By Aaminah Baloch
The Department of Film and Theatre and the School of Music and Dance collaborate for the first time in more than 20 years to bring Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning production, In the Heights, to the Hammer Theatre. Thanks to generous donations, access to the original Broadway set, and the hard work of many, SJSU is putting on a show true to Miranda’s first Broadway hit. And, along with bringing world-class theater to San José, In the Heights is giving students hands-on experience in the staging and production of a major Broadway play.
In the Heights tells the story of a Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. The characters are relatable and charming, full of triumph and angst as they struggle to achieve the elusive American Dream. And while Miranda’s show is representative of his Latino background, it’s also universal.
“Here are these people who exist everyday on the street. They fall in love, they fall out of love, they have problems, they have celebrations—it’s a human story,” says Director Buddy Butler.
Miranda’s show is the perfect fit for not only SJSU students, but for San José and the larger Bay Area community. “It’s a show that continues our commitment to diversity,” adds Butler. “I wanted to find a play that would speak to that diversity and also give voice to the unrepresented voices out there.”
In addition to appealing to various cultures, the production also reaches out to students with different interests. Many were attracted to Miranda’s modern, hip-hop take on traditional theatre. “What really interested me was that it was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda,” says Theatre major Jordan Celestino. “Being on stage singing is cool, but you never really get to rap on stage.”
Students like Celestino are involved in all areas of the production, from singing and dancing on stage to creating costumes. Music students will be performing in the live orchestra while theatre students are even getting the opportunity to work as assistant stage managers.
The production is the perfect opportunity for students to be exposed to the challenges and rigors they will face as working professionals. Theatre student Shaelan Barber, for example, is learning to juggle different parts of her life with In the Heights. She meets the cast for rehearsal five nights a week and works a 32-hour job while also being a full-time student.
“A lot of people don’t get this opportunity, so I’m trying to take out of it as much as I can,” says Barber. Despite her overwhelming schedule, she is excited to be a part of the production.
The collaboration between departments has allowed students to round out their skills. “I’m not much a dancer, but when I got an ensemble I had to learn these dances,” says Barber. “The first day we learned the dance, our legs hurt so bad. But it was a pain that you felt really good about. We were getting something done. That’s what I’ve loved about it.”
Not only are students learning new skills, the collaboration has given them the opportunity to work with industry experts. William Corkery, a senior Theatre Arts major, enjoys the challenge of working at a professional level: “The more perfection that you demand out of people, the better you get.”
Other students agree and are encouraged by the experience. “I feel like we sound really good in such a short amount of time, which is amazing,” says Jordan Celestino. “I think that’s just because of how Jesse works—and what he brings to the table makes us want to bring more.”
Jesse Sanchez was the musical assistant for the national tour of Hamilton and worked with the original creative team from both Hamilton and In the Heights. He is currently the vocal consultant in the production and has been teaching students the score.
“We’ve done five vocal rehearsals and we’ve learned mostly every note on the page,” says Sanchez. “They’ve come prepared—it’s a pretty all-star team. We all understand all of our parts and how we fit in this really big pie.”
Sanchez isn’t the only professional in the production. Students have been introduced to experts in all areas, from actors to sound technicians. For example, the main character is played by guest artist Oklys Pimentel, who has previous experience with the role in another local production. And some professionals are alumni of SJSU, like Jennifer Wong the stage manager. Additionally, students will get the opportunity to learn how to mix sounds by Anthony Sutton, Hammer Theatre’s seasoned technician, as the play will take place in the theatre’s main auditorium.
“The Hammer is creating huge opportunities for our students, for our faculty, and for our community,” says Barnaby Dallas, the show’s producer.
The partnership between SJSU and the Hammer Theatre has certainly raised the bar.
“Film & Theatre has done some things at the Hammer, and Music and Dance has done some very exciting things,” adds Fred Cohen, conductor and chair of the School of Music & Dance. “But we’ve never worked together on a music theatre piece as popular as this. It’s very exciting.”
In the Heights will start Friday, April 27 at 7 pm at the Hammer Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit www.hammertheatre.com or call (408) 924-8501.
For the summer edition of Expressions, we will be featuring more photos and videos of the performance.