Toronto artists perform Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical as a benefit for Puerto Rico
Before there was Hamilton, the phenomenally successful hip hop musical that conquered Broadway and much of the English-speaking theatre world, there was In the Heights, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about a Dominican-American community in New York’s Washington Heights neighbourhood. Now, a group of Toronto theatre artists is coming together to perform an in-concert version of Miranda’s seminal, semi-autobiographical show to raise funds for Puerto Rican hurricane relief via The Hispanic Federation.
We asked director Matt Lacas (Corpus Dance) a few questions about the project.
Can you tell me a bit about your decision to stage a benefit concert for Puerto Rican Relief and The Hispanic Federation? Was there a specific event that prompted you to go from watching the events on the news to deciding to act?
I was in a ride share travelling from Montreal to Toronto when I started digging deeper into what was going on in Puerto Rico and how those who were suffering were going to continue to suffer and struggle to rebuild due to the lack of financial aid coming in from the American government. Living pay check to pay check, I never felt like I could help those across the world in times of need because I was barely able to make rent in Toronto. I just happened to be listening to In The Heights throughout this drive home to Toronto.
In The Heights has long been my all-time favourite musical and its writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a huge advocate for Puerto Rican relief. It just kinda clicked. A light bulb went off and I said “Here’s something I could do”, but I knew from the start I couldn’t do this alone. I knew this project was going to be bigger than me and I would have to call in every favour from every corner of my network to make it happen.
So, In the Heights kind of presented itself as the perfect fit for a benefit show? What’s the specific significance the show holds for you?
In The Heights was the perfect choice in my mind for a couple reasons. It’s a show that celebrates Latin culture and puts Latinx performers at the forefront like no other musical. It tells a universal story about what it means to chase your dreams as you cling to your roots, and to celebrate the community from which you grew. This is a story most Canadians have lived. Most of us here are children of immigrants. I think that’s why this show is so beloved because it rings true for all of us in one way or another. This is my chance to give a story to someone who may feel underrepresented in the arts. Also, as mentioned before, this is my favorite show of all time, so I may have been a little biased in my choice.
Could you tell me about your approach to casting the show? In the Heights specifically calls for Latinx performers but your cast features Latinx-, Carribbean-, Filipino-, Southeast Asian-, and Euro- Canadian performers, along with queer/trans performers, why was this inclusive approach to casting important to you?
I’ve also always wanted to see this show go up in Toronto. Our arts scene is so wildly diverse and I feel that it’s never used to its full potential. People have told me for years that this show is impossible to do because of how difficult it was to cast the show appropriately. I strongly disagree. The show calls for many performers of colour but it has some flexibility with some of its characters. My aim was to cast this show as appropriately as possible and as open as possible because rarely do we see shows with more than two or three people of colour in them.
I’m so tired of seeing my extremely talented friends play the stereotypical and racialized characters in musicals like Anything Goes. Going into auditions, I tried to look at every performer who came in with no pre-judgements. I let their talent and work ethic speak for them and that’s how we ended up with the first ever trans-performer playing the lead role, Usnvai.
What are you ultimately trying to achieve with this event and what are you hoping people will take away from the performance?
Ultimately, I’m trying to make sure people don’t forget about Puerto Rico. Our news travels so fast that people often forget that even after news reporters stop talking about a crisis it doesn’t magically disappear. I knew that if I didn’t get this show up quickly, that people may lose interest in helping out a true humanitarian crisis. I also want people to connect to these characters. I want someone in the crowd to say to themselves “Hey, that character is just like me”. I remember when it happened to me for the first time and it changed my life.