show’s first Spanish-language production in the United States.

In the Heights, which tells the story of ordinary Latino families trying to scrape by in the New York City neighborhood where Miranda grew up, will be directed and choreographed by Luis Salgado, who has been with In the Heights from its earliest days.

Salgado performed in the original Broadway cast and served as Latin Assistant Choreographer, working closely with Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler to bring Latin flair to iconic numbers such as “The Club,” “Paciencia y Fe,” and “Carnaval Del Barrio.”

After performing in Broadway shows such as Rocky and On Your Feet!, Salgado returns to In the Heights as director and choreographer in this exciting new production at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Below are some highlights from our conversation.

Director and Choreographer Luis Salgado. Photo courtesy of Salgado Productions.

Nicole: How did you get involved in the original Broadway production of In the Heights?

Luis: When Andy Blankenbuehler signed on as choreographer, he called me in to coach him with the Latin rhythms. We worked well together and I was able to share my passion for Latin culture and ensure that the Latin dance sequences would be portrayed with respect and honesty. Within two months he asked me to be the official Latin Assistant Choreographer and to perform in the show as well.

What was it like working with that whole team that went on to create Hamilton? Andy Blankenbuehler, Alex Lacamoire, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tommy Kail? You were with them at the beginning of their careers!

I definitely look back on those days with a sense of awe. But remember, they weren’t who they are today. Back then they were just HUNGRY for the opportunity to tell this story that they believed in. They all gave 100% of themselves to the creative process.

Tommy Kail [In the Heights Director who started at Wesleyan College a few years before Lin-Manuel Miranda] made a huge investment in Lin, nurturing him, even before rehearsals started, believing in him and challenging him to come up with new work.

Nowadays, they face different types of pressure. They made something great so people want to see what they will make next, but back then they were hungry just to prove they could do it.

Lin-Manuel Miranda did such a great job of incorporating Spanish in a way that didn’t alienate English-only speakers. Is this version going to have some English thrown in to keep the playfulness between the two languages?

Where this translation becomes very unique is that the character of Benny stays anchored in the English language. So, when Kevin Rosario tells Benny “You don’t speak our language,” that conflict is enhanced in a big way. We made some really interesting choices on how and why to keep the English or use Spanish, looking at cultural, psychological and emotional factors. Using the two languages allows for a crazy amount of depth in the show.   

In 2005 you were in a show called Mambo Kings and you were told it would never make it to Broadway because it was “full of Latin actors.” Lin-Manuel Miranda has also pointed out that musicals tended to stereotype Latinos as gangsters and drug dealers. 

How has In the Heights opened doors for Latino actors and changed public perception of what Broadway shows should look like?

A lot of shows in the past have capitalized on easy drama with Latino characters, using drugs and sex and fighting to tell stories. That’s easy drama. Theater needs conflict and those clichés provide you easy conflict so you end up with Bernardo killing Riff in West Side Story.

There is value to that, but there is greater value in the fact that Lin did NOT capitalize on those things. He found incredible human conflict in ordinary family relationships. He told a story that questioned what it meant to be home and what it meant to belong. He told the universal story of people wondering where they belong, but this time they happened to be Latino.

In the Heights gave Latinos permission to show the best of themselves, to be proud of who they are, and to fight for better realities. In my mind, it changed the game.

The cast of In the Heights at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Photo by Shalev Weinstein.

What does it mean to you to be part of the first Spanish Language version of In the Heights in the US?

It means so much that I quit my Broadway show! I had been performing in On Your Feet! for almost three years, even before it got to Broadway. When GALA asked me to do this project, I became passionate about doing it, but I knew it meant leaving On Your Feet!. But I’m thrilled to expand my directing career doing something that I love so much and something that I helped to create ten years ago. Sometimes in life something comes along that just feels right.

You’ve come full circle!

Yes, full circle!

What are your goals as choreographer and director of this production?

One thing I learned from working with Andy Blankenbuehler is to be very prepared. Do the work. Sit down with the blueprint at the table and map out how you want to stage the show. But after that, it becomes all about working with the people in the room. Don’t assume you know all the answers. Every group of actors brings a different energy and truth. My job as a director is to tap into that real-time moment and let that influence how I choreograph and personalize songs like Carnaval Del Barrio.

Then I step back and utilize what we discover. Some of it fits into the structure I already had in mind, but sometimes it ends up morphing into a new staging. I love giving myself permission to let go of what I think I know and rediscover the material with the new people in the room.

The beautiful thing about In the Heights is that it has such a strong backbone in its structure that you can play with it without changing its essence.

I know that during the original production of In the Heights, it was difficult to find performers who could perform hip-hop. Broadway performers just weren’t trained to perform this style of music. Have you noticed an increase in the number of performers who are training in hip-hop and other contemporary sounds?

Definitely. There is a big difference in what we receive in casting calls today from ten or even just five years ago. People are hungry for this show and this style of music.

There is a whole new generation of Latino performers who have fallen in love with In the Heights and are following in its footsteps. They rap more, they dance hip-hop and Latin. They are proud to be able to speak Spanish.

Who is your favorite character in In the Heights?

It changes depending on the project!

With the original Broadway production, I fell madly involved with the character of Nina’s father, Kevin Rosario, who was an immigrant trying to make a new life in this country. It triggered a lot of history for me regarding where I come from and who I am as a Puerto Rican. My family’s background would have been the father’s background. I carry a lot of respect for that character in my heart.

I’m a new father now, which helps me to see the character of Nina with new eyes. As parents, we want our children to succeed but the reality is that individuals need to experience growth which is sometimes painful and it’s the obstacles that make us a better person. That is hard to watch as a parent.  

Here, at GALA, I’m having a lot of fun rediscovering the relationship between Sonny and Graffiti Pete. I took a liberty with Graffiti Pete, for example. Here, Graffiti Pete will be played as a female, so being able to rediscover these characters and ask who are they today is very interesting as a director.

The cast of In the Heights at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Photo by Shalev Weinstein.

Your family is from Vega Alta, the same town that the Miranda family is from. Did your families know each other there? Is that just a coincidence?

Actually, we didn’t. Once I met Lin and knew that he was a Miranda I could connect the dots and figure out who his family was. His relatives used to have a school supply store in the center of town. And Lin has some cousins who happen to be the people with whom I had my first dance school. One of his relatives opened a gym where I happened to work for a while and then I ended up running my own dance studio for four years with one of Lin’s cousins, little did I know! Such a small world!

You have had the opportunity to work with some great choreographers and directors in your career. What have you learned from them?

I definitely carry the influence of both of my mentors, Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo [Jersey Boys, On Your Feet!]. I’m super proud of their work. Knowing Sergio as a Latin performer who jumped into being a choreographer, and then a director gives me permission to follow that dream. I actually just got a text from him on Sunday, the day of my last performance in On Your Feet! and he said “You are going to take the theater world by storm.” To hear that from people you look up to is giant.

And the same for Andy. I think of Andy as a poet. He does so much preparation work. That is a great lesson: Don’t ever just allow yourself to walk into the room with general thoughts. Be as specific as you can. That will free you up and give you the opportunity to play with what is in the room.

In the same way, every director that I have worked with has provided me with tools to use as a director. Bartlett Sher, Alex Timbers, Jerry Mitchell, each somehow left “a little bit of cinnamon” in the way I go forward about my work. I am so grateful to have had the opportunities to work with all of them.

Talk a little bit about GALA Hispanic Theatre.

GALA Theater is very respected institution in the Latino community and beyond. The work that Hugo [Artistic Director Hugo Medrano] does is so valuable and so needed, especially in this time when people want to build walls and create limitations.

I hope this production can be a message for anyone who has dreams and wants to expand their opportunities, and I guess I’m specifically talking to the Latin community and the theater community: Don’t stop dreaming, don’t stop making and don’t stop taking pride in the work you make. We need more places like GALA Theatre to create daring and inspired work.

In the Heights plays through May 21, 2017 at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 234-7174 or purchase them online.

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