Stepping In Is Hard to Do!
In the Heights' Javier Munoz, Next to Normal's Kyle Dean Massey, and South Pacific's Andrew Samonsky discuss the challenges of taking over pivotal roles in Broadway musicals.
THEATERMANIA: You've been with In The Heights since it started its development process; was understudying Lin-Manuel Miranda as Usnavi -- which you did before taking over the role -- your first job?
JAVIER MUNOZ: At the very first reading, I played Nina's brother Lincoln, a character who no longer exists in the show, and from there I got the call to play Usnavi at the next workshop. They said not to imitate Lin, but to take the material, make it my own and help with the development of it. So I would go on whenever Lin needed to sit out and just be the composer, and that became my place for every workshop thereafter. I remember Lin telling me that there were moments and choices I made that he wanted to incorporate. There's no greater flattery than for the guy who's originating the role to tell the understudy "That was so good, I want to use it."
TM: You had quit the business before In The Heights came along. Why did you do that?
JM: Both my parents had become ill; so I moved in with them to support them and pay for things. I had to face the financial reality that I couldn't make a living as an actor and also be there for my family. It was truly the hardest decision that I ever made, because it wasn't just giving up on the business, it was giving up on myself and saying my dreams are no more. I took a management position at a restaurant in Hell's Kitchen and I was miserable, but I did it because I had to. Then, a friend from college asked me to take part in an informal reading of a musical he had written; and luckily I did it, because an actress there heard me sing and told me about In The Heights. From there it's been a series of dream come true events. And my parents are wonderfully healthy now.
TM: What made you respond so passionately to the show?
JM: I was so excited that someone wanted to bring Hip Hop onto a stage. But also, when I read through that script I saw no drugs, I saw no violence, I saw hard-working Latino people. Often as a Latino you're called in to be "Drug Dealer #2." This musical brought forth the things that I wanted to portray.
TM: How is your working relationship with your understudies?
JM: I've never had understudies before, so I take it upon myself to communicate with them. When they go on, I always call or text like Lin used to do with me. I want them to go out and do as good a job as I would or better, because the show always comes first. Lin set the example, and I'm following it.
THEATERMANIA: Kyle, how is your portrayal of Gabe different than Aaron Tveit's?
KYLE DEAN MASSEY: It's different, though I wouldn't say there is a lot of room for interpretation. Aaron and I are also physically similar, so we move around the set in a similar way. Some smaller details are different here and there, which came out in rehearsal. One of the things that makes Michael Greif such a good director is that he is very specific and gives you great actions; you always know what you're playing.
TM: Is the role the physical workout it appears to be?
KDM: It's not as physically exhausting as Altar Boyz, which I did for a year, but after "I'm Alive" I'm huffing and puffing because it is hard to sing the song and do all the movement. I'm literally running up and down stairs for the whole number. My character's always holding on to part of the set and swinging around on it to give the impression that he's part of the house.
TM: How would you characterize Gabriel's relationship with Diana, as well as with her portrayer, Alice Ripley?
KDM: There's a lyric in the song "I'm Alive" that explains it best: "I am what you want me to be." Gabriel is always what she wants or needs. I like to look at it like he feels the things that she feels. He's the perfect rebel son, or he represents sexuality, or he is like a companion. And Alice is absolutely amazing. She's always so focused and real. As soon as we start the show, I have absolutely no trouble going to that place and deciding that she is my mother and that we have this incredible bond and relationship.
ANDREW SAMONSKY: Matt started getting sick second week of previews and I'd never even seen him do the role since my track as a Seabee had me somewhere else while he's on stage. Then, one morning I got the call that I was going on for the matinee. It was wild but not unmanageable; the thing is Cable doesn't dance, he doesn't move around a lot, he doesn't even have a lot to say. I knew the lines and I knew the songs, so I went right to the theater and walked through it and I was able to cram just in time.
TM: Is it challenging as an actor that Cable doesn't have a lot to say?
AS: I find myself a lot of the time wanting to say something when he doesn't, and you have to justify why he isn't saying anything. We had some Navy guys and a Marine from World War II come and talk to us during rehearsals. The Navy guys hadn't seen a lot of action, while the Marine had. He was very reserved and didn't say much. It was obvious he saw a lot of horrible things. I think that really informed me; he only talked when he needed to talk.
TM: What do you do to convince the audience that Cable falls in love with Liat at first sight?
AS: I think it's this moment where he is able to release all that he is. He's come from this privileged world and he has already seen all these atrocities. So when he sees Liat for the first time, something cracks. She is that safety and comfort after all this war; she's the symbol of that peace that he's been looking for. I love how our director, Bartlett Sher, did that with this character, because usually Cable comes on as an all-American good guy. But you do the research about who these guys were and they were, for lack of a better term, bad asses who trained vigorously for secret missions with a lot of ego, and this woman breaks through that.