Interview: In the Heights Production Team
GMT’s production of In the Heights is, in many ways, the company’s most ambitious offering yet. With a fresh team of creatives at its helm – Director Jennifer Donald, Producer Hils Paterson and Choreographer Greg Robertson - with GMT co-founder and Musical Director Gregor Duthie, the production marks the Glasgow debut of one of this generation’s true new Broadway classics. With opening night less than a week away, the production team take time out to tell us just why this show may be GMT’s finest…
Hi, folks, thanks for taking the time out to talk to us. First things first: why In the Heights?
Jen: Well, the first time I heard the opening line on the soundtrack I was completely hooked. “Lights up on Washington Heights”. I haven’t listened to much else for over a year, and there are still moments that give me goosebumps.
Gregor: It’s unlike anything we’ve done before, and probably unlike most shows you’ll have seen. It’s very un-Broadway. It’s set in a Hispanic neighbourhood, and the score is very reflective of that with Salsa and Bolero rhythms underpinning it all, which has a very contemporary feel. The first thing the audience hears in this show is rap, so you know from the beginning that this isn’t your ‘traditional’ musical.
Jen: And four of the main characters have to rap. Challenge accepted! But yeah, it’s fresh and vibrant, the songs are amazing, the script is great, and that combination really isn’t that easy to come by anymore. Especially the script part.
Hils: Yeah, it’s just so different. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of more ‘legit’ musicals too, but there’s something so exciting about seeing a show that’s a trailblazer. There was nothing like this before: a musical this good with rapping, hip hop and salsa. In fact, one of the hardest things to do is describe the show, and I’ve seen it. Several times.
Hils, your love goes beyond how unique it is though. You’re the biggest fan we know.
Hils: Yeah, I guess I fell in love with the music. My mate Darren had seen previews off-Broadway and brought back the cast recording. Every time he gave me a lift to rehearsals from then on it *had* to be ’96,000’ we listening to. Every time. And yeah, I ended up taking a trip to New York to see it. I have a photo of me getting the tickets and actually crying. I’m such a sad case. I like to blame it on how cold New York was.
Gregor, Assistant Director/Designer Nicola Coffield, and Assistant Musical Director Jonathan Salmond have been on this side of the curtain many times since GMT started over six years ago. What experience are the rest of you bringing to your roles?
Jen: I directed my first big musical a few years back for Theatre South Productions, and a large scale cabaret for them a few months later. Then I started with GMT as a performer, and was Assistant Director for Flashdance last year, which really helped me understand how the company works at the production team level. It really taught me not to panic when the rehearsal schedule inevitably veers off-course, or when that voice says ‘will we get there in time?’ even though you always do. I’m able to relax now and enjoy the process a lot more – directing my first show I remember being in a constant state of fear.
Hils: I’m not sure ‘experience’ is what I bring. I generally like organising things. I produced GMT in Concert 2015 just before we started auditioning for In the Heights, so I couldn’t have been too terrible at it. When Amy [GMT’s Artistic Director] asked me to produce again I was so excited about GMT doing In the Heights I probably would’ve agreed to anything.
Greg: I was delighted too. I’ve been working with GMT for quite a few years now. I’ve been choreographing other shows for a few years now, and was choreographer on the second GMT in Concert. I know how high the company’s standard and reputation are when it comes to dance, so being asked to choreograph for In the Heights was a bit of a daunting challenge, but I wanted to live up to it. I’d never heard of the show before, so it’s been great to work on something new and not be influenced by previous productions of it. I think it’s quickly become one of my favourites.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Jen: Of all the challenges I thought we might face – finding a cast that can act, rap, sing and dance, creating a set that will work – the biggest one for me has actually been trying to find time, especially when it comes to rehearsing scenes with the principals. They’re so involved in the music and dancing in this show that I’ll have our Nina free, but our Benny is upstairs going over choreography, for example. We never want the dialogue to suffer. Sometimes you find in musical performances that the singing and dancing are amazing but the acting is kind of forgotten about and becomes the weakest part of it all. It drags the whole show down. It shouldn’t be the bit where folk pick up their programme or start passing round the sweeties, it should all work together and keep the audience involved, so we’ve been determined to keep it just as much a priority, even when it isn’t easy.
What have you been doing in the last few rehearsals?
Hils: A lot of polishing.
Jen: Yeah, we finished teaching everything before Christmas, except a few transitions between scenes, so we’ve spent the last few weeks doing that, and I had a couple of scenes to polish off. Since then we’ve just been running, fixing and tightening everything, making sure the story comes across and the characters are believable. Then there’s the other stuff: props, costumes, sound, lighting, set. They’re all under control behind the scenes, but it won’t be long before Assistant Director Nicky and I are standing in a well-known local supermarket looking for thirty electric candles and something that will pass for a fire hydrant.
When does the band come into it?
Gregor: We started rehearsals with the band over the Christmas break, so it’s been a lot of hard work for them. A typical show will see the cast rehearsing for four or five months. The band get four of five weeks, if you’re lucky. It can be tough for the production team to have to go back to square one when the cast have already learned the entire score, and the publishers haven’t sent the band parts in the post yet. Orchestral musicians will often react in a completely different way to the singers, so on the one hand it can totally throw you, but on the other it keeps you on your toes. At this stage of the game it’s really useful to have a fresh take on the score to make you re-assess some of the choices you’ve made along the way. The first day we bring the cast and band together is the most terrifying part of the process, but the most uplifting once it’s done. And it’s happening this Saturday…
Greg: I’m really looking forward to the Sitzprobe, when the band and cast come together. The numbers are already looking and sounding slick, and the cast are fully committed, but it always helps to pull the performances and energy up even further. If you had a room full of people who were thinking of buying tickets, which one moment from GMT’s production would you show them that would have them queuing at the Box Office?
Hils: One moment is hard!
Jen: Yeah, that *is* hard.
Hils: Do we get one number? Or a bit of a number? I’d go for the harmonies in ‘Blackout’. GMT has a well-deserved reputation, I think, for putting on big musicals that show off the dancing – but the vocals are always superb, and I have a thing for harmonies. ‘Blackout’ makes me happy in so many ways.
Jen: My personal favourite is ‘Champagne’ in Act 2. It’s such a feel-good moment and our actors play it just perfectly. If it doesn’t move you, you’ve got a heart of stone.
Gregor: It’s got to be ‘96,000’.
Greg: Without a doubt.
Gregor: It’s the moment that made me want to get involved with the show in the first place. I love that it’s basically a collection of internal monologues all happening at once. It starts off as a couple of solo lines, and keeps building until the whole cast is singing and dancing at full throttle. I can’t describe how well-written that number is, you just have to experience it. I’d say it’s the ‘Tonight Quintet’ for our generation.
Greg: When all the parts come in against each other it sounds unbelievable. The audience are going to love ’96,000’. It’s one of those numbers that makes me want to get up on stage, so I know the audience are going to struggle to stay in their seats.
’96,000’ refers to a certain financial sum that’s really important to the plot. What would you do with $96,000? Gregor: I’d charter a plane to take us all on a field trip to the Dominican Republic. The characters in this show make it sound like a pretty cool place to be.
Hils: I’d buy a house. Somewhere to call ‘home’, which a big theme in the show. I guess £64.5k might me something somewhere, or I might just take off and travel for a year.
Greg: I’d start by going on a nice, long holiday somewhere hot. It’s been torture staging a heatwave when it’s snowing outside.
Hils: Yeah, that sounds more fun. Greg: Once I’d had a bit of a blowout, though, I’d probably be sensible and put the rest towards my first house too. And then I’d get myself to London to catch a few shows, In the Heights included. Although that’s already on the agenda without the lottery win.
Jen: I’d pay off my debt. Might just about cover it. Is that too boring?
Depends on who you owe money to.
Glasgow Music Theatre will be bringing In the Heights to Eastwood Park Theatre, 26-30 January 2016. Visit the box office page of our website for details on how to come along and join the carnival.