From Broadway to Moraga: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights Comes to Saint Mary’s

In The HeightsThe Theatre Program is abuzz this year. In the fall, the program premiered an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, daringly set in Golden Age Hollywood. More recently, the program was thrust into the national spotlight, when Mahershala Ali ’96 won an Oscar for best supporting actor in Moonlight. Now the program is happy to announce the premiere of In the Heights on the Saint Mary’s campus. The ground-breaking musical, from Lin-Manuel Miranda and the creative team behind the Broadway blockbuster Hamilton, paints a vivid mural of a tight-knit urban community, New York City’s Washington Heights. There, first- and second-generation Latino immigrants reach for their dreams—making a living, finding identity, creating a home.

Rebecca Engle, professor of performing arts and director of the Theatre Program, is serving as producer of In the Heights. According to Engle, the decision to present Miranda’s Tony Award–winning musical developed independently of Miranda’s rising success this past year with Hamilton. “When the Theatre Program faculty chose this production over a year ago, it was with a strong commitment to responding to student need for more opportunities showcasing actors of color,” said Engle. “Even though our policy is to pursue nontraditional and inclusive casting for all of our productions, there is an added benefit to the program, the students, and to the College when we present culturally specific programming.”

Given the current political climate and heightened focus on issues on race and immigration, Engle said, “We couldn’t have known a year ago how much more urgent and powerful this play about immigrant communities would become. We chose it as an inclusive musical, and it has evolved into a message about an issue that we, as a country, are grappling with.” 

Roughly every four semesters, the Theatre Program presents a musical. “We love music and have lots of double and triple threats—so many of our plays include live music,” said Engle. “Many of our students are not only talented actors but also singers and movers. Their training allows them to do all three.” The open call for auditions attracted more than 50 students from across the campus, many students who are not performing art majors or minors, and many of whom had never auditioned for a theater production before. 

Engle said the success of Hamilton didn’t factor into the decision to present In The Heights. At the time of choosing the play, Engle said she was unaware of Miranda’s cultural currency. Yet, serendipitously, In The Heights ended up being the perfect choice for Saint Mary’s at the perfect time. In 2014, Miranda wrote, “The joy of In The Heights runs both ways to me. When I see a school production with not a lot of Latino students doing it, I know they’re learning things about Latino culture that go beyond what they’re fed in the media every day. They have to learn those things to play their parts correctly. And when I see a school with a huge Latino population do Heights, I feel a surge of pride that the students get to perform something that may have a sliver of resonance in their daily lives.” 

Saint Mary’s production of In the Heights is being directed by guest artist Nick Gabriel, an adjunct instructor at Saint Mary’s and a core company member of San Francisco’s ACT. “Nick is in a small and very elite cohort of working professional artists who teach for us as part of the program, when their schedules allow. His background is in musical theater and he has a BFA in musical theater from the University of Michigan,” said Engle. When looking for a guest director, Engle said she was blessed to find Gabriel. She said that often when a professional artist works as a guest of a college program, they may come with inflated expectations or may lack the heart and passion to work with undergraduates. Gabriel, however connects incredibly well with the students here.

Amanda Ramos ’19 and Dino Tenorio ’18 rehearsing "Saint Mary's students are, without exception, the kindest undergraduate students I've ever worked with,” says Gabriel. “Their ambition and work ethic are extraordinary, but it's their kindness that means the most to me. They always conduct themselves respectfully and compassionately; that continues to be the most pleasurable aspect of working with them.” It was imperative to Gabriel to find the perfect actor to play the lead, which Miranda himself originated on Broadway. Gabriel adds, “Freshman Dante Fregoso, whose performing experience is limited to a few musicals in high school, is an extraordinary find. As Usnavi, the young Dominican immigrant who carries the main narrative thread, Dante has not only the voice and charisma the role requires; but he also relates deeply to Usnavi's circumstances, which resonate with his own family background.” 

Gabriel has brought in guest choreographer Deb Leamy, who has performed on Broadway and was one of the original cast members of the Tony-winning musical Fosse. “There is very little dialogue in In the Heights, so the acting has to be embedded in the musical performance,” said Engle. Because the show is so dynamic, the cast features members of SMC’s Chamber Singers and Glee Club, the dance and theatre programs, and students from across the campus.
 
Among the cast are multiple performing arts scholarship students including theatre students Amanda Ramos ’19, playing a lead character, Nina; Justin Howard ’19, Quincy Waller ’17, and Nakia Gibbs ’17 who is assistant directing the show. Scholarship students from the Dance Program include Stephanie Coffelt ’17 and Micah Sallid ’19. Engle reflected back to the time Ali performed on the LeFevre stage in Spunk, an adaptation of three stories by Zora Neale Hurston. “That was the first time we took the risk to do a play that was culturally specific. We really had to take into account the fact that we were talking about a culture that was not the dominant culture on campus,” Engle said “This was the launching pad for Mahershala. I’m looking forward to seeing which students now may have the same experience, maybe winning Academy Awards themselves in the next 10 to 20 years.” 

In the Heights performs for one weekend only, April 27–30, 2017 at the LeFevre Theatre on the Saint Mary’s campus. It is highly recommended to book tickets in advance as this show will most likely sell out. For more information, visit stmarys-ca.edu/in-the-heights