“Lost and found… IN THE HEIGHTS”

Where do you go when you lose your fear to fly? You go up, up high where no one can tell you that you can't. What do you do when you no longer believe the lie? You soar and let yourself go; to be who you want to be, to be who you know you are, to be YOU! 

And this is the story of In The Heights. It inspires you to follow your heart, embrace your roots, and most importantly, do what makes you happy and proud. But today, I will not share with you the tales of the colorful characters in that story. I won't tell you about Usnavi's dreams, Nina's battle, Abuela's box, or Benny's stretch limo- you gotta see the show for that! Instead, I will tell you about the real people bringing these characters to life. 

Right before the show started, I was chatting with the people sitting around me. I think I stood up to let someone through, and in doing so, I turned and met the young man behind me. He said he really liked my “I speak… Yo hablo ESPANGLISH” button. Me too! That’s why I was wearing it; and also why I had a ton more with me. In fact, I like it so much that I didn’t care if it didn’t go with my fancy dress that night. The young man asked me where I’d gotten my button and I told him I’d made it. I asked if he wanted one and he answered “yes”. He introduced himself as Luis and asked me where I was from and what I did for a living. I said I was Cuban. He said he was Puerto Rican. We quickly got into an exciting conversation about our home countries and our work. I talked about being a Spanish and English teacher and how I loved helping people learn language to give them a voice. Luis told me he started a non-profit organization to help the Latino community through arts and education. In a matter of seconds, I realized I had a lot in common with Luis. It felt great to make a connection with somebody who shared my ideas and passion about language, community, and teaching. And just like that, “lights up”! The people chatter ended and the show began.

Throughout the musical I kept seeing stories I already knew. Everything was so familiar. I saw my neighbors, my friends, my family, and myself. Perhaps I was projecting what I wanted to see onto this anecdote playing out in front of me: the girl who couldn’t, “Useless”, the boys who “keep scraping by”, and the thoughts of running away to a happier place. I kept forgetting my purpose for being there. I was there to see if this would be a good language activity for my Spanish students. But I was so consumed by these themes that after some time I just gave in and let myself feel what I kept fighting from the start- their stories.

At the end of the day, literally, that’s exactly what I learned- their stories. Since I went to watch the show on press night, I was able to stay after to participate in the Q&A session. This is where the night truly began for me.

There was a quick intro and the young man with whom I had been speaking to earlier jumped on stage and grabbed the microphone. He introduced himself as Luis Salgado, director and choreographer of In The Heights. Whoa! How cool was this? Just a little while ago I was talking to him about education and language and now I was watching him lead the press event about one of the most inspiring stories I’ve seen on stage. Coolest part? He was wearing my button!

During Q&A, we learned about the talented and diverse team who worked together to give us such a wonderful experience that night. We also learned about the struggles and accomplishments of the real people in the show. One of the talented cast members was a young man from Spain who left everything he knew behind to pursue his dreams of acting in New York. He spoke about the fear of going somewhere new where he knew no one and trying something that had no guarantees. I loved what he shared because we discovered that in this new world he found a new family, his theater family. They opened their doors and hearts and have encouraged him to keep flying higher towards his dream. His new family is not “American” or “Hispanic”; it is comprised of a mixed group of people from different cultures and backgrounds. His new home is made of hearts, not flags.

After the show everyone got to go on stage and mingle. It was a beautiful celebration. Kids were waiting to get autographs from the actors. There were congratulations, hugs, and kisses with a mix of skin colors everywhere you looked and smiles as bright as the lights above. It was great to hear both English and Spanish in the air and voices jumping from one language to the other without missing a beat. What a magical evening!

After I walked out of Gala Theater, I remembered I had Ubered there. I called my wonderful husband and asked if he’d make the 45-minute drive to pick me up. He’s wonderful so of course he agreed. Now, I just had to wait... by myself, in the street, in an unfamiliar area, after midnight. Suddenly, a group of about 8 walked my way. I recognized one, then another, then the rest. OMG! It was the cast! Wanting to have one last memory I asked them to pose for a selfie. Little did I know that this would not be it. They sat to eat at a restaurant next to the theater and kindly allowed me to wait for my ride with them. There, I truly learned what it means to be In the Heights.

“Celebrar la libertad; celebrar que ganamos”, said Ximena Salgado, gorgeous Peruvian ensemble member, actress, and dancer who has been performing since age 6. She talked about the hardships of the entertainment industry, not giving up on doing what you love, and being grateful for being a part of something bigger than her. Aaron Cobos, the young man from Spain, told me more about why his new family is so significant to him. He explained that when he left his country he felt like a baby bird leaving the nest. He saw his parents as those who taught him to fly. It was important for him to have their blessing when he left to fly on his own. He feels the same love and encouragement from his new family and is inspired to make them both proud.

Vaughn Ryan Middler plays Benny. Neither Vaughn nor Benny speak Spanish. He is also a local actor and just recently began working with the team. Not speaking Spanish made Vaughn (and Benny) feel like an outsider. However, the group immediately welcomed him, and like Aaron, Vaughn also felt “at home”. It was strange for Vaughn to see everyone be so close and always kissing. “They kiss for everything… ‘It’s raining!’ (Kiss).” He had never experienced such closeness. After a while, he began to get it. When he didn’t get a kiss, he wondered if people were mad at him. It’s funny how culture just captures. 

Before I left, I spoke a little with Juan Luis Espinal, who plays Usnavi. Usnavi does a lot of talking, singing, and dancing in the musical! For him, the most difficult part was remembering his lines in the language on the script. I could see the trouble with this. As an actor, he is expected to deliver his lines as instructed. Yet, as a person who myself grew up speaking both Spanish and English, I understood how there are some things that just feel more meaningful in one language rather than the other. And all of a sudden, I remembered why I was there.

I’m a true believer that everything in the universe is connected. Really, these are stories within stories. I realized that this wasn’t the story about the characters but about all of the real people who inspired and led to the creation of these characters and to this day give them life- the ones who thought them up, the ones who molded those, and anyone who somehow shaped the molders. Life is connected. There are things that occur that leave us asking “why?” for a long time. Then something happens one day and you get your “because”. My night at In the Heights answered my why.

Ever since I was a little girl I’d fantasized about being an actress. I’d play novelas with my little cousins and reenact our favorite episodes in full costume, hair, and makeup. I took drama for three years in high school and almost majored in it in college. I chose a different path but I always wondered what would have been if I had gone for it. And there I was, seeing what it’s really like. All of these people tell stories. I admire them because I see their passion for giving their characters a heartbeat. But I lost myself in them that night and forgot why I had gone there to begin with. Although I really really enjoyed it, I didn’t go there to hear their stories. I went there to create mine. Watching theirs brought me back. I was there for my dream. I realized that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be and that everything that didn’t work out how I wanted was meant to be. I don’t want to tell someone’s story; I want them to tell it themselves. Don’t forget what makes you fly. I am a teacher and that’s where I shine. I found myself… in their heights.

By: Janny B.D.- teacher, entrepreneur, creator, motivator, and believer.

See IN THE HEIGHTS @ Gala Theater (April 20th -May 21st).