Tell me something I don’t know! I’m hoping that I’ll get a little bit of news from around the barrio by sitting down with the talented Santina Maiolatesi who plays the sassy Daniela, the neighborhood gossip who runs the salon. Let’s hear what she has to say.
Amanda: Daniela is gossip central for the barrio, so are you as on top of everyone’s business as she is? Are there any similarities between you and her?
Santina: Oh my that’s an interesting one, WOW…I would say I’m probably 50/50 in that as I’ve gotten older and I’ve learned that it’s good to equip yourself with emotional knowledge of others in order to get into their mind. Outright gossip is never good for everyone. But in the dressing room…well it’s impossible for that space not to be infested with gossip because people have these mini-conversations where they think they’re in their private office behind a closed door when they’re really not. As an older person, I think it’s OK to be a little gossipy in order to further a relationship or to get to the bottom of a miscommunication, but we don’t even really get ‘gossipy’ in the bad sense of it with this cast because the cast has become so brotherly/sisterly. The cast is so tight that it’s never a problem.
As for identifying with Daniela, there are definitely moments where I can identify with her as just a person, as a human being. I’m overly-friendly and outgoing with everyone, giving everyone hugs and kisses, calling everyone baby or darling, smacking people on the butt, etc. That’s me and that’s Daniela. She’s outspoken and opinionated, and maybe I’m not so opinionated but I’m not afraid to say what’s on my mind at the time and that is just how Daniela is.
That accent you use is impressive. Who’s coaching you and where are you drawing your inspiration for that sound?
Um, oh gosh, hard one. Well, there’s no coaching, maybe for a couple of specific words I’ve gone to specific cast members, like Alyssa who plays Nina, or I’ve approached family friends who are Puerto Rican to get the correct pronunciation. The accent otherwise is just her character in general. It’s just how I saw her in my head. I did listen to the Broadway cast recording but there were limited words for me to work with, not too many that I could make live in my head. Daniela’s characterization in my mind is what really shapes how she sounds. I have trouble taking all the positive accolades I’ve been receiving about this accent because I keep wondering if it’s honest or true, or if I’m really giving it the authenticity it deserves.
I did read up on the town the Daniela is from, Vega Alta in Puerto Rico. It’s a small town. I figured, I have this idea of her story that I’ve created in my mind, when Daniela came to Washington Heights she was this small town girl but quickly grew into wanting to be this Cosmopolitan New Yorker, but she’s never really been able to make it out living just beyond her means. And the accent comes from that confidence that has evolved over time. She’s got both worlds, the small town girl and the big city woman, pulling at her and making that voice. That city-dwelling in-your-face outlandish attitude while conjuring up the pride of her small town days, that’s where the voice comes from.
Daniela is this really fun character, what are you doing personally to just let loose with her? Any pre-show routines?
I mean it’s kind of there already. I have so much fun with the words, just conjuring up the accent is fun. She’s just this comic outlandish woman. And in order to live this crazy fun you just gotta give 150% from the very beginning. It’s living fun the whole time, right from just blocking her existence in rehearsal I sort of walked out onto the stage with my hips swiveling and her sassy attitude owning the space. And the fun really comes out in Act II because she’s bringing comic relief to this sad situation, and it works because I think Daniela needs the humor. They’re going through the blackout, and everyone’s in a panic, and what does she do? She cracks a joke “…since when are Latin people scared of heat?” and then starts a big party.
Oh preshow…I have this thing with the rollers. My hair has to be in rollers to get it curled to give Daniela the right look. And Tina DeSimone, who plays Camila Rosario, likes to give me a hard time about it. A part of Daniela’s character comes from her energy and at 15 minutes before the show starts I get really chatty and Tina will be like “Santina! Is your hair in rollers yet? Stop talking!” It’s kind of a joke and it gets me going. Tina’s great, she’s a part of my regular pre-show banter to get me in the mood. See the dressing room is split-up, with us older folks all in one room so having that fun back and forth with Tina before the show really gives Daniela the energy boost she needs to shake it with the younger kids in the barrio.
Who in the barrio does Daniela relate to the most? Who’s story is she most interested in?
Ooh, that’s a good one! Well, actually, that’s really a broad question because the character that I’ve built Daniela up to be is focused around the idea of family. See my story for her is that she left most of her family behind when she came as a young teen to New York, that her mom died in Puerto Rico and she really was all alone after leaving her home town. Mind you, this is all just what I’ve created for her in my head, but because of that backstory she really takes to Abuela as her mother figure. I mean you don’t really see it much on stage, but she’s really connected to her.
It finally dawned on me one night during tech week why the song “Alabanza” is so moving for Daniela because of that connection to Abuela. For Daniela, Abuela is the only one that would stand up to her, that would tell her not to dress like that or not to be so sassy, etc. So despite not really having those on-stage interactions with her, in my barrio Abuela has the most influence on Daniela because she’s the one that really gets her. She’s the surrogate mother figure; Daniela never got closure with her own mother and Abuela gives her that. So that one night during tech week I came off stage just weeping inconsolably, and it just hit me that it’s because Daniela is so closely connected to Abuela.
Of course all her relationships aren’t that heavy, because she really gets to have this unseen relationship with friends that are her own age, mainly Camila. In the beginning during In The Heights Daniela sort of grabs Camila’s arm to take her back to the salon because she wants to fix her friend’s hair. And then of course there’s Vanessa and Carla from the salon. And it’s sort of like a big sister relationship with them, but the more I think about it I guess it’s not really that so much as it is a mother-daughter relationship because Vanessa and Carla definitely treat each other different than they treat Daniela.
What was it like learning all that Spanish? Or did you know some going in?
I managed to get by. I’ve never taken classes so my grammar sucks, and the tenses always get me. I actually spent a half a year in Guatemala living in an orphanage as a ‘house mom’ type figure. I was the RA of the teenage girl’s wing. And it was an experience that I think really helped me with the language, because once the novelty of me being the ‘new American’ in the place wore off I got an earful. I think that my Guatemalan experience, being dropped into this third world situation that was very emotional, was very different from my idea of Spanish culture so you learned the basics real quick. So that experience definitely helped. Of course I didn’t know much Spanish then either, but by way of that time in my life and the fact that my husband is from Ecuador, I’ve learned some from him. I have to kick him in the pants sometimes just to get him to speak Spanish in the house with the kids.
The hardest part about learning the Spanish for the songs was my bit in “Blackout.” Everyone in the company is singing about being powerless and watching the fireworks, the rhythm of the song is really intense and it’s sort of fast, and I have these lines— I feel like you almost never hear it, but I come out from under Abuela’s house and I sing. In that moment Daniela’s on the phone with Usnavi and she’s basically calling him and pleading with him saying, “Can you please come check on Abuela, the power went out and I don’t know what happened, there are people here but I don’t know who they are, and I don’t know if she’s alright.” Daniela’s terrified for Abuela in that moment, and I was terrified that that line just wouldn’t come out, and that anyone who actually spoke Spanish would just be hearing gibberish because I have to sing it so fast.
I haven’t had any trouble with the other stuff though. I just spit the consonants out and off I go. The whole experience for the cast learning Spanish was really collegial, it was a great environment. People were initially asking me for word clarification and pronunciation because they thought I actually spoke the language fluidly, and that was funny. But the whole experience of learning was really loving, not just for me but for everyone, you know – “Ask if you don’t know, don’t be embarrassed”- it was just really great.
This is a rap fusion musical, or as David Gregory, who plays Usnavi, calls it ‘Show Rap’ – so what is it like just getting to sing?
Well there are a couple of parts during “96,000” where you get the feeling of ‘rap’ for Daniela but I’m actually very jealous that I don’t get to show off my mad skills. But seriously, it’s not really in her character to rap so it’s totally ok. Though I’ve got to admit, during “It Won’t Be Long Now” right after Usnavi gets his date with Vanessa and he starts busting out that mad rap about being ‘too hot’ I just want to be all up in that scene dancing and shaking and grooving with him.
As far as getting to sing in this musical, I can really only say that it’s church. The first rehearsal was very emotional for me because I don’t get to do a lot of shows. I have other responsibilities, which I love, both my family and my job, that keep me from being a super active performer. So right after the first rehearsal I posted the picture of all of us sitting there in our chairs and I tagged it as “in church with pastor Cedric.” When you’re singing with all these incredible voices, from Cedric, our musical director who actually has an amazing voice, to everyone in the ensemble, to Crystal Freeman, who plays Abuela Claudia, it’s just amazing. I actually called one of my best friends, Coby, and said that it makes me so angry for anyone who takes a job like this as a joke and doesn’t give it their all because it is just such a blessing to be able to do this. And I cried, I cried to Toby about how getting to sing here on this stage as a part of this musical has always been a dream of mine, and finally getting to live that dream is just unreal. I’m so thankful to just be a part of it, and love— LOVE getting to sing.
Daniela’s two big songs are “No Me Diga” and “Carnaval Del Barrio,” so which one is more fun for you?
Oh man, that’s really hard. Fun? Well, actually, fun is easy. It’s “No Me Diga,” hands down. That song is definitely more fun, I mean I’m gossiping and I’m making jokes about sexual organs, what’s not fun about it? I’m on stage with the girls, just enjoying myself and it’s an ensemble number, I’m not holding up the song. “Carnaval Del Barrio” is much deeper. There’s a lot of emotional layering because I’m bringing Daniela’s back story into the song and the pressure is really on because I need to be more vocally responsible in this song. I belt more, the timing in the beginning to make sure I’m right in time with the band, and it’s just a whole different type of song. “No Me Diga” is formulaic, you just stick with the beat, you do your harmonies with the girls and that’s that. But with “Carnaval…” it’s really a much more moving number because it’s telling Daniela’s story. She gets nostalgic and she gets the whole ensemble motivated, literally up off their butts, it’s important. It’s this big huge number, a big responsibility, and it’s still fun, but it’s a lot more work.
The complex new dance style has everybody moving all around, so what’s your take on that?
It is really energetic. A favorite dance moment comes to mind, actually I have two, but really— during “Carnaval Del Barrio” we’re dancing in this circle where the guys pair up with the girls and I get to pair up with David Gregory, who plays Usnavi, and we do this thing where the girls drop into a semi-split and then get pulled back up by the guys. It’s my favorite moment because it’s very reminiscent of the very first show I ever did with David years ago at Fells Point Corner Theatre, a show called Street Scene. And it was this really long sad tragic opera-type thing that right in the middle of it David and I had this crazy 1930’s swinging lindy hop type of dance routine, and getting to do something very similar to that here in this musical with him all these years later was just amazing.
My other favorite dance moment is with this ensemble dancer, Jason Phillips. He dances with me, well I dance around him at the very beginning of “Carnaval…” and I’m dancing with him, grabbing his face and being all sexy, it’s great because it really brings Daniela’s character out. He’s this sexy little thing and there I am dancing and being all sexy in the moment and I have to think, “Calm down, Mamma, you’re way too old for him.” It’s a great fun moment.
Do you have anyone from the show that reminds you of your friends or family?
I don’t want to be fake and just sort of pick someone for the sake of saying that I’ve picked someone. I’ve never lived in a big city, but I do have really good friends that remind me of the friendships in Washington Heights. For In The Heights those friends are their family. They hold each other up; there’s a point where Camila even says ‘You’re all my family…’ not just her daughter and her husband, and I can definitely draw a correlation to the way they relate to their friends as family to my own friends. I have my two best friends, Coby and Rebecca, who are really very much like my sisters. I have those friends that are so close they are like family and I certainly have blood relations that just don’t feel that close.
As an Italian American are there any community similiarities to where you grew up and the barrio of Washington Heights?
Oh definitely! The characters and the personalities of the Washington Heights barrio being so specific, I can relate to that. You know, Friday nights for me growing up were spent with my aunts and uncles and my nono and nona (my grandpa and grandma) sitting around a card table playing these old Italian card games while my brother and I were building card houses and domino stacks. So that sense of tight-knit family and community was definitely there for me growing up. I actually chose to study abroad in Italy in order to get closer to my Dad’s side of the family heritage and when I got there I was blown away because I had this moment where I was like “I’m not crazy, it’s just in my blood!” Because I get there and there are all these people who look like they’re yelling at each other – but they’re just talking. So the similarities for me are just so obvious and so very there.
What has been the most challenging part of the show for you so far?
Oh, the most challenging part of the show for me has been being able to transition into character at call time. To go from frantically being a mom of three with a full time job and then hurry up and race into the theatre and get into “actor mode,” which then has to roll right into being Daniela, so that transition has been crazy. Some great actor somewhere said that your cast and your crew don’t want to hear about the eight million things that made your day crazy, and they don’t need to know that you had a bad meeting at work which made you run fifteen minutes late leaving, and is now making you late getting into your costume, and that you have to focus all of that excess baggage; you have to channel all of your personal drama into the character. It doesn’t matter what’s going on outside for me I just have to draw it all into Daniela, and making that transition has been a struggle because – as I mentioned earlier – I don’t get to do shows all that often and I haven’t had to make that ‘real life person’ to ‘actor’ transition in a long time.
How did you end up singing as the Bolero girl on Camila’s record?
Oh my goodness! This is actually a funny story! But from the moment I heard that part in the Broadway recording I knew I wanted to sing it, and actually I would have been perfectly happy if they had just cast me to sing as the Bolero girl. That song is so beautiful! I did wait a little bit, but very early on in the rehearsal process I went to Larry, our director, and asked him how they were going to do the Bolero singer bit. He said he wasn’t sure and I told him that I really wanted to sing it, which led to me eventually breaking down and asking Cedric, our musical director. Cedric had actually mentioned it to another cast member, Tobias Young who plays Piragua Guy, and Tobias was like “Oh no no no, that’s probably not even in my range you need to get Santia for this because it’s perfect for her.” And I actually didn’t know until closer to tech run that I was going to be singing it, but once I found out that I would be I was so excited!
That song is actually the only point in the show that there’s an homage or a tribute to the older more classical and historical style of Hispanic singing, so getting to sing it is really an honor. And it’s a really incredible song because it literally translates to “Don’t go, but if you do leave I’ll never forget you; you’ll always stay in my memories forever.” And it repeats the word ‘siempre’ (forever) over and over. That message is like the ghostly whisper of the current that runs through this show because we remember everyone and promise that their stories will always be with us, that we’ll always keep their memories with us.
You can hear Santina singing the Bolero song as well as her other songs at In The Heights until July 21, 2013 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call (301) 596-6161 or purchase them online.
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.