I was talking to my friend Kenny a few weeks ago and he told me about a co-worker named Grace whose son Kyle Carter was in the tour of In the Heights. Since In the Heights is one of my all-time favorite musicals, and because I always enjoy interviewing young actors, I spoke to Grace about her talented son and then started ‘Googling’ and learned that Kyle is indeed a wonderful actor and singer who has a great story to tell. Here’s my interview with the very confident and excited and very appreciative Kyle Carter.
Joel: You are playing Benny in the National Tour of In the Heights. Who is Benny and how do you relate to him?
Kyle: Benny works for Nina’s father at ‘Rosario’s Dispatch’ in Washington Heights. He’s been around the Rosario’s family since he was a little kid, and Mr. Rosario eventually hired him to be a driver for the company. During the three days that the show takes place you see how Nina’s return home and Benny’s promotion to running the actual dispatch radio affect their relationships. Benny, always trying to prove to Mr. Rosario that he is good enough, now has to prove to him that he can both run the dispatch and be a good man for Nina… quite the challenge.
As for my personal relationship to the character, we are nearly one in the same. In the story, Benny’s parents are never mentioned, and he is always hanging with his friends all over the different places in the community. When I was a kid, both of my parents worked full-time jobs, so I was the kid who was always at different friends’ houses and hanging out wherever I could until my parents came home at night. My one best friend’s mom would never throw away left-overs because she knew, once I showed up, I was always willing to clean up anything my friend and his sisters didn’t want.
Benny has an opening number “Benny’s Dispatch.” Set it up for us. Have there been any experiences in your life and career that helped you understand what Benny is feeling when he sings this song with Nina?
The song is the first time Benny sees Nina after she has returned from college. He is so happy that it’s his first day running the dispatch that he is completely oblivious to the fact that Nina is acting a little strange, looking for her parents. His joyful energy eventually brings her out of her funk, if only temporarily, and she hangs with him at the dispatch until her parents arrive.
Of all the songs I sing in the show, I literally don’t have to “act” for “Benny’s Dispatch” because Benny and I are fused at the medulla oblongata. The song is about a young man filled with happiness that the father figure he’s always trying to impress trusts that he’s capable of taking care of the serious business. I just get to have fun!
Sometimes I literally forget that the audience is there, because I’m just jamming in my own zone. In the middle of the song, Nina comes in and Benny sees her for the first time in a year and is a bit startled that of all people to pop out of nowhere, she’s standing there. Well, one night I was jamming so hard, that when Virginia came into the dispatch, it actually startled me, and I ended up making up a line in the music, since I completely forgot what I was scripted to sing to her. We laughed backstage right after, and she looked at me and said, “You forget I was coming in?”… I said, “Honestly, I did! You got me for real on that one!”
You perform three other beautiful duets with Virginia Cavaiere – who plays Nina – your love interest – “When You’re Home, “Sunrise (Al Amanecer)” and When the Sun Goes Down.” How do these songs show the growth of Nina and Benny’s relationship? Also, how has working with Virginia helped your performance grow on the tour?
“Benny’s Dispatch” is the spark. The two of them haven’t seen each other in a while, but they’re so comfortable with each other, that they can resume their friendship as if no time passed at all. “When You’re Home” is where Benny shows Nina, that while she’s been off at college struggling and maturing in California, so has he been in Washington Heights. Benny is excited to show her that though this big world exists outside of Manhattan, “home” is where all of the people and places that exist in her heart will always be, and this time Benny wants to hold a special place there. By the time the second act opens with “Sunrise,” the two of them have fallen in love, had their first fight, and first kiss all in the course of a couple of hours, so the audience has been on quite a ride with them.
“Sunrise” is where Benny really shows just how much he loves Nina. He has barely absorbed Spanish through his co-workers and mostly only swear words, lol, but in this song he and Nina sing beautiful harmonies in Spanish to each other. It is definitely the love song of, “I don’t know what will happen, but all that matters is that I’m with you.”…
“When The Sun Goes Down” is the heartbreaker. The honeymoon of we don’t know what will happen is over, Nina’s going back to California and Benny will be forced to wait for her at home in New York. The song portrays the challenges of the young couple realizing that their life paths are taking them in different directions, but hoping that this new found love will prevail, despite the struggles that come with cross-country relationships.
Working with Virginia has been an absolute treat. When we first sang with each other, both of us were worried how the songs would sound once we were mic-ed up on stage. Her voice is very bright and floats in the air, while mine is a deeper bolder tone. Over the course of rehearsals and occasional tune-ups with Alex Lacamoire and our tour music director Kurt Crowley, we have worked together to blend our sounds. Some places she puts harder diction on the words to line her higher harmony up with my deeper tone to create perfect rhythmic cohesion – as opposed to her trying to over belt to match my volume, and in other places we found that if I open my vowels really brightly, it softens my tone to blend perfectly in her belt range. It’s a musical relationship; both of us constantly feeling each other out and altering things here and there to make it sound beautiful. One day I might be sick, and I’ll look at her before we go on and say that I might be in head voice for this part and she’ll ride it out with me. Other times she might be tired and tell me to hit it 80% volume wise on the high parts of “Sunrise,” so we both have the energy to go full out for “When The Sun Down.” As the tour has progressed our relationship and bond has as well. We’re at like show 120 or so and neither of us has missed one yet – if one of us gets the sniffles, the other has tea and Emergen-C in hand waiting.
Take us on your journey from the first audition to the time the phone rang or you received the text or email that you were cast as Benny.
Oooooh goodness, that’s quite a journey!!!… I saw on Backstage that In the Heights was having an open call in LA last summer while I was living in LA. When I saw it, I didn’t even think I was going to go. At that point in time, having still only been out in LA for a year taking classes and meeting as many people as I could, I doubted if I was in the talent pool good enough to book a seriously professional gig. At that point in time, I didn’t even know anything about the show except I had performed “It Won’t Be Long Now” with my friend Vicki for a musical revue back in college. Still though, I knew it was worth it to go for the experience and to meet whoever the casting director was.
I came in to the first audition and sang my favorite song “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” by The Temptations, and Joy Dewing of Clemmons/Dewing casting, loved it and asked me to come for a callback two days later. I downloaded the sides, looked over the sheet music for When You’re Home and came back two days later. We read through the two sides once, sang “When You’re Home” once and she asked if I would be able to come back later that week for another callback. Roadblock.
My mom and I had been planning for me to come home that week and I was leaving to come back to Virginia the next day. She said no problem, that they were having some final callbacks in NYC in three weeks and that I could come to those. Thank Goodness. Three agonizing weeks later, I was so pumped to sing for the audition that when I sang “When You’re Home,” Tommy Kail (who I had no idea who he was at the time, lol) looked at me and said, “That was good… you don’t need to saaaang it that much though, can you just sing it like a conversation?” Absolutely, I was just too amped, I mean I was singing for Jesus that first time around. An hour and a half later, I had read all the sides and sang for both Tommy and Alex Lacamoire and left confidently hopeful. The next day I was hanging with one of my best friends telling her about the audition and the phone rang… the rest is history.
What is it about In The Heights that made you want to travel around the country playing Benny?
At first, I was so happy to have booked a long-term contract, I didn’t care what it was called. I had done a Christmas show with the Debbie Allen Dance Academy the winter before I booked this, but it was only for one weekend. I had been doing small theatre gigs in Hollywood, but this was a Big Name Broadway style gig. As I learned about the history of this show and the significance of it, I am most proud to be a part of the Heights Family. From original creator Lin Manuel Miranda all the way down to Gian Carlo our drum player on this tour, the warmth and family that all Heights members have for each other is second to none.
For all the challenges of being on a non-equity tour (lots of one nighters, small bus seats – I’m 6’1” 205lbs, busses are not my fave, haha – the occasional tiny venue that the full set can’t even fit into, quick spread of sick germs, etc.), I am blessed to be touring with a show that is rich with story and heart, to the point that no matter where we go, you can feel the audience caring for the characters – by the gasps, the cheers, the tears, it’s just amazing. Even little 80 year-old white ladies in the middle of Nebraska, standing and cheering for a show about people of different ethnic backgrounds; it’s just wonderful.
Did you see the original Broadway cast and production and what was your reaction when you saw it? Have you met Lin–Manuel Miranda and Christopher Jackson who played Benny in the original NYC production? Did they offer any advice or words of wisdom to you and the cast?
I still have never been an audience member for this show. I was in LA when it came to the Pantages, but was so broke I couldn’t even afford tickets to see my favorite show, Next To Normal, when it came right after. We got a chance to meet Lin Manuel in NYC during auditions – he came to visit a couple times bouncing back and forth from Bring it On rehearsals and ours. He shook my hand and gave me kudos on the work we had done during rehearsals, but I think he and Perry Young, our Usnavi, spent much more time conversing, for obvious reasons. A bunch of the Original Broadway cast and First National Tour cast came through to visit auditions, but unfortunately Virginia and I never got to meet Mandy or Chris. It’s all good though, because every time I look on Chris Jackson’s twitter, he’s either a part of a new project, recording something, or with his family, and that right there is motivation enough. The man is about his business, and I’m trying to get to that same level of notoriety.
Andy Blankenbuehler’s high-energy and athletic choreography in In the Heights is not easy to perform, especially in the opening of the show – the thrilling “In the Heights” number. How would you describe Andy’s choreography, how hard was it for you to learn, and you prepare yourself before each show to have the energy to perform this very challenging choreography?
Lucky for me, I only dance in two of the numbers and only for a couple of 8 counts. I have been an athlete since I was born, used to play USTA Tennis tournaments, have played both basketball and football – so I can stomach a minute and a half of well-focused dancing. Having never taken a dance class, though, it just takes me a little longer to learn the choreography. The people that deserve all the respect on that front are our ensemble dancers. Andy’s choreography is extremely specific. It is acting based choreo, instead of dance based. Every move has weight to it, severity. Even the simplest hand movement has a full out story line. Whenever he was teaching the moves and when he came out to give us notes in Toronto, I watched him in awe. He expresses deep emotions in tiny motions and you can feel the air oozing out, and then a retraction and he yanks it all back in. Our dancers are extensions of the storyline, giving the audience a visual interpretation of emotion, something that a lot of theatre-goers aren’t used to seeing. We leave venues and often there are fans outside just to meet the dancers like Dominic Pierson and Sasha Hollinger to say, “Holy cow, I couldn’t take my eyes off you the entire show!”
What are some of the challenges you face being on the road and what has been some of the most memorable experiences you have had while performing on the road?
The number one biggest challenge is staying healthy. We do not get to live our normal lives traveling on the bus. Normally I cook myself food at least twice a day and am either at the gym or playing basketball every other day, so staying in shape is no big thing. When you’re in the middle of Wheelersburg, OH, there’s no gym at the Motel, no stove, a McDonald’s or a Subway, and I can’t play basketball if I wanted to because if I hurt myself too badly I’m back on my couch in Virginia waiting to heal instead of making a paycheck. So now I get creative, I plan 3 and 4 mile runs for myself as a way of seeing what’s in the area to eat and where the stores are, I found my old P90X and try and get a quick work out in here and there – it’s what you have to do.
The thing I learned that’s most important, is vocal maintenance. I got super sick the first month of tour because I had never performed consecutive 8-show weeks before and my body just started to shut down on me. Alex Lacamoire referred me to vocal coach Liz Caplan up in NYC and she was a godsend. I see why so many amazing singers have gone to her for coaching, in two – hour long appointments with her she gave me simple exercises, warm-ups, eating tips, drinking tips, and general knowledge about vocal maintenance for tour performers. Since then, I have not been sick, and though my voice sure does get tired from time to time, I know how to take care of my voice on tour now.
You grew up in Woodbridge, VA and you attended Rippon Middle School and Potomac Senior High School. You then attended the College of Engineering at the University of Notre Dame and then to the College of Arts and Letters as a Studio Art/Industrial Design. Who were your influences in these schools that inspired you to perform in the theatre? What were some of your favorite roles and productions during your school years?
My middle school music teachers Mrs. Barr and Mrs. Early, my high school music teacher Mr. Weberg, and my high school music theory/drama club teacher Mrs. Bohanon, were my biggest musical influences through school. They all always pushed me to stay with music and theatre and I made sure I always knew about opportunities in school to be in the arts.
College was a different story, though. I spent my money at Notre Dame to learn how to think. Notre Dame is a school that forces you to learn about a lot of subject areas outside of your major to round you into a “thinker” instead of just a “worker”. I was never particularly motivated by either of the majors I took on in college, but when I joined Pemco. (a student run musical theatre group on campus) and started taking Italian to learn how to speak so I could be a part of the Italian Theatre Group on campus, my love for it all began. I got to play Coalhouse Walker JR. in Ragtime my sophomore year and it was the coolest thing I had ever done. The music was amazing, the book was amazing, the audiences loved it, and I knew I was a good singer, but that was when I realized that my voice was developing into an actual instrument. The thing I loved the most, was knowing that the people in the audience were moved by what we had just put on. In my career at Notre Dame, I ended up performing leads in Ragtime and Kiss Me, Kate, and supporting or ensemble in The Producers, Company, Parade, Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and numerous musical revues. As for Italian, I ended up getting pretty good at it, and ended up doing two Dario Fo shows; and now my Italian is still good enough that I talk to our Italian drummer Gian Carlo sometimes and he’s always impressed at what I can remember from those days, haha.
Your Mom Grace and my best friend Kenny work together at The Washington Post and they told me about your In the Heights performance. Your Mom also told me that The Guiding Light played a role in your name. Tell me about that.
Hahahaha… yea, I’m named after the character Kyle Sampson from The Guiding Light. Unfortunately, he got amnesia and left the show before I was old enough to start watching, but no lie, I watched The Guiding Light from kindergarten all the way until freshman year in high school. The only reason I stopped watching was I was in every after school activity possible in high school, so I was never home to see it anymore.
How has your Mom and Dad encouraged you to pursue your theatre career and career in the arts?
My parents have been very supportive of me, both of them, in different ways. My mom knows my struggle because she did the same thing. She left her home in North Dakota in her early 20s to move to DC on a wing and a prayer. I did the same, at 22, drove across the country from Notre Dame to LA to start a career I had never studied in, on the same wing and a prayer. The only difference between our relationship and other parents… my entire life I have always been one of the most motivated and hard working people I know (I get it from my mom). My mom could trust in me, because she’s always seen me set my goals and complete them; every goal I have set for myself, I have completed, and I don’t ever intend for that streak to end. (I wrote a letter when I was in middle school to Notre Dame to find out what I needed to do to get in… I only applied to one college… I’m a high risk, high reward kind of goal setter).
As for my dad, he was a little more conservative, but not much. He got his Bachelors in Education and his Masters Degree in Art Therapy and that’s exactly what he did as a professor at the university level, teacher of special education students, and drug treatment counselor. So when I said that I was going to pursue something opposite of my college experience, he just always wanted to know that it wasn’t just a teenage dream, but a well thought out plan. It was, and over the course of the past two years he and I have always kept tight contact with each other, and now he is my biggest fan.
What advice do you have for young students who are studying other majors at universities who in their hearts yearn for a career in the theatre?
If you’re studying another major, but you really really want to be in theatre, it’s tough. I averaged probably 4-6 hrs of sleep a night in college mainly because I didn’t want to sacrifice any four of my college lifestyles: my major, theatre, extra-curricular groups and partying with friends. The best advice I can give is make sure you know how to prioritize your time. Come tech week for a Pemco. show, I knew I would be up until 6 am in the design lab doing homework, so I would skip psych class to take a nap during the day and get the notes from a friend later. If there was a huge party on Friday night, but I had to help with load in for the show the next morning, I would stay to my word and go to the party until midnight, then get my butt home and sleep for 6 hrs and be up early for load-in. During show times, my friends in other circles would never see me, so they knew from January-March you wouldn’t see me around the dorm because it was time to get ready for the mainstage show. Get a planner and stick to your timelines and you’ll be just fine… oh, and if you can get into a dance class if you’re not a dancer, it’s the only thing I wish I had done.
Any roles on the stage you are dying to play in the future, and why do you want to play these roles?
YES!!!… I know I’ll have to wait about a decade and then get it at a regional theatre with a little color-blind casting, but I want to be the Dad in Next To Normal. When I saw it on Broadway his character spoke to me the most. He’s a man trying his best to keep his family together out of man’s responsibility to protect the people he loves, despite the fact that he’s going crazy inside and is ignoring it. The last song with him and Gabe singing to each other cut me in half and I fell in love with the musical from that point on. I got to play Coalhouse, so that’s off my list, so third I’d say is Gator in Memphis. When he finally opens up to sing at the end of the first act, I watched as the young man who was playing him on Broadway sang the hatred out of the room. He showed how music can heal because music comes from a different place; music is one of the only universal languages.
Where does the tour go next?
We’re in Palm Desert, CA right now for a five show run, we get a week off, and then we’re right back in to it with a ten show week in Washington State: Yakima, Olympia, and Spokane.
Kyle Carter’s website.
Listen to Kyle Carter and Virginia Cavaliere sing “When I’m Home.”
The In the Heights website.
The cast of the Tour of In the Heights.
The schedule of the In the Heights Tour.