There are 96,000 things to like about Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia’s production of In The Heights. The Tony Award-Winning musical makes its regional debut at the theatre in the round with Co-Director Lawrence B. Munsey at the helm. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Larry and get some insight into just what it’s like directing in the barrio.
Amanda: Why did you want to direct In the Heights with Toby Orenstein?
Larry: I was really excited about the show when it was on Broadway. Musical Theatre had been in this slump; it had gone from book-based musicals to soundtrack musicals so In The Heights had this new life to it. It’s hip-hop and rap that just had a brand new feel to it. It’s amazing that they did a piece on the Latino community because it’s something that never gets seen, there really isn’t a great range of ethnic diversity in musical theatre, so when this came along it was incredible. When Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegrìa Hudes wrote the production they said, ‘It was a story for us written by us,’ and that really really stuck with me. I love brand new when it comes to theatre, and this is brand new. It’s also written the way that we direct, with no blackouts, so that was pretty attractive.
Getting another chance to work alongside Toby Orenstein as my Co-Director was another big factor in wanting to direct this. Everything by far that I have in regards to directing came from her. I’ve grown up here, doing my first show with her in my 20’s – almost 30 years ago, and I love having the opportunity to take in everything she has to offer. It’s a free class, watching and learning from someone with as much experience as Toby. Sure, we butt heads because we’re both strong and opinionated, but in the end we achieve the same goal because we have the same vision in mind, and working with her on an exciting new project is such a blessing.
This musical is heavily grounded in rap, how did that change your approach in comparison to other musicals you have directed?
It did in a sense but it really didn’t. I approach every piece in the same way, it’s about the story. The important thing is to come across with the story, not to get caught up in all the flash and glamour that people worry about because without the story what do you have? Having to approach this piece in our space is of course very unique, but for the most part I just took it one song at a time. You take the rap out of the song and stage it like it’s a monologue, because essentially rap is just extended speaking. To some extent, so is singing, but there is a difference. So just one song at a time. And it was a real pleasure getting to work through those songs with the cast, especially with David Gregory, who plays Usnavi. I’ve known David for a very long time and getting the honor of casting someone so well-suited for this role and watching him grow was a real pleasure; he really earned this role and it’s amazing to watch him work.
Do you think that the bilingual nature of this musical will challenging for the audience?
I do. For the older audience it will be an issue, along with the rap. The younger audience member will understand the rap. We don’t necessarily get to hear every word, but we get the gist of it. We have a different ear and hear it differently. You’re not supposed to have to understand every word just as long as the meaning comes across and I think for the older audiences who rely on hearing every word in songs and ballads this could prove difficult. But I’m confident that the cast is going to get the message across loud and clear. The story itself is written in two acts and it’s almost done in two different styles. The 1st Act is heavy with the rap and infusion of Spanish words without any real translation, whereas the 2nd Act has a completely different feel to it, more like the musical theatre that we’re used to experiencing and suddenly words have translations and explanations and the rap, while still present, sort of fades away into the background.
Does anyone in the cast speak Spanish outside of what they’ve learned for the show?
Oh yes, absolutely. David Gregory, who plays Usnavi. And Alyssa V. Gomez who plays Nina, and Ryan Alvarado who plays Sonny. The script is actually really great for those that didn’t speak it, though. Because whenever a Spanish word came up there was the English translation right beside it. And having David and Alyssa around to help coach accents was really great, as native speakers they know how things are supposed to sound and how things should be pronounced and that was a big help.
Did you know any Spanish going into this project? Are you learning any as you go?
Yes. I know ‘llàmame’ which means ‘call me,’ which I learned on holiday in Spain this past Christmas. To be honest, for the most part, I’m not really learning any as I go, I try but it doesn’t always work. I do want to be able to learn some Spanish though, because I went to Spain over Christmas and got to meet David Gregory’s family, and I want to be able to have more conversations with them.
How are you forming a personal connection to the story— do you have any similar experiences to anyone in the story that draws you closer to it?
Good question. How do I talk about this without giving too much of the show away? I had a very special relationship with my ‘Abuela’ which we learn in the show means Grandma, and I lost her six years ago. That was difficult for me because we were close and she had always been my dreamer and dreamed for me. When I went to Spain and got to meet David Gregory’s Abuela we had this really strange unspoken connection which made me so excited because of Usnavi’s relationship with Abuela. To be clear, David’s grandmother speaks no English except for ‘hi’ and she giggles, but we would have these moments where she would gesture and make a face when a person would walk into the room, and we’d both just start laughing, this wordless understanding. It ties the whole project together for me.
Do you have a favorite storyline or character plot that really hits home or speaks to you?
Being so close to the project I can find myself in each of the characters. Vanessa is always wanting more, wanting better for herself, to get out and explore and I have that sense of want within me. Usnavi’s sense of family and wanting to return, I moved back home after being away on tour for a long time because I missed my family.
There’s Sonny’s naiveté, we all have aspects of that in us because we’re never done learning and growing. And then Nina who is always wanting to please her parents and being lost as the same time — I relate to that because at my age I’m still asking what do I really want to do when I grow up? I’m a permanent Peter Pan. I’ll always be a little kid, which isn’t always conducive to being an adult, but I love it. I watch the show and I’m jealous because it is so much fun, all the dancing and I love to dance.
Have you ever visited Washington Heights?
I lived right there on Bennet Avenue where I had to take the A-train, getting out at 181st Street. I had a little Bodega that I went to, went every morning, walked to it for my coffee and egg/sausage roll thing. This was back in 1990-ish right after I’d finished the National tour of Gypsy, I moved in. I was there for about a year. And it’s true there was this really strong sense of community there. It’s not just a Latino community, though, it’s everything. I lived in a building that was primarily Hassidic with the sweetest little old lady as one of my neighbors. She reminds me a bit of Abuela because she was always checking in on us and taking care of us. When we were sick she’d be bringing us Matzah Ball soup saying she was worried about us kids. It was wonderful. And yes, coffee every morning. I love coffee.
With the story’s central focus being this tight knit neighborhood community did this change the rehearsal process or the way you approached unifying the cast?
Well…it’s funny, I did encourage a night out on the town. We all went to Latin Palace down on Broadway and we all did some salsa dancing that night. It was really a lot of fun. This group is a special cast – it’s hard to get them to shut up – but they’re sweet and they really like each other and get along really well. It’s every director’s dream to have a cast that gets along so well. They are constantly helping each other, and if it’s not in scene with what’s going on they’re helping each other with other real life things. They are all really tight naturally and that’s very rare. It makes for a really great community on stage.
What has been the most challenging thing about directing this musical?
The show is told in two different ways. It’s told through text and it’s told through choreography and body movement. The barrio is always pulsating while there is a scene going on, the living presence of that New York City neighborhood where something is always happening in the background is what sort of drives this show, but in the round that becomes too distracting. You start watching the dancers or the little bits of what’s going on over on the other side of the stage rather than paying attention to the two characters who have actual dialogue in the scene. So reigning in that focus without losing the constant energy of the street scene was really difficult. Especially during the nightclub scene. How do you get the liveliness of the nightclub in the round where everyone is supposed to be dancing and carrying on while two people are trying to have a conversation and still have the focus be on them? It was a major challenge, but I think the approach to it keeps the balance between scene focus and the outside atmosphere quite well.
What is your overall vision for the production, and what do you hope audiences will take with them after seeing In the Heights?
That we as individuals put too much energy into worrying about tomorrow. That we forget to live for today. Love the people you’re with and love where you are in love -because that is where you are supposed to be. I hope that everyone at some point in their life gets to see what it is they do for other people, the way we affect other people, it’s incredibly rare that we get to see that and really understand that. Usnavi even has his George Bailey moment; there’s a line in his finale rap that references it, but for him as the protagonist to be able to walk away with that realization— that the way we live our lives and what we do, that that really does impact so many other people in so many different ways – to get that, and to understand that. If everyone could take that away from this musical, then my vision is complete.
Amanda Gunther’s review of In the Heights.
Lights Up on ‘In The Heights’ at Toby’s: Part 1: An Interview With David Gregory (Usnavi) by Amanda Gunther.
Lights Up on ‘In The Heights’ at Toby’s: Part 2: An Interview With Director Larry Munsey by Amanda Gunther.
Lights Up on ‘In The Heights’ at Toby’s: Part 3: An Interview With Tobias Young (The Piagua Guy) by Amanda Gunther.