Tucked away behind two large double doors on the basement floor of Mandeville center, the team behind this year’s Muir Musical, In The Heights, is hard at work finessing their choreography. The sound of vivacious club salsa music echoes behind the doors where performers work to perfect a large dance number, bringing together most of the cast. As I slide the door ajar, the music intensifies and a torrent of sound floods out of the room and into my ears.
The room is wild and I pause for a moment to take it all in. Actors move quickly across the room as the choreographer calls out directions and critiques; it’s busy to say the least. The nightclub scene where the characters find themselves is nuanced. Some dancers are paired together, jiving in unison in the forestage, while others make up the minute aspects of the background, drinking and talking and setting the stage for the protagonists, all meshing together to make up the madness of the dance floor.
Prefaced to me as a “community show,” it has become quickly apparent that the show only comes together with the detailed collaboration of each individual performer, all working to fulfill their unique role.
Fittingly named, In the Heights tells the story of a predominantly Dominican-American community in the Washington Heights area of New York City. With music written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton acclaim, the performance weaves together the lives of the city’s inhabitants, all while touching on themes of love, security, longing, family bonds, and home.
Kevin Maneffa who plays principal character Usnavi, says that being with the cast and crew, “feels like family.” Even in rehearsal, the connection is evident. Despite the repetitious exercises, the mood is light and an air of genuine congeniality fills the room as the players laugh and work with one another. “You know you can come down to the theatre room and feel accepted and be able to talk openly and freely and have fun,” he remarked.
The practices can be difficult, lasting roughly 4 hours, and take place almost every single day, though each actor is called at varying frequencies based upon on their role. Yet, in spite of the difficult work, each cast member I spoke with found their practice incredibly rewarding. Whether it was perfecting a choreography or hitting a certain note or figuring out how to work a particular scene, each found a reason to be excited about their work — one cast member noted that she particularly was, “in it for the cookies.”
Working along with the actors, the talented director, choreographer, producers, and designers are working to transform these collective rehearsals into a cohesive live show. Apart from the rehearsals themselves, the production crew meet weekly to bring together all in the nuances of the show itself. From lighting design to set design, the complexities that come into play during production are far greater than I could have imagined.
“Even though there are so many different departments, it has to be one cohesive production; you want everything to work together,” commented Assistant Stage Manager Kendra Toy. “For example, if somebody is wearing a jacket, but then they take that jacket off and put it on a bed… that costume piece has just become a prop. So, we need to have that communicated.”
Each department is working in tandem with one another to make the production as seamless as possible. With such intricacies needing attention all throughout the show, the great amount of care that is given to every single action and reaction that takes place on stage is a true demonstration of the amount of love that is being poured into this show.
According to Executive Artistic Director Aubrey Oxley, the show itself boils down to that very idea: love. “There’s a lot of heart in this show,” she said. “There are different kinds of love that we see. There’s romantic love and then there’s love of parents for a child and then there’s love of a grandmother for her community and then there’s love of heritage and all sorts of different relationships.”
The story shown on the stage highlights these different aspects of love. With so many unique stories being told together, there’s something that everyone can relate with. For Aubrey, this piece holds a particular place in her heart because of the way it relates with her mother, who passed away on October 2nd of 2015. Aubrey’s mother, who was a choral music teacher, had directed music for 28 years and even worked on previous iterations of Muir Musical. “This is kind of a way for me to feel close to her. It makes it very special for me. I feel like I’m doing something that she would want me to do and something that makes me feel like I’m making her proud,” she said. The production has been dedicated to her memory.
For each of those working to bring In the Heights to life, the show itself elicits its own unique set of emotions. Having worked on a single project for such a long time, it’s only natural that pieces of the play begin to elicit deeper meaning in people’s minds.
“I think no matter where someone is coming from, as you work on the production you get to know the characters and you get to see them develop and you become attached to them. They become real people, because that’s what they really are; they’re representing real people,” said Toy. “I think if you do the show right, they should seem like real people who have real pasts … and so you kinda connect with them and you kinda root for them and even though we kinda know how it ends… You start to value other people’s stories even if they’re not your own.”
It with this mentality that cast has worked to bring this particular story to life. With so many characters each dealing with their own bruises and burdens, there’s a great hope that a part of this story might resonate with each of us as well.
Rehearsals for the show have been in session since week one of winter quarter and will continue into the spring quarter until the show debuts on Saturday, April 2nd at 8PM. Tickets are on sale now and are free for current UCSD students.