Before Lin-Manuel Miranda was a Tony- and Pulitzer-winning lyricist and writer, he was a student at Wesleyan University trying to assemble a few raps he’d written into a show for the school’s student theater company, Second Stage. Those first few freestyle raps and numbers became the blueprint for “In the Heights,” the musical that put Miranda on the map in 2008.
Now, through the dedication and drive of a diverse cast and crew, “Heights” will make its Savannah debut May 11 and 12 at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Arnold Hall Theater. With a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, the show celebrates the vibrant makeup of Hispanic Americans living in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood.
When it came time to decide on a show for the university’s spring quarter, co-directors Claire Price and Juan Miguel Vidales, both senior performing arts students at SCAD, saw “Heights” as an opportunity to expand the repertoire of theater performed not just at SCAD, but also in Savannah. That is why the show is fully student-produced through SCAD’s Alpha Psi Omega and Multicultural Alliance Theatre, two of three theater organizations at SCAD.
“This show tells an important story,” Price said during a recent rehearsal. “It’s relevant right now. We’ve really been striving to shine a light on things we don’t really see in the industry but also at SCAD. We really want to start opening everyone’s minds. We’re trying to spice up all of the shows that emphasize minorities in particular, and also give more people opportunities to perform and see different faces on the stage.”
Price and Vidales also plan to use the show as a chance to raise funds for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a philanthropic organization prominent in the theater community, and Somos Una Voz, an alliance of artists working to provide food, shelter, medicine and power to those in need from the effects of recent natural disasters in Puerto Rico.
“Heights” holds a special place in the hearts of two of its lead actors. First-year performing arts graduate student Jackelyn Segui, who plays the role of Nina Rosario, is Puerto Rican and previously performed in a Puerto Rican production of the show. First-year advertising student Juan Pablo Delgado, also from Puerto Rico, plays the show’s lead, Usnavi de la Vega, and has been off-book (meaning he did not use a script) from day one of rehearsals, according to Price. Delgado said Usnavi has been his “dream role” since his sister first started playing the original album recording nonstop.
“There’s a lot of emotion in the show and you really have to pour your heart out for the story to be there for the people to enjoy,” Delgado said. “It is an incredible experience. You learn so much about the Latino culture. All of the show is just like home. You really feel like a part of the community.”
Segui hopes audiences will view the show as a chance to learn more about the colorful, integrated culture of Washington Heights.
“I think this show gives us a voice, and gives us the opportunity to show our characters to people who don’t know how we really are,” Segui said. “I’m really happy to do it. It is a chance to know where we all come from and how we struggle through life.”
Out of all the show’s catchy raps and salsa-inspired numbers, Price said the song title that rings most true for the production is “Paciencia Y Fe,” which translates as “Patience and Faith.”
“That’s what we’ve had this whole time with six weeks of rehearsals,” Price explained. “We have patience and faith that we’re going to persevere and make it work and tell these stories right. We do it for Puerto Rico and give all of these awesome, talented people a chance to shine.”