In the Heights hits the Milwaukee Theatre

By - May 3rd, 2012 11:56 pm

IN THE HEIGHTS North American Tour; North American Tour Cast (c) John Daughtry, 2011

In the Heights, the Grammy and Tony award-winning Broadway production is currently on a national tour from its home in New York City, and will be stopping in Milwaukee for three performances on Friday, May 4 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, May 5 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

One of the the last decade’s most lauded and popular original theatrical productions, In The Heights is known for its hip-hop and salsa-infused score and choreography. The story takes place in a diverse New York city neighborhood known as Washington Heights and finds the protagonist, a young Dominican-American man and bodega owner named Usnavi, at a crossroads. At the center of the plot is the revelation that the bodega sold a winning lottery ticket for $96,000 to an unknown person in the neighborhood.

In my conversation with Director Thomas Kail, we spoke about his collaboration with the playwright, songwriter and original star Lin-Manuel Miranda. Kail talked about the persistence and ethic that has taken the twelve-year-long running show In The Heights from undergraduate inspiration to the proverbial “heights” of theatrical success.

Thomas Kail

As lore goes, sketches for the story were originally written by young Miranda, in the margins of his notebook during a sophomore college class at Wesleyan University. The show was originally performed as a one-act within the Wesleyan University’s student theater company, The Second Stage. The development of In the Heights took off after fellow Wesleyan students John Mailer and Neil Stewart called up Kail, a former Wesleyan student himself, who was working in New York in the theater industry and turned him on to the script and the score. He was immediately compelled.

Miranda and Kail then began their professional collaboration, which was, as Kail describes it, “sympatico from the beginning.”

Starting in the year 2000, Kail assisted Miranda in re-writing the script and re-imaging it for a Broadway stage. In those days, his main function as a director as he tells it, was to “be present” and to help Miranda “create a structure in which to produce.” They would meet weekly to go over drafts of the play. Kail also helped connect Miranda to necessary producers and to the librettist and author Quiara Alegría Hudes, who would write the novel for the story.

From the outset, Kail was driven by the material, and his own desire “to honor the fact that he’d been trusted with it.”

Scene from “In the Heights”. (Photo: John Daughtry)

Kail found his way to directing from his early experience with athletics and coaching in youth leagues. Kail got into theater in his Junior year of college at Wesleyan University.

For Kail, there was rich cross over between coaching and directing. “I would see things in my head that I couldn’t do,” he said. “I wanted to take the right people, the right talent, very disparate groups of people unify, and have them move in the same direction.”

Kail is also widely known for his work as director of Lombardi, a play about the life of Packer’s legendary coach Vince Lombardi, which toured to Green Bay, and had its final performance in New York last May.

With a successful trajectory of productions, Kail with his own Tony nomination and a show that has lasted twelve years as part of his CV, I asked Kail if he had advice for those with aspirations to go on to great things in artistic production.

“You have to learn to manage your expectations, get used to the word ‘no.’ It only takes one ‘yes,'” he said. “I’ve had some (productions) that played for five people, then ten people, then twenty, then one hundred, then twenty again. You must learn to remove your ego… surround yourself with people who really inspire you. As a director, you must attach yourself to something that really moves you.”

Though Kail has much experience, he admits that the path to success in the arts can sometimes break down into “going from vine to vine.”

“I worked two jobs until I was 27, 28. It’s about perseverance, persistence, tenacity,” he said. “The work never ends.”

I asked Kail how those involved in the tour of In The Heights keep things fresh at twelve years and counting.

“We are so fortunate to have a show that runs…. The characterizations may change for the actors from show to show, but the work remains charged with the quality it had (when it first opened). We are storytellers.”

For more information on showtimes and to purchase tickets, go the the Milwaukee Theatre website.

Categories: Arts & Culture

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