On a night when Broadway was being battered by the latest blizzard, the cast of In the Heights was doing its best to give the audience the feeling of a hot Fourth of July in northern Manhattan. Their heat factor was aided considerably by the star wattage of erstwhile "High School Musical" phenom Corbin Bleu. Bleu, who turned 21 two days prior to his Feb. 23 Broadway debut, has fearlessly stepped into the role of Usnavi, the glue of the show's neighborhood, a part previously manned by Heights' Tony-winning writer-composer-star, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Bleu will stick around the 'hood — the Richard Rodgers Theatre, that is — through April 25.
Congratulations on making it to Broadway.
It's a dream come true, it really is.
You've stepped into what is already an iconic role. At any time since you signed on to play Usnavi did you think, "What have I gotten myself into"?
Actually, no! And I know that's strange. But it has nothing to do with any sort of ego. It really is just one of those things that when I came to this role, it was very clear to me. I know Usnavi. I feel like I grew up with him in a sense. I grew up in Brooklyn and all around my family was Dominican and Puerto Rican people, so this show hits home for me. I was very comfortable from the get-go. It wasn't even until my opening night onstage that I realized I was nervous.
And that's good because by then there's nothing you can do except perform.
[Laughs] Right? It's funny because before I went onstage I was like, "Alright, let's do this!" Then in the middle of the opening number, I hand Abuela a lottery ticket, and as my hand is going over to hand it to her, I looked and the ticket was shaking! I go, "Oh my god, I'm nervous!" After that, the adrenaline was running through my veins and I sat back for the ride. What was the rehearsal process like? They don't make the whole cast come in to rehearse extra just for you?
That is one of the craziest parts. They don't have rehearsals for everybody. They put you with the dance captain. So it's me and one other guy, and we're on the stage during the day when nobody is there, and he tells me, "Okay, right here, you're going to hand so-and-so a coffee, and then you're going to walk over here and say this…" You learn the entire show with ghosts. And you get one put-in to actually do it with people, and then you're on. It is absolutely insane! But before I came on, I saw the show 23 times. You pretty much learn the whole show just by watching.
Growing up in NYC, did you see many shows?
All the time. My family took me to a lot. My first show was Phantom when I was five. I saw Stomp and Blue Man Group, JC Superstar... I grew up in the theatre. I worked Off-Broadway when I was six. I did a show called Tiny Tim is Dead Off-Broadway, and when I moved to L.A., I went to an arts high school, the equivalent of LaGuardia High School out here. It's called L.A. County High School for the Performing Arts. I studied theatre there, and my father and mother are both performers. I've always loved it.
And you studied with the great Debbie Allen.
Debbie Allen ran the dance academy that I went to when I moved to L.A. She is incredible. I was at the academy for two years. She brings in people from all over the world. Our African dance teacher was from Africa. Our ballet teacher was from Russia, from the Kirov Ballet. The best of the best. And Debbie is phenomenal. The sweetest woman as well. She sent me a postcard to congratulate me for getting In the Heights, just an absolute doll.
Has your career path surprised you or are you the kind of guy who always knew you'd end up with a giant poster of yourself in Times Square?
[Laughs] Seeing that poster was definitely a joy. Growing up, I always knew I wanted arts in my life, but I wasn't sure that's what I wanted in a career. At a certain point, I was considering becoming a pediatrician. I went to a summit at Johns Hopkins University to get instruction in medicine, and I learned a lot. But I realized that acting is my love. I knew I wanted to be on Broadway. Did I know that it would happen so soon, at this point in my life and to this caliber and in a show that is this amazing? No, I had no idea. I'm very grateful that it has happened though. So, "High School Musical." When you started working on that did you have any idea it was going to get that huge?
No. No way. No clue. Anybody who tells you different is lying. [Laughs.]
What was it like being part of a genuine cultural juggernaut?
I grew up in that movie. That whole process started when I was 16, and by the end of it, I was 19. Growing up with the entire cast, experiencing the impact of the phenomenon that it became… We traveled all over the world together, some of us for the first time traveling to these countries. We did shows at stadiums of 70,000 people. The whole experience, to this day, it's not really real. It's a dream.
Was it tough to handle everything that came with it?
There are acting classes, there are many courses you can take, but the thing nobody can ever teach you is how to deal with the craziness of something blowing up like that. It was trial and error. You have to go to instincts and go to basics because that craziness can really screw a person up if you give into it too much. You can develop an ego, and that's how people turn the wrong way, or there are people who get eaten up and they can't handle it and they go into hiding. I'm lucky. I had an amazing upbringing. My parents are incredible people. We've always been very family-oriented. So I balanced the craziness with the real world. It is fantastic and fun at times, but when it comes down to it you know what it's about? It's about the work. That's all that matters. Just being able to work on the films was amazing, and it created a bridge for me to transition to other amazing things. Like Broadway.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Okay: Favorite Heights song to perform?
Hmmm. It becomes a different one every night. A really fun one is "96,000." That's the big number. Everybody in the cast is on the stage dancing full out. And the thing is, my character doesn't really dance throughout the show, he's supposed to be a bad dancer, but "96,000" is the one number where I get to let loose and just go for it, so when we hold that pose at the end, my heart is racing. Fave to sit back and listen to?
Oh, "Paciencia y Fe," hands down. Olga Merediz's performance during that number is just phenomenal. Listen to it on the album. That woman is brilliant. Just to watch her onstage…I remember the first time I saw the show and I went backstage to meet the cast. I didn't realize that she is the one who played Abuela. You meet her in person and you have no idea! This character she creates, the nuances, the movement of the hands, and the voice just really bring you along on the journey.
[In the Heights is now playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th Street.]
|Brian d'Arcy James
A CHANGE OF PACE FOR BRIAN D'ARCY JAMES
When last we spoke to Brian d'Arcy James, the Broadway mainstay was a little green behind the ears, as he was in the midst of what would add up to 1,750 hours in the makeup chair (calculated by his makeup man Dave Presto) becoming Shrek for Shrek the Musical. We talked then about the streak of comedies he was performing in. Now breaking that streak, he has turned in his ogre ears to co-star with Laura Linney in Time Stands Still, a play which offers him a chance to show off his dramatic chops with an excellent cast in a far cry from a family-friendly fairy tale: The realistic world of people who cover war, and how it affects them and their relationships. There is a meta-moment in the show when James' character is ranting about the way privileged Americans go see political plays and pat themselves on the back. His character, after all, has seen real suffering. James loves the way that line can bring an audience to a moment of self-reflection — just as the whole Time experience has done for him.
"I feel very blessed to dip my toe in the stream of public consciousness of what's happening in the world," James says. "When the earthquake in Haiti took place, my awareness of what's going on through the eyes of my character — someone who goes to disasters and war zones — changed. My perspective has been shifted dramatically in terms of what it takes to do that, the sheer effort of it. And the simple decision to do it. What we can or can't do to help others and feeling frustrated and paralyzed by that nowadays, that is an important concept."
On getting involved in Time Stands Still…
It fell out of the sky like a huge gift. It didn't take long for me to consider doing it because of all the people involved, the quality of Donald Margulies' writing and the mention of the wonderful Laura Linney. Why would you even think twice?
|photo by Joan Marcus|
On co-star Eric Bogosian…
I've been a big fan and seen everything he's done since I've been in New York. I always love listening to his take on any given subject. It's always three steps beyond a simple observation or comment. On co-star Alicia Silverstone…
She is very, very kind. She's also a New York Times bestselling author. I love the way she evolves in the play. What you think you are going to get is not what you end up with. On what's up next…
There is a summer lurking in my future. I might just take the summer off, and that sounds so luxurious. All I'm saying is I don't have anything going on, and I'm making it sound better than it is. [Laughs.] I'm saying I'm taking the summer off when the reality is I don't have a job!
[Time Stands Still is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street, through March 27.]
BRIDGING THE BRIDGES: AARON KROHN
This is the second year of The Bridge Project, the melding of British and American talent under the direction of Sam Mendes, taking place at BAM until March 13 and going global thereafter through August. The Tempest, opened on Feb. 24, joining As You Like It in rep in Brooklyn. Last year's Bridge shows featured Simon Russell Beale and Ethan Hawke. This year's include Stephen Dillane and Christian Camargo. There is but one cast member who has taken part in both Bridges so far — Aaron Krohn.
How did the Texas-born Krohn manage to be the lone repeater in the cast? He claims his love for the British version of "The Office" was a big factor. Mendes was a big fan of The Coast of Utopia from which he cast Hawke, Richard Easton, Josh Hamilton, Krohn and others in last year's Bridge plays. Krohn says he and Mendes hit it off with their mutual love for "Office" quotes and Woody Allen films.
"I'm sure Sam would have been happy to have Ethan Hawke and Simon back, but they have their careers to go onto," Krohn says. "This was the first time I had a director call and say, 'Hey, I want you do to this play.' I like to joke that I am announcing myself as now an offer-only candidate to the business."
Asked for a glimpse of how Mendes works, Krohn describes an environment that makes actors feel comfortable at play and allows them to feel like a true part of the creative process. Reviews singled out Krohn's Silvius from As You Like It for praise, proving that Mendes must enjoy more than just Krohn's "Office" quotes, and indicating Krohn may have that "offer-only" status in his future. For now, the star treatment he enjoys most is showing up at BAM and hearing people say, "Aaron, you're back!"
(Tom Nondorf can be reached at email@example.com.)