California School of the Arts’ all school musical performed “In the Heights” on Jan. 30. Hues of bright yellow danced across the stage as the entire cast sang “Carnaval del Barrio,” waving Central and South America flags.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the audience member sitting next to me waving their own Dominican Republic flag with pride. The entire theme of “In the Heights” is rooted in Latin culture with the beats and horns of Latin music and expressive Latin dance style.
A show so deeply connected with its audience gave new insight to the cast and crew on how to portray their roles.
Sophomore Leilani Rodriguez played Usnavi’s grandmother, the heart of the neighborhood.
“My character Abuela Claudia reminds me of my own grandma, which helped me connect to the character,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriquez’s character was not just a culturally significant character, but one whose personality was relatable to all people.
Sophomore Jasmine Curry played Vanessa.
“The song ‘Alabanza’ makes me cry almost every time, because the neighborhood is losing their stronghold and spirit, and the importance of Abuela in their lives, makes me think of my own Grandmother and her importance in mine,” Curry said.
Although “the streets are filled with music,” Curry said, becoming familiar with the upbeat dance numbers and ambitious style was a challenging task. It was Curry’s first time exploring Latin dance style, something she said she couldn’t shy away from in a show like this.
“It’s so different from me. I had to learn to be more comfortable with my body and expressing myself physically,” Curry said. “However, I’ve really enjoyed pushing myself and it has helped me grow in maturity in how I play the role. I don’t feel like I’m out of integrity.”
Not only was this difficult for the cast, but for the crew as well. Junior Alec Reyes, who switched between the flute, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, and tenor saxophone in the pit, preferred the liveliness of the Latin music over traditional musical theater scores.
“Latin music isn’t intended to be written down. Usually it’s done by feel. Mr. D [our conductor] said, ‘the rhythms are just an approximation for this style, it’s done with feeling,'” Reyes said. “If you aren’t familiar with listening to this music, it’s really difficult to understand how it’s performed.”
Although the Latin style was a struggle to master, through months of practicing, the cast and pit were able to pull off a professional representation of the unique and grounded show.
The pit practiced every Tuesday for a semester, while the cast spent hours delving into their characters through table reads, unlike previous years, when they’d knocked out the music first.
However, it was only about a week before opening night when the cast and crew practiced together for the first time.
Like the neighborhood or barrio in the show, tech rehearsals involved a community.
“Being able to connect with everyone from different conservatories is a feeling like no other. I love everyone so much and being able to do this show with all these amazing people makes me so happy,” Rodriguez said.
Through a rush of last minute set design and blocking, Reyes was able to absorb and learn about the technical process of other conservatories.
“It’s interesting to see a different side of production. We sit around a lot when the pit isn’t rehearsing, so we get to see the staging and lighting come together,” Reyes said. “It’s also enjoyable to see the musical theater kids in their element, seeing how professional they can be.”
For sophomore Sofia Sandoval, the community aspect of putting on the musical was the highlight of her role. As part of the hair and makeup crew, Sandoval appreciated the chance to interact with her peers.
“I’m very kept to myself so being able to talk to the cast while putting on makeup, is new and fun,” Sandoval said. “Last year for Newsies, I was on set, so I didn’t have the same experience.”
Although “In the Heights” didn’t require a significant amount of makeup, as it takes place in the 21st century, Sandoval’s favorite character to work on was Rodriguez’s character Abuela. To create the effect of elderliness, Sandoval applied darker colors to highlight wrinkles and shadows.
“It’s the most fun and special effect-y,” Sandoval said.
Through a working community of multiple conservatories collaborating together, represented by students of all backgrounds, “In the Heights” was a celebration of diversity and community, not just on the stage, but in the making of the project as well.