In the weeks leading up to the production, darkness enveloped anyone who entered the Sexson Auditorium. It is quiet, one’s own footsteps could be heard reverberating throughout the room. Even so, the stage is lit; the only signs of life come from the men knocking away at an incomplete set, and a few actors rehearsing diligently while the director oversees.
This is what the play “In the Heights” started as: a director with an aspiration and determination, and students both familiar and not familiar with musicals hard at work. In this case, the planning started months before the spring term even began.
“I chose [‘In the Heights’] because I know that ‘Hamilton’, which was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is very popular certainly with the young people and with everyone really,” director and longtime musical theater instructor Karen Benjamin said. “It’s a huge sensation.”
“In the Heights” is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first show; it is based on a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes and centers around a diverse group of people in a predominantly Hispanic community called Washington Heights in New York. One of the main characters is Usnavi de la Vega, who narrates the play. The musical’s plot takes place over the course of just three days, but that doesn’t stop them from jam-packing the show with 23 musical numbers, incorporating 12 dynamic characters, and earning more than 20 awards and nominations combined.
“This show is what I call a ‘huge musical’,” Benjamin said. “It’s huge in that 1: it has a big, huge cast and 2: it has a huge feel about it. A big message, a big loving, joyous message.”
Benjamin is no stranger to directing challenging, huge productions such as this one. She has been a director at PCC since 2011, when PCC had just started doing musicals again after a long hiatus, and directed works such as “Spring Awakening” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Benjamin also vocal directed “Into The Woods,” “Hairspray,” “Company,” and “Young Frankenstein.”
Preparations for the show began as early as last fall, the casting having been done in that semester and the other directors contacted and signed on board for the production around the same time. This was done in order to ensure the cast mates could arrange their schedules and dedicate the time needed in order to memorize lines and become familiar in their roles. Like the play’s duration, Benjamin only took two days for preliminary casting and one call back day, utilizing the intersession as well in order to ensure the cast had enough time to memorize the lines, songs, dance numbers, and work with each other.
The time the students and directors put into practice could be seen in the rigorous rehearsal schedule they had. Rehearsals were held Monday through Friday from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., with an additional practice added in Sunday afternoon.
“Right now I work two jobs … It’s a balancing act because I have to clear off all my nights because I got to be here,” 20-year-old PCC student Sean Monje said. “It’s only for like two and a half months, so you know I got to put in every effort and every time I can into this.”
“It’s like delivering a baby,” Benjamin interjected. “You’re pregnant for some months and then you have the baby and it’s over!”
The choreography is directed by Marissa Herrera, and some Friday practices even included the PCC marching band directed by music faculty member Kyle Luck, who directs a lot of the music events on campus. The many musical numbers feature different styles of music and dance such as salsa, rap, hip-hop, jazz and non-traditional.
“[Kyle] is so fabulous. I could not have done this show without Kyle Luck on board,” Benjamin said. “When I decided to do the show I went to him and I said, ‘You are the only person who could do this show.’ If he had said no, I wouldn’t have done the show.”
Despite the rigorous practices and busy schedules students had to balance, the passion, intensity, and focus could be felt simply by watching them in their practices. Monje expressed familiarity with acting, but even others who had no experience could be seen rehearsing with as much ease and practice as those with experience.
Although Benjamin and the cast prepared with ample time, obstacles always come up and are even expected in any project anyone does, especially in the theater business. As the expression goes,“The show must go on,” which is the attitude Benjamin, Monje, and others took when one of the students cast for a lead role suddenly dropped out of the play.
“The part of Usnavi was having some issues getting to rehearsal and he unfortunately got into a car accident,” Benjamin said. “He had no car and he lives really far away and I had to replace him.”
The change in personnel was surprisingly easy, as was noted by the cast members who were used to rehearsing with him but now had to make that connection with someone new.
“I don’t think it interrupted the flow. For [my character], that character is my cousin, so it was just adapting the set chemistry with the previous one … with the new one,” Monje said. “As an actor, you just have to be adaptable to any situation.”
Many of the students cast represented the diverse background and community “In the Heights” represents. Nineteen-year-old student Benazir Giovanna Mahmood has only been in the United States for the past eight months from Mexico. Mahmood was born here and lived here until she was eight years old when she moved to Guadalajara. Her experience knowing Spanish has been a great deal of help for Benjamin and other performers who are not familiar with Spanish, since “In the Heights” is a bilingual production heavily immersed in Latino culture.
Some of the themes the show integrates in a harmony of seriousness and lively musical numbers are identity, a sense of and pride in one’s culture, loss, and faith. In a time where cultural sensitivity and diversity are questioned, Benjamin feels that a production like “In the Heights” is necessary in order to remind us that Los Angeles, and Pasadena in particular, are amalgams of histories, backgrounds, and people.
“The fact that it is bilingual is representative of Los Angeles in a huge way,” Benjamin reflected. “A lot of the themes that are employed in this musical are very relevant today with what’s going on in our country.”
With the students hard at work doing final run-throughs, stagehands completing the set, and the band rehearsing their numbers, the cast puts the final touches on the production opening this Friday, and encourages the PCC community to see their hard work reflected in a play that represents Pasadena.
“With the music and the dancing and the singing, with these cultures, there’s this incredible joyous feeling about the musical,” Benjamin said. “It’s what I call a ‘feel good’ musical, and I think we need to feel good.”
“In the Heights” will be opening this Friday, April 7 at 8 p.m. in the Sexson Auditorium. Tickets can be bought at the door; general admission is $20 while students with a student ID and seniors can grab tickets for $15.