Exclaim Theatre Co is set to bring Lin-Manuel Miranda’s critically acclaimed musical (no, not that one, In The Heights) to the stage. Set in Washington Heights in New York, the neighbourhood of Miranda’s youth, the show blends hip-hop and Latin musical influences to tell a story about its residents, living and working and loving through a heatwave.
To do the show justice means casting to honour the show, and Exclaim’s producers have taken pains to cast diversely and sensitively. We spoke to two cast members of the production, Tamara Roxanne (Abuela Claudia) and Elena Bello (Daniela) about performing, In The Heights, diversity in Australian musical theatre casting and, of course, Hamilton.
Introduce yourself! Tell us your name and who you’re playing in the show.
TAMMY Hello! My name is Tamara Roxanne and I play the character of Abuela Claudia in Exclaim’s production of In The Heights!
ELENA Hello, my name is Elena Bello, I’m Mexican, and I am playing Daniela for ExclAIM In The Heights.
Tell us about your first time onstage.
TAMMY I grew up in a small town called Skelmersdale in the northwest of England. My first time onstage I would have been 6 years old at the local shopping mall attempting to belt out ‘My heart Will Go On’ to a shaky cassette recording while dressed in the full Celine Dion getup for the annual talent contest. If you’ve seen the film Little Miss Sunshine, it’s awkwardly reminiscent of that cringeworthy moment in the end when she dances at the pageant.
ELENA My first time on stage was long time a go when I played the ‘poor child’ for a Mexican production of Aladdin. Actually I had a solo song and I was head over heels!
In The Heights owes a lot to Rent in its structure and style, and it also inspires a similar love from its group of most ardent fans. When did you find out about In The Heights?
TAMMY Whilst studying at AIM I heard songs from the show for recitals and master classes etc, but I think the first time I learnt about the show was only a couple of years ago when I was living with my friend in Washington Heights and it all sort of clicked together. I would walk down the streets of New York and in my head I’d be rapping ‘lights up in Washington Heights…’ To be honest though I knew maybe the first 3 lines of rap so it was basically just that on repeat. Still felt pretty bad ass though, haha.
ELENA Actually I found it when I started studying musical theatre in Australia and I fell in love with it immediately! There is no one single song I don’t identify with at some point! There are too many lines where I think ‘yeah! I’ve felt that!’
What’s your favourite number in the show?
TAMMY In the Heights is one of those shows where I think every number is a new favourite. As much as I absolutely love to rap the opening while I’m washing my hair or driving in the car (now that I know more than the first 3 lines haha) I’d have to say that ‘Blackout’ at the end of Act One has gotta take the cake. As the title suggests, it takes place during a blackout in Washington Heights so everyone is frantically searching for loved ones in a city that’s lost power, which allows for these energetic staccato echoes to pierce through the darkness then as the number progresses you get these soaring 4 part harmonies as fireworks light up the city. As it’s the last song in the show where the whole cast is onstage together there’s a sense of nostalgia in the melody that in itself takes us to another place without us being able to recognise why. I think that’s why I love it so much – every time I hear it, it takes me someplace different.
ELENA It is so hard to choose one, because it depends my mood or the circumstances I’m living, but honestly at least once a day I sing to the top of my lungs one of the songs! Any way, if I had to choose it would be ‘Paciencia y Fé’ (Patience and Faith). It’s a magnificent number where you can feel so strongly and feel so many things in just one song.
It’s hard to get away from this: In The Heights was the first Broadway show by Lin Manuel Miranda, who created the smash hit Hamilton. What do you think it is about his shows that charm audiences so?
TAMMY Great writers harness storytelling from a range of elements but I think what separates Lin-Manuel Miranda shows is his ability to paint a realm of multifaceted characters using contemporary ways of communicating. He writes them in such a way that we can relate a little of ourselves in each character. Both Hamilton and In The Heights’ central vein is to find a sense of belonging, with both lead roles highlighting a visible minority character finding their way despite predisposed hardships and social standing. Living in countries that host a multicultural landscape of people, we can resonate with these characters as they challenge societal ranks and find their place in the world.
ELENA He speaks from the heart. He’s a genius that seems to live a very ordinary life, a regular guy that has worked really hard. It’s like he just says what everyone is thinking but couldn’t find the words to say, and the thing is he put words together into song!
Musical theatre is exploding here lately, but it’s still such a small industry. What concerns you about musical theatre in Australia?
TAMMY A common concern among most actors in Australia is just being able to find consistent work. I think regardless of location this can be a concern for most artists, but Australia having such a small music theatre industry makes it comparatively more difficult. From personal experience the opportunity to find a role available for someone with darker skin can be few and far between and sometimes can be discouraging. We live in such a multicultural country but with only a handful of shows being featured each season the chances of finding a role to even audition for is limited. That’s why a show written for a culturally diverse cast like In The Heights is such a great opportunity for someone like me. They don’t come around too often.
ELENA I believe it is part of the culture, I mean, is something that your parents/family pass out to you. So if we want a bigger industry, we need to focus on the young generations so they actually believe in the massive nutrient musical theatre is for your spirit and soul.
What excites you about musical theatre in Australia at the moment?
TAMMY It’s exciting to hear new works coming out in Australia at a higher frequency than before. There’s a buzz of emerging artists coming together and creating an era of work that include an array of characters featuring gay, lesbian, transgender, black, white, brown, Asian, big and small in a single cast. It’s possible this is another subsequent offshoot from successful musicals such as Rent which again features a smorgasbord of characters and as you mentioned earlier, brings us back to the inspiration which contributed to Lin-Manuel Miranda creating In The Heights.
ELENA Everything, shows coming, new companies, diversity, new plays!!
You’re part of a show that demands a diverse cast and diversity in musical theatre casting isn’t always Australia’s strong suit. Tell us about your In The Heights cast.
TAMMY We have a beautifully colourful cast which is so great to see and be part of! Due to the limited diversity in Australian musical theatre casting, many of us in the cast haven’t been in a show for some time and you can feel the energy and dedication to the craft spilling out the seams. We have people from Latin and Spanish backgrounds as the characters are written as well as Filipino, Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, Greek, Australian, Lebanese and Samoan! I think we’ve got every shade from white to black- it’s like the paint section of Bunnings in a cast!
ELENA The best is yet to come! The fact I am in this production is just a small but at the same time an exiting proof that there is a place for everyone in this industry. All of us come from different backgrounds, and it’s such a delightful thing see all this different skin tones together, working hard and doing what we love the most! Australia is a multicultural country and if we want a bigger industry, bigger audience, we must reflect that in our shows. As people do in an office environment we need to get used to accents and enjoy them, loving the fact we’re different but the same in essence, just with a small twist in our tongues.
If you could play any role in the musical theatre canon, what would it be?
TAMMY Haha that’s a very tricky question, there are so many incredible roles out there! I’ve been stuck on this question for hours- there’s no role that from a young age I’ve always been eyeing but after being in New York last year seeing shows on Broadway and the West End in London last month, I can say that there are a number of shows that I would love to see come to Australia to have the opportunity to be part of!
ELENA An Eponine, Fantine or Christine.
What can audiences expect from your production of In The Heights?
TAMMY I think what’s so inspiring about this show is the different journey each audience member will take away with them as Australia hasn’t had a contemporary musical quite like In The Heights before. The Latin flavour from the band mixed with the energetic raps, harmonic vocals and incredible choreography and storytelling, directed by our unbelievably talented creative board, paint a world so far from our own. The show itself highlights the journey of a diverse group of people living in Washington Heights in New York yet parallels it in a way that resonates with ushere on the other side of the globe so strongly. It is truly a piece of theatre not to be missed.
ELENA A very human show, warm, fun with lost of flavour, you’ll find yourself following the beat with your feet/head. And you will definitely feel identified at some point. It is impossible to not leave the theatre with a smile on your face!