‘In the Heights” never registered on Washington’s radar even after it won the Tony in 2008 for best musical. Suddenly, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s exuberant salsa-merengue-hip-hop show is omnipresent, with a U.S. Spanish language premiere at Gala Hispanic Theatre last spring, a concert staging at the Kennedy Center next spring, and a big, new co-production with Bethesda’s Round House Theatre now at Olney Theatre Center.
Robin de Jesús thinks he knows why.
“People can now say it’s from the writer of ‘Hamilton,’ ” says de Jesús, who was nominated for a Tony when he played 16-year-old Sonny in the original “Heights” Broadway cast and is now Usnavi — the lead, originally Miranda’s part — at Olney. “It’s easier to sell, and people are willing to take risks to do it.”
The risks start with marketing a largely Latin show to audiences who haven’t seen much like it onstage. “In the Heights,” a warmly traditional family/romance drama set in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, was a groundbreaker on Broadway.
“It was a big deal,” says Marcos Santana, who was part of the show’s early workshops and then a swing on Broadway. “I was onstage wearing clothes that I would probably buy. Not having a gun, not having a knife, not being a rapist, celebrating who we are, where we come from, where our parents come from. That’s why this show is so magnificent for everybody who’s a part of it.”
Santana is directing and choreographing the Olney-Round House production, which completes a two-year partnership between the Montgomery County troupes after Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” last year in Bethesda, helmed by artistic directors Jason Loewith (of Olney) and Ryan Rilette (Round House). Loewith and Rilette were looking for another audience-expanding challenge, not “two white guys directing a play by a white guy,” says Loewith, sitting in his office with Rilette.
Santana was part of the team that created “Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical” at Olney last year, and he accepted the chance to direct “Heights.” “That is where the whole thing took off,” Rilette says.
De Jesús saw an online notice about the show and immediately texted his old castmate Santana. “Can I audition for Usnavi?” he asked, to Santana’s delight. Santana also saw a likely Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest, in Linedy Genao, when both were in Broadway’s “On Your Feet!” Danny Bolero also joined the cast to reprise his Broadway turn as the father of Nina, a girl just back from college.
Importing New Yorkers seems to validate the other fear about producing “Heights” here: To cast authentically, you’d have to get your actors elsewhere. Hotel bills for housing out-of-town “Carmen” talent hit $40,000, Loewith notes. What damage would this 19-actor show do?
Turns out only five people in the cast needed housing. Santana says he was “pleasantly surprised” when the local auditions turned up people like Mili Diaz (a New Yorker now, but a Rockville native) and Marquise White. “I’m like, wait: I have a Nina and Benny already?” Santana says, referring to the show’s secondary romantic characters.
Two-time Helen Hayes Award winner Natascia Diaz, cast as gossipy salon owner Daniela, counts as local, too. But the D.C.-based performer’s New York roots go back to Paul Simon’s controversial 1998 “The Capeman” on Broadway and an early chance at “In the Heights” that she turned down for fear of being typecast.
“Nobody was looking out for you if you wanted to diversify,” Diaz says.
“People like to think it’s harder to find talented people of color locally, but I think it’s changed,” de Jesús says. He points to expanded college drama programs that annually showcase dozens more trained performers than they did a decade or so ago.
“And I think it’s important,” Santana adds, “for the theaters to hire actors of color not only because we’re doing ‘In the Heights,’ but all around.”
The show is already selling well and has been extended a week. “The ‘In the Heights’ success,” Loewith says, referring to all three versions sweeping the city, “just helps pave the way for producers and audiences to be more adventurous.”
Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Md. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.
Dates: Through Oct. 15.