I recently finished performing as USNAVI in the musical IN THE HEIGHTS by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I loved doing it. I found that the part is perfectly in my skill range, and feel connected to the character in many ways.
One of them is that although he is part of his Latino community, there's definitely a part of him that feels outside of it. The main theme of the play is finding the definition of "Home", and for Usnavi, his journey and discovery is what the play is about.
He is a Latino who doesn't dance particularly well, his singing in the show is minimal, and he raps most of the show, almost as an outside narrator, which furthers the theme of finding home.
Which is where I see people in casting messing this up over and over again.
Having seen a number of performances live and online now, I notice that very often a director will cast a "Musical Theatre" baby as Usnavi, and audition his beautiful voice, and see how good of a dancer he is, and then throw on the costume and BOOM- Usnavi!
But they never see if the person can ACT like an OUTSIDER in a musical, and then they also forget to see if the person can convey STORYLINES in RAP form.
I keep seeing these "Musical Theatre babies" do Usnavi songs with wide arm sweeps, as if they were performing in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, or rapping like they see people in music videos- completely forgetting to CONVEY THE WORDS that Lin-Manuel created for the part.
I also see these same performers do obviously graceful movements as they glide across the stage instead of TELLING THE STORY of an outsider, walking in New York, who feels a little disconnected even though he's in the middle of everything.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the originator and creator of In The Heights is NOT one of these "Musical Theatre babies", as he's demonstrated to his critics. His vocals are not particularly melodic, but he CONVEYS HIS STORY through his words. He grew up listening to KRS-ONE, BIG PUN, and several other NY rappers who were known for their clever rhymes and word pictures. Not many people get that-
But I do.
And here's the self-serving part of this post.
When I was performing Usnavi, from rehearsal through to final bow, I knew that there was a STORY to be told that came WAAAAYYY before knowing the Choreography, and way before perfecting vocal notes.
It was more important to me that the theatre-going audience know what the HELL I was talking about, because most of them weren't used to listening to rap lyrics. Even the rap fans of today are more used to hearing highly produced hip-hop tracks with catchy choruses more than intricate rhyming, so even they need the rapping to be COMMUNICATED instead of "theatrical".
When I performed Usnavi, who grew up rapping in the streets with his buddies, I performed him like he was a REAL PERSON, not a "musical theatre protagonist". I grew up on the upper west side of Manhattan, way before it was filled with strollers and Whole Foods customers. We went to school and RAPPED to each other, making up bad rhymes, and listening to the Ol' Skool rappers. USNAVI is a REAL PERSON to many of us, and I think that's why so many of us take so much pride in the show Lin-Manuel created.
I'm not saying all of this to toot my own horn, but to ask that directors take CARE of this fantastic show, because to some of us- IT'S PERSONAL.
IT'S PERSONAL to have someone tell our story.
IT'S PERSONAL that other people who wouldn't normally sit through a rap/latin music set for 2 hours come out singing and feeling like they were PART of something.
IT'S PERSONAL to me that a director SEE THE POINT before they choose to mount their "show"
For the usual melodic musical theatre hero, you have Benny.
For the usual belting female songs, you have Nina, Abuela and Daniella.
For the clown, you have Sonny and Carla.
The usual templates are there- just like in Fiddler on The Roof- but this is a show that's ABOUT something too.
So for USNAVI, you need someone who can play an outsider version of all of them- and that's when people will believe that he's lonely in the middle of a crowd of friends, that's when people will believe that he feels lost without Abuela, and that's when people will CHEER when he finally gets that kiss from Vanessa.
Instead of having these oh-so-passionate and over-the-top vegas acts twist and emote through the part, why not look for someone who understands what "Fo!" means to begin with, and can tell someone else?
Please stop auditioning Musical Theatre Singer/Dancers and look for ACTORS who can RAP- then you'll have that USNAVI that actually conveys what happens in those couple of days in the life of what it's like-
In Washington Heights.
and here's my ad:
I also wrote two other blog posts about In The Heights:
HERE and HERE.