Revivals aren’t rare. But it’s very unusual to have a newer musical revived for a second time within a year by the same company. That describes the current co-production by Teatro Nuevos Horizontes (“Theatre of New Horizons” or TNH) and Casa 0101 of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ In The Heights — the 2008 Broadway hit that won Tonys for production, score, orchestrations and choreography. It opens tonight at Casa 0101, following an earlier run last December produced by TNH at the same venue.
For director Rigo Tejeda, 36, and costume designer Abel Alvarado, 41 — both of TNH – and Casa 101 artistic director Josefina Lopez, 44, the musical has special meaning. Even though it is set in Manhattan’s Washington Heights (where Lopez wrote her first play), their theater is in Boyle Heights, east of downtown Los Angeles. The play deals with puertorriqueños and dominicanos in New York, but the production folk and most of the cast are Mexican-American.
Tejeda and Alvarado are both San Gabriel Valley-bred. Lopez hails from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, but was raised in Southern California. All three willingly celebrate their Mexican heritage in their work. Lopez, who has an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA, is best known for writing Real Women Have Curves — first as a play that has received more than a hundred productions in the USA and then as a film. She now runs her theater in Boyle Heights, where she teaches writing for stage and screen. Tejeda directs on the side, as his full-time business is running a flower shop in Whittier (the set features some of his flowers), and Alvarado is the resident costumer for TNH as well as costumer and art director for In The Heights.
Tejeda, the youngest of four boys in his family, likes the idea of combining directing and running a business. “Break down ‘showbiz’ and you have a mash-up of artistic and business acumen. For me, being a small business owner and participating in theater has taught me the need to be strategical when putting together a show as, at the end of the day, you have to make a profit to sustain yourself. And you do it by finding a project that others want to see and learn how to make it great” without breaking the bank. TNH is dedicated to “finding new horizons for yourself. I want to continuously walk this road of theater and passions, with the horizon far away in the distance.”
TNH was founded in 2005 and has produced at least a play a year, mostly community-based. The current co-production of In The Heights with Casa 0101 was a direct result of the success of TNH’s first version last year, at Casa 0101. Tejeda calls it “the first musical that actually accentuates a Latino community” and finds that “inspiring. We don’t believe West Side Story counts, as it’s about divided communities in NYC.”
For Alvarado, “the essence of the show is how Latinos in America are marginalized because of the majority’s fear of those who don’t look like them — racism at its basest. Lin-Manuel wrote about a neighborhood in NYC that, as it happens, is just like Boyle Heights. But what the racists ignore is that we’re all Americans and we help fuel the economy. In turn, Latinos fear becoming mainstream, living all too often in cocoon-like barrios.”
As a business owner,Tejeda says he relates mostly to the character of Daniela, who runs a beauty salon. “She has to compete with the big-box stores, ultimately having to close down due to rising rents, but moving to a cheaper place that will still allow her to keep her two workers. And she keeps her energy and her ability to maintain a positive attitude while helping others. She’s the go-to person for someone who might need a laugh or a distraction.” It’s at this point that Tejeda begins to weep, which embarrasses him. “Wow. I never show emotion — I will show you my care through actions, not in talking.”
While this version of last year’s show is essentially the same, many of the previous actors got new jobs or agents or furthered their careers from it, so the producers were forced to do some radical re-casting, totaling 17 out of a cast of 22. “The result has been somewhat stronger, but that’s mostly because we knew what had to be fixed from the previous version,” says Tejeda.
For Alvarado, the production is an opportunity for Angelenos who don’t live nearby. “We invite them to see the barrio we live in, in all its reality. And it’s a safe journey, two miles east of downtown, with two Metro stops nearby [Mariachi Plaza and Soto on the Gold Line ], opposite the Hollenbeck Police Station, with free parking at Boyle Heights City Hall [on Friday and Saturday nights], and you get to see an excellent show in a beautiful theater. This musical allows us to see singing-and-dancing Latinos in a play everyone can relate to — the struggle to stay financially afloat amid community emotional support. And the price is fair: $30 for adults, $25 for seniors and students and $20 for residents of Boyle Heights. And if you do come on the Metro, you get a $2 discount.”
In The Heights had played Los Angeles twice, in two national tours, at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood — before its incarnations at Casa 0101. But as this version is in a 99-seat theater, under Actors’ Equity’s relaxed rules, it is much more affordable to those who couldn’t afford higher-priced tickets at the Pantages.
In a more serious vein, the two production companies are very aware that they straddle two (usually contradictory) horses: community theater and professional theater. This is an issue close to Alvarado’s heart: “To do a musical of this caliber, there’s a training that’s missing in most community actors. You need the quality preparation you can get from high school, college, or from intensive studying. It’s a fine balance as we’ve taken untrained, but highly talented, local community residents, seeing in them an ability to flourish, which added to our production.”
He continues: “Latino audiences here don’t support theater the way that they do in other Spanish-speaking countries. Mexico City has large theaters, playing major musicals, for example, both foreign and domestic, and audiences flock to them. But because of costs, our people cannot attend the larger theaters here.”
Beyond lower ticket prices, Boyle Heights might add an element of authenticity to the experience of seeing In the Heights that wouldn’t be found on Hollywood Boulevard. “Our musical’s storyline is about taking ownership of where you live and thrive,” Alvarado explains, “making the American dream work from within. My grandparents lived in Boyle Heights long ago. Their people came originally from Mexico, but migrated through Texas to Colorado to LA to the San Gabriel Valley decades ago — we are all full Americans. We live that American dream, and this show exemplifies the similarities that all immigrants go through. We want West Side audiences to travel to our neighborhood and see a show that reflects the diversity on our side of town. Boyle Heights is a new Renaissance District, largely because of Casa 0101, and the new festivals that the city sponsors.”
So far, the area has not been gentrified away from its current flavor — unlike the strife-ridden history of Silver Lake’s merging of Hispanics and LGBT folk. And while the area is still poor, it has genuine life happening in and around it, with the changes coming from within — the gentefication rather than gentrification — according to Alvarado, who is something of a community activist.
Alvarado’s background is in costume design. For the current version, he had to tweak the costumes for the newer actors, but his original thought for the designs was to create “a color wheel of life, sabor/flavor and vibrancy. While that didn’t change [for the new show], I was able to implement new ideas — making the costumes pop a little more. Because there’s so much dance in it, I needed the clothes to sway, as if in a breeze, to accentuate the memories of the people who live there — to match the sounds of the music and the smells of the coffee stand, the panadería/bakery and the florist’s shop.” For the one memory sequence, in which Abuela Claudia talks about her native Cuba and the local neighborhood during World War II, the costuming became less colorful and more earth-toned to reflect the idea of a sepia-toned picture.
Last year, he costumed Leslie Ferreira and Tina Kronis’ show at the Odyssey, The Untitled Warhol Project. “It was an amazing show, a retrospective on Andy Warhol — in just over an hour, with 18 actors on stage, we had over a hundred costume changes.” That experience, as tough as it was, also allowed him an opportunity to directly see the ethnic makeup of two very diverse audiences — largely white in West Los Angeles, and largely brown for Heights at Casa 0101.
“You know,” Alvarado continues, “we’re all supposed to be colorblind in our American society, and audiences should be willing to travel to see racially different casts. Audiences need to see others as themselves. Our stories are all the same. In growing up, I was mostly surrounded by American culture, my education, the food, as an artist, and I speak English and Spanish. As Latinos, we have no choice than to see other people’s stories in the movies or on TV, or on stage. I think it’s time that our culture is reflected as part of the American fabric.”
Tejeda agrees: “I think our stories reflect everyone’s concerns. I’m a flower-shop owner, Daniela is a salon owner, and we small business owners are all over this city. We put back into the community by doing what we need to on a daily basis. We help fuel the American dream.”
Alvarado adds that “when outsiders, people with no direct history of our neighborhoods, come into them and make changes, no one takes kindly to the pillaging and thereby making it different — by doing that, they are saying we’re not American enough. I call it the Chipotlization of Latin American culture.”
Tejeda and Alvarado have been working partners in the theater for over three years, producing their own shows. Future plans may include producing the American debut of a Mexico City hit musical, Mentiras /Lies, but they need to convince the owners of the material that they’d do best by introducing it to America in a smaller theater and by not taking the original cast — stars all in Mexico — to Broadway where they won’t be recognized.
Alvarado explains: “It’s a comedy where five women, who are close friends, find out — when the husband of one of the ingénues up and dies — that he’d not only been involved with all of them, he had married two of them. We’re in preliminary negotiations with the rights-holders to let us do it. It would change the face of Latino musical theater in LA and it might happen if we can find the right space and the right producer. The [Ricardo] Montalbán, perhaps, or at the LA Theatre Center.”
Lopez, who has had experience with trying to get her own musical version of Real Women onto the Broadway stage (“it will cost $8-10 million dollars”), is appreciative of the idea of a Broadway show, such as Heights is, playing in the barrio. “It’s unusual to hear [our] songs in a show, whether in Spanish, English or Spanglish. I love that it’s all so collaborative in the performing arts.”
She is also looking to find new plays that deal directly with the history of Boyle Heights, from its beginnings as a Jewish enclave, then as a home to Japanese-Americans who were forcibly relocated during WWII, to the Chicano neighbors who bought up their properties to save them until they returned after the war. Remembering Boyle Heights is a title for the show she’s considering. She’s currently collecting stories from neighbors. One topic for a possible future show is the local synagogue and shul on Breed Street, around the corner from her theater.
For Lopez, as important as it is to have a theater devoted to the Latino cultures that exist all around it, it is more important not to remain in “a ghetto of the mind.”
In The Heights, Casa 0101, 2009 East First Street, Boyle Heights 90033. Opens tonight. Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 5 pm. Through December 22.Tickets: $19.99-$45. www.casa0101.org. 323-263-7684.
**All In The Heights production photos by Ed Krieger.