“In the Heights,” the story of a neighborhood in transition, will come to the Schuster Center. SUBMITTED PHOTO BY RICH RYAN

Lyn-Manuel Miranda’s first musical “In the Heights” now showing in Dayton

What to do when a touring show scheduled for your upcoming theatrical season is canceled?

That major dilemma was faced by Ken Neufeld, the Victoria Theatre Association’s president and CEO when he learned that the touring musical he’d assumed would open his 2017-18 Premier Health Broadway Series wasn’t going to materialize.

Some creative thinking and collaboration saved the day. You’ll see the results when Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popular Tony Award-winning musical, “In the Heights,” comes to the Benjamin & Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center from Tuesday, Oct 3 through Sunday, Oct. 8. The show features 25 performers from New York, Minneapolis and California and a live nine-piece orchestra.

The high-energy show, with music and lyrics by Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, was nominated for 13 Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway in 2008 and earned the Tony for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations. It won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album and was also nominated for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Miranda wrote the earliest draft of In the Heights in 1999, his sophomore year of college.

The plot revolves around a vibrant Hispanic community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood facing some serious challenges. It’s a place, we’re told, “where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music.” Its residents are facing major changes — forced to decide which traditions to retain and which to leave behind.

A creative solution

After learning of the tour cancellation, Neufeld immediately connected with a friend and colleague, James Rocco, artistic producer at St. Paul, Minnesota’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. “The Ordway is well regarded nationally as both a presenter and producer of Broadway musicals,” Neufeld said. “James Rocco is a friend and an artist with a long history of performing, choreographing and directing on Broadway and around the country. We have talked about doing a show together for a long time.”

Neufeld asked Rocco what he’d planned for the opening of his season and whether they might work together on a co-production.

“We talked about a couple of titles and when he suggested “In the Heights,” I knew it was a great choice,” Neufeld said. “Firstly, Mr. Miranda is the hottest name in Broadway with his second Tony Award winning show, ‘Hamilton. ‘And, while we can’t announce the dates for ‘Hamilton’ in Dayton, I thought it would be a great primer for our audience to get an introduction into Mr. Miranda’s talents as a lyricist and composer.”

“Hamilton” fans will recognize many stylistic similarities — such as rap. “The Miami Valley missed out on the original national tour so I felt the timing of this production was perfect,” Neufeld said.

Meet Al Justiniano

Another significant collaboration involves the special bond that’s been formed between the Ordway and a small Latino theater in the Twin Cities known as Teatro del Pueblo. Teaming up with Rocco as director and choreographer of “In the Heights,” is Al Justiniano who serves as co-founder and artistic director of that 25-year-old company.

“Our mission is to support Latino work and artists, and educate artists,” said Justiniano, a playwright, filmmaker and director of Puerto Rican descent who’s lived more than half his life in Minnesota. “I’m a student of how collaborations —when done properly — can enhance the art and lift a community in different ways. Our idea was how can a small artistic organization of color collaborate with a large institution like the Ordway.”

The two companies have also collaborated on a production of “West Side Story.” “In the Heights,” said Justiniano, is more contemporary and showcases the Latino community in a different light than “West Side Story.” “It reflects more of the issues that Latinos find more important today,” he said. “This play takes place in 2008 and deals with gentrification.”

Much of the play’s success can be credited to Lyn-Manuel Miranda. “He does what he loves to do and took an artwork and turned it on its head and created something that enhances what a musical is in a different way,” Justiniano said. “People gravitate to it because it speaks to communities. This is the first work that put him on the map.”

Justiniano, who first saw the show four years ago in Chicago, says the music and dancing in “In the Heights” is integral to many communities, especially Latin American. “The music really spoke to me. It was a different way of putting a play together,” he said. “It’s a vignette of stories — some are love stories — that are ultimately about how a community can come together and defy the odds. They celebrate their culture in an act of defiance when forces beyond their control are affecting their community.”

The play speaks to the power of a community, said Justiniano who cites current examples like the ways in which communities have been mobilizing in the face of recent devastating hurricanes.

“In the Heights” is also about the challenges of growing up in two different cultures, he said. “It’s about how you aspire to cherish your culture but need to assimilate into another system in order to compete and succeed,” he said. “It’s also about celebration — when you think you have it tough, you realize how fortunate you are. Culturally you have so much richness.”

Everyone’s “Abuela”

The character of Usnavi de la Vega — originally played by Miranda — will be played by Justin Gregory Lopez in the production that’s coming to Dayton. He’s the play’s narrator and the owner of a small bodega. Usnavi was raised by “Abuela” Claudia, who will be portrayed by Debra Cardona. This will be the fourth production of “In the Heights” in which she has appeared.

“Abuela means grandma, and she’s the community grandmother,” Cardona says. “Everybody in the neighborhood calls her grandmother. She’s babysat for everyone, so everyone knows her.”

Cardona can relate. “I come from New York and was born in a Latino community like Washington Heights called Spanish Harlem. so I have an Abuela,” she said. “Doing this show is like showing people a piece of my life. To do a musical about the kind community I grew up in is very special to me.”

She had auditioned to be in the first Off-Broadway production but didn’t get the part. “I didn’t know much about the show but when I saw it, I bawled through the whole thing. It struck a chord in me and everyone. Even though it’s about a specific community, it’s really about the American experience.”

Cardona says all of us who live in the United States have family members who have emigrated from somewhere and came to this country, formed a community, had children and grandchildren. “We all came to a new place to make a better life,” she said, adding that immigration is a big issue politically these days. “This musical demonstrates that we are all the same. These people in Washington Heights are immigrants or children of immigrants and they have the American dream just like everybody else. You want better for your children and your grandchildren.”

One of the characters in the show is Vanessa, who works in a hair salon and dreams about moving downtown because it represents success. Another character is a young girl who got a scholarship to go to Stanford and is a big star of the neighborhood.” If she were going to compare “In the Heights” to any other musical, Cardona says, she’d compare it to “Fiddler on the Roof.” “It’s also about a community that is being broken apart. At the end of “Fiddler,” they have three days to leave Anatevka. This play takes place over the July Fourth weekend and at the end of those three days, things are not going to be the same.”

Another important thing about “In the Heights,” Cardona says, is that it has taken the musical theater form to another level.

“Even before ‘Hamilton’ was such a hit, young people had been gravitating to this show,” she said. “The last time I did it in Lancaster, Pa., a little blonde 6-year-old girl came backstage and knew all the words and rapped for us. She said she had listened to the music every day!”

Justiniano said: “This play inspires people to appreciate what they have. This is a musical that makes you think about what is home, and how we define it. I’m hoping when people see it, they want to learn about their own backgrounds, where they come from and how they can create strong and vibrant communities and how these communities can make a change at the local and national level. It all really comes down to people.”

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