DIVA TALK: Chatting with In the Heights' Priscilla Lopez, "Idols" Sing Lloyd Webber and More

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with In the Heights' Priscilla Lopez, "Idols" Sing Lloyd Webber and More
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Tony Award winner Priscilla Lopez
Tony Award winner Priscilla Lopez

Tony Award-winning singer-actress Priscilla Lopez, who created the role of Diana in the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line, is back on The Great White Way in Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes' critically acclaimed new musical In the Heights at the Richard Rodgers Theatre — which, coincidentally, is just one block away from the revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chorus Line at the Schoenfeld. In her latest stage role, Lopez plays Camila, mom of Nina (Mandy Gonzalez) and wife of Kevin (Carlos Gomez), who tries to keep her family together as everything around her begins to change. Lopez is a grounding figure in the new musical, which bustles with Latin rhythms and some of the most exciting singing currently on Broadway. The celebrated actress, who also appeared in the Off-Broadway production of In the Heights, boasts a lengthy stage resume that also includes a Tony-winning performance in A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine; a Drama Desk-nominated turn in the one-woman show Class Mothers '68, which allowed the actress to inhabit six diverse mothers of a graduating class of high school students; and roles in Company, Pippin, Lysistrata, Nine and Pulitzer Prize-winning Nilo Cruz's play, Anna in the Tropics. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the Broadway favorite, who spoke about her newest stage role as well as some of her other New York theatre experiences; that interview follows.

Question: How did the role of Camila in In the Heights originally come about for you?
Priscilla Lopez: Well, let's see — there were a couple of incidents. I was doing The Beauty of the Father at City Center, and I ran into Sergio Trujillo who, at that time, was choreographing In the Heights for a formal workshop. He said, "You'd be great for this. You should do this." The workshop was going to be during the summer, and my husband was coming home. He'd been touring, and I just had a full plate and said, "I just can't at this moment." I just kind of let it go by. I finished my play, and one day was having lunch with one of the cast members, and he invited me to his friend's house. We went to his friend's house, and there was a young woman there who turned out to be [In the Heights co-producer] Jill Furman, who I didn't know at that time. We started talking, and she said, "I'm one of the producers of In the Heights, and I had wanted you for the workshop. Now we're getting ready to do this [Off-Broadway at 37 Arts], and would you be interested in looking at a script?" I said [I would] because at that point my life had, once again, changed. She said, "I'll send you a script." She sent a script, and she sent a CD of the music. When I heard the music, I went, "Yes!" I loved the music, and my then-17-year-old said, "Ma, you gotta do this! This is really great. The music's great." So that's kind of how it happened. I was invited to do it, and I said, "Okay!"

Question: What was the experience of the Off-Broadway run like for you?
Lopez: When I met with [director] Tommy Kail and [co-creator/star] Lin-Manuel, I had said to them, "I love this piece. You guys seem like two swell guys. The only problem is that my character doesn't have a song." I said, "This is a musical. People express themselves musically." They said, "Well, yeah, we know…" Tommy Kail said, "I can't guarantee if you sign on the dotted line that you'll have a song, but this is a work in progress, and we'll try. We'll see what will happen." I was realistic enough to know I was taking a gamble, but I really liked the piece, and that's what kept me attached. I had a feeling about it from the beginning, and I thought, "This is going to be good, and I should be part of this." So I hung in there, and then eventually I realized that the song was not going to happen. They had a lot on their plate, which was basically to get up on stage what they had — let alone start writing new things. It was a little disappointing, but I made peace with that and I decided, "I'm on this journey, and I'm just going to enjoy it." And, I did! It's a wonderful cast. We had a great Off-Broadway run, and then we found out we were moving to Broadway. Then I thought, "Okay, maybe Camila will have her moment in this next incarnation." And indeed, she does. She has a nice dramatic moment in the second act [with a song called "Enough"].

Priscilla Lopez and Carlos Gomez
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How did that song come about? When did they first present the song to you?
Lopez: The first time I heard it was when we had our read-through for the Broadway run. I had not heard it before. That reading took place before [our first official rehearsal], and I heard it at that point. Lin-Manuel sang it. Question: Was it a difficult song to learn? It seems like it's rhythmically challenging.
Lopez: When you first hear it, it is. It's like anything else, though — once you learn it, you realize, "Oh, yeah, I can do that!" Alex Lacamoire is an incredible musical director, and he's very precise and very helpful. As I say, I had gone in and worked on it before we started rehearsals, so I had a jump on it and kind of let it sink in little by little. It wasn't a pressured kind of thing. I didn't have major problems with it in terms of the rhythms. I loved the rhythms. I always feel like I've jumped on a horse and I'm taking this ride… a train that takes off and doesn't stop. Question: How has the Broadway run compared to Off-Broadway? I think the show works better in the Broadway theatre.
Lopez: I don't feel a difference in terms of people saying, "Well, it's such a big audience." In terms of the amount of energy and all of that, it feels the same to me. The only other comparison I have from a musical moving from Off-Broadway to Broadway would have been A Chorus Line, and that was a major change. That really felt like, "Oh, my God. How are we going to do this? This place is too big!" The Newman, [where A Chorus Line premiered], was so small. That first row was literally four feet in front of us. It was a huge change, but this doesn't feel that different. It feels just fine! It feels like it fits in there very well. I haven't felt any strangeness in the move in terms of the performing end of it — maybe because we're miked in both situations.

Question: Is there a real sense of family among the cast and creators?
Lopez: Yes, between everybody. That's what's been so nice. I know it's corny and syrupy and all that, and our reviews are always, "Oh, they're all so sweet." But I'm sorry, Latins are sweet! [Laughs.] We are the land of the sugar cane. We are a sweet people! I have a real affection for everyone. There's not one person that I can look around and go, "Oooh…" I truly love them all, and they're such hard workers and such generous people in terms of what they give each other onstage and offstage. It's a really beautiful situation.

Question: You were also given a new husband for the Broadway run. How did that change work for you?
Lopez: Well, different people, different energy. He's just another person, and I guess that was part of [the creative team's] concept that they wanted something different. . . . Carlos [Gomez] is, again, another spoonful of sugar for our sweet concoction. He's a wonderful actor, and he's a sweet man.

Carlos Gomez and Priscilla Lopez in In the Heights
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Are there any elements in the show that resonate for you about your childhood? Where were you born and raised?
Lopez: I was born and raised in the Bronx. My parents and my older brother and sister were [born in] Puerto Rico. I was the first child born here. Certainly the whole "abuela" thing. We all have our abeulas [grandmothers], and certainly the struggle… the song that Mandy [Gonzalez] sings at the end, "Everything I Know," just destroys me. It totally destroys me on so many counts. It talks about the history of when one leaves their country, whoever that might be, and what that means to somebody. And, then there's another verse that talks about her memories of her high school graduation. That resonates for me for my own graduation. That resonates for me as a parent for my children's graduation. It resonates for the sacrifices that parents make for their children, that I've made for my children. . . There's a new section in "Carnaval del Barrio" that has been added in this version, when Usnavi has a conversation with Sonny and he says, "I'm not fooling around. This might be our last day here." And Usnavi talks about, "What are you gonna do in the meantime? I'm gonna fly my flag." There are so many things [that resonate for me]. And then the sound of the music… The sounds of the music are sounds from my childhood of music that my parents listened to. And, above all, my parents are gone. I don't hear, I don't eat, I don't feel all those things the way I used to. So when I get it from the situation, this show, these people, they are my family. They feed me emotionally. They fill that space in my heart. It's very important. Question: How would you describe Camila?
Lopez: Camila is a strong woman. As in a lot of Latin families, the woman — certainly in my family — my mother was the center. I see it in my family, too. The mother is the center holding the fort at home. The father goes out and works. My father worked very hard. I remember when I was a kid, I used to think, "Who's that guy who comes home late at night?" because he worked hours and hours and hours. It seemed like he worked 24 hours day. He would just come home and then get up early and go to work and come back. It was really hard. My mother took care of the family and took care of us and, in a way, it seems the same way with my family now. Since our children were born — before that, no — but since they were born — and there are now four of us instead of two — [my husband has] worked very hard. He's a musical conductor, and he went on the road and he was touring to make extra money, because you can make more money on the road. He's back now, but I'm saying everything resonates the same. Camila is a center, and she keeps things happening and she's a strength. She's an equal strength to her husband. Of course, he goes behind her back and does something. I was having this conversation with my own husband the other day. He was upset about that [element of the musical], saying that he felt it was a throwback to the 50s… and it was very chauvinistic. And I said, "Yeah, but at the end of the play, [Camila's husband] says, 'Are we ready to sell this business?'" So, he made the moves to sell it, but in the end he does ask my permission, so it's not like he just went off and did it. In the end, it's a mutual agreement. In the song [I sing], I love it because [Camila] tells them both off and to get their acts together. She has her say — "Now I'm going to bring some sensibilities back into all of this. You're gonna get your act together, and you're gonna get your act together, and we're gonna move forward." I'm a pretty strong lady. I remember the first time somebody told me that, I was in shock. [Laughs.] I said, "Me? Timid little me?" And then I started thinking about it, and I said, "Yeah, I can be pretty powerful."

Question: I took my mom to see the show, and her favorite line was one of yours. I think it was part of your song when you say, "When you have a problem, you come home…"
Lopez: It's true. I think one sentence that I've said forever to my children, to really drum it into their brains, is "I am not the enemy." This is where we take care of you. That's what's done here. That's exactly what that line is. "When you have a problem, you come home. We'll help you. That's what we're here for. We are not the enemy." And I think they got it. I said it enough and acted upon it enough that they got it! [Laughs.]

Question: How old are your kids now?
Lopez: My son [Alex] is 23, and my daughter [Gabriella] is 18.

Question: Do you think In the Heights has a message? Is there something that it says to you?
Lopez: It has many messages. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be "home." It deals with, first of all, the neighborhood, which is people's homes. It deals with people leaving their original homes and coming to a new home. It deals with people being displaced from their now new home. It deals with, in the song "Enough," "come home." And, "Where is home?" Usnavi is looking for home and trying to go back to the Dominican Republic and realizing that this is home. So I think if I had to sum it, the word would just be "home." Like Dorothy! [Laughs.] There's no place like home.

Question: Is it at all strange for you that A Chorus Line is playing only one block over from In the Heights?
Lopez: It's terrific! I love it. Before and after.

Question: I take it you had the chance to see this revival.
Lopez: I did.

Question: Is it odd to see other actors playing roles that you not only originated but helped create?
Lopez: No, it's not odd. I go, "Wow, it lives on!" It's still going. That's great. Even though we created these roles . . . [when] you talk about them, [you refer to them] in the third person. It's kind of removed. It's something that, yes, we created, and yes, it's me and my story and all of that, but she's also a little entity unto her own that other people will pick up and enjoy and try on. It's like a dress — like you made a dress that other people can wear. And every time someone wears it, maybe they put different earrings on or whatever, but it's still the same dress.

Question: You've done so much theatre. I was wondering what are some of the other roles that stand out for you.
Lopez: I loved Anna in the Tropics. I loved that play so much, and I feel happy to have been in a straight Latino play. I really feel like, "Yeah, I clipped a couple of gold rings there!" A beautiful play and a whole story that I didn't know about, and I'm sure a lot of people didn't know about — the lector coming to the factories and educating the people. We learned how to roll cigars. [Laughs.] It was great. And, Nilo Cruz — I've only done two of his plays, and they've been wonderful to work on. It's so funny. Sometimes you read a line and it seems so simple, and then you start thinking about it and playing with it and suddenly you realize, "Wait a minute. It goes really deep." It looks simple, but it has a lot of depth to it once you start exploring it. So, I loved Anna in the Tropics, and I loved a play [I did called] The Passion of Frida Kahlo, where I played Frida Kahlo. It was at the Director's Company for a while Off-Broadway. I loved that. That was just a great experience. And then I had my one-woman piece that I did Off-Broadway at the Harold Clurman. That was six characters called Class Mothers '68.

Question: How did you find performing on the stage alone?
Lopez: It was lonely. It really was. And worse than onstage — because onstage at least you have the audience — it was backstage. I was just like, "Oh, it's just me." It wasn't about, "Hey, how ya doin'?" when you have all these people backstage, especially when you have a big show, there's so many people to touch base with. Basically we had a couple of people working on the crew, so maybe I saw a total of four people. They were off doing their thing, and I was in my room, so it was a little lonely, but I loved doing the play. I loved doing the piece, and people seemed to really like it.

Question: How do you find the demands of doing eight shows a week?
Lopez: Like always, it's hard. It's like Groundhog Day. You arrive at the theatre and you say, "Wait, wasn't I just here? Did I go home last night?" [Laughs.] It feels like it just keeps going. It's like a revolving door, it just doesn't stop. So it takes a lot of energy, and it takes a lot of taking care of yourself and pacing yourself . . . but I love this show.

[In the Heights plays the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street. For tickets call (212) 307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.]

Well, Andrew Lloyd Webber night at "American Idol" has come and gone, and now only five contestants remain standing. What was more surprising than the performances — some of the shakiest of the season — was the elimination of Carly Smithson, the belty Irish native who I had hoped would be part of a final three that also includes the Davids, Archuleta and Cook. Although the contestants are usually given free reign in song choices, I think this particular evening would have benefited had Lloyd Webber been allowed to at least suggest possibilities for the young singers. Brooke White would have have better suited seated at the piano, singing "I Don't Know How to Love Them," although her rendition of "You Must Love Me" was no more disappointing than the original. And, I imagine Jason Castro chose "Memory" because it was the only Lloyd Webber tune he recognized, but he surely could have fared better with a less vocally challenging tune. That said, I did enjoy a few of the evening's performances. Despite a minor lyric fumble, I thought Archuleta's "Think of Me" was the standout of the night. It's unclear who created the pop arrangement of the Phantom tune, but it was a terrific adaptation, and Archuleta's vocals were as pure, smooth and beautiful as ever. Syesha Mercado brought life to "One Rock & Roll Too Many," although with such great songs for the picking (she could have really scored with "Unexpected Song" or "Tell Me On a Sunday"), it was difficult to muster too much enthusiasm for one of Lloyd Webber's least memorable offerings. And, David Cook again showed the power of his vocals in a shortened version of the Phantom anthem, "Music of the Night." I have to admit the most enjoyable moment for me was during the introduction of Lloyd Webber's career and a snippet of Patti LuPone's "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" was heard in the background. Who ever thought La LuPone would be heard on "American Idol"? Now, that is good singing! . . . What were your thoughts about this week's performances? E-mail me at agans@playbill.com.

Speaking of Lloyd Webber, there are still tickets available for the remaining performances of Tell Me On a Sunday at The Laurie Beechman Theatre. Actress Maxine Linehan — who doesn't possess the stellar vocals of Bernadette Peters or Marti Webb, but does win the audience over with a palpable vulnerability — stars in Lloyd Webber's song cycle about an English hat designer, which can be seen Sundays, April 27 and May 4, 11 and 18 at 7 PM. In the days leading up to the first performance in March, Linehan said, "This project has been a labor of love for me, and it's been in the making for awhile. Emma is a challenging character to play, not just vocally, she can be seen as pathetic to some but she's really just trying her hand at everything, trying to see which hat fits. She's dying for success and desperate for love, I mean how many of us can relate to that? I have a lot of parallels to Emma, having moved to the Big Apple from Ireland six years with a head full of dreams. And then there's the love life — well I am adept at choosing the wrong men! But New York can be an overwhelming place for even the most ambitious dreamer, finding yourself — and your place here — is the ultimate goal, I think." The Laurie Beechman Theatre is located within the West Bank Café at 407 West 42nd Street. Tickets are $30. There is a $15 food/beverage minimum. For reservations call (212) 695-6909.

Four performances of War of the Mama Roses will be presented at The Reprise Room at Dillons in May. Written and directed by Rick Skye, the production will play the Manhattan venue May 10 and 17 at 8 and 10 PM. Michael Ferreri is musical director. "All of the greats from Liza and Barbra to Peggy Lee and Carol Channing are coming to audition for the role of Mama Rose in Gypsy," according to press notes. "This rollicking valentine to all things show biz has these legendary ladies being put through their paces and displaying their singular talents in an attempt to grab the spotlight — and the mother of all musical comedy roles!" The cast will feature Steven Brinberg ("Simply Barbra"), Rick Skye ("A Slice O' Minnelli"), Chuck Sweeney ("Miss Peggy Lee") and Maggie Graham ("Carol Channeling") with Scott Nevins as The Director, who will "stop at nothing to get a performance from his leading ladies." Surprise guest artists will also be part of the four performances. The Reprise Room at Dillons is located in Manhattan at 245 West 54th Street. Tickets, priced $50, are available by calling (212) 352-3101. The Songbook series — produced, directed and hosted by John F. Znidarsic — will continue April 29. Presented by Arts and Artists at St. Paul's, the free 6 PM concert at the Donnell Library Theater will pay tribute to the musicals of Sherman Yellen and the late Wally Harper. Concertgoers can expect to hear selections from Yellen and Harper's musicals This Fair World and Josephine Tonight. Among those scheduled to perform are Penny Fuller, Malcolm Gets, Marcus Neville, Jennifer Smith, Christianne Tisdale, Rachel Cohen, Natalie Venetia Belcon, Lorna Hampson, Kendrick Jones and Terry Burrell. Musical director is Michael Lavine. The Donnell Library Theater is located in Manhattan at 20 West 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. For further information call Arts and Artists at (212) 265-3495, ext. 336.

Four vastly different musicals will be featured during the 2008-2009 Reprise Theatre Company season, which was announced by artistic director Jason Alexander earlier this week. The season will kick off with Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Once on This Island, playing UCLA's Freud Playhouse Sept. 2-14. Billy Porter will direct the production with choreography by Bradley Rapier, the founder of the Groovaloos. The cast will include Yvette Cason, Vanita Harbour, Patina Miller, Jesse Nager, Leslie Odom Jr., Nita Whitaker and 2008 Grammy nominee Ledisi. I Love My Wife, which features music by the late Cy Coleman and book and lyrics by Michael Stewart, will follow, running Dec. 2-14 at the Brentwood Theatre on the V.A. campus. Larry Moss will direct a cast that includes artistic director Alexander as well as Vicki Lewis and Steven Weber. The season's most well-known offering is Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's Man of La Mancha, which will be seen at the Freud Playhouse Feb. 17, 2009-March 1, 2009. More than 3,300 underserved youth will be able to attend this production thanks to a partnership grant from The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation. And, the Reprise season will conclude with the rock musical Chess, which boasts a score by Abba's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tony Award winner Tim Rice. This production of Chess, which features such tunes as "One Night in Bangkok" and "I Know Him So Well," will boast a new book penned by Richard Maltby, Jr. and will play the Freud Playhouse May 5-17, 2009. Subscription tickets are now available by visiting www.reprise.org or by calling the UCLA Central Ticket Office at (310) 825-2101.

Initial casting has been announced for the next two concerts in Scott Siegel's Broadway By the Year series at Manhattan's Town Hall. The Broadway Musicals of 1965 — featuring songs from musicals that bowed on Broadway during that year — will be presented May 12 and will feature the vocal talents of Brian d'Arcy James, Gregg Edelman, Marc Kudisch, Mandy Gonzalez and Julia Murney as well as the dancing of Kendrick Jones, Shannon Lewis, Melinda Sullivan and Lorin Latarro. The latter will also choreograph and stage the concert. The June 16 concert, The Broadway Musicals of 1979, will feature the talents of former Side Show stars Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner and Jeff McCarthy as well as Terri Klausner and Noah Racey. Skinner will direct. Both concerts begin at 8 PM. Town Hall is located in Manhattan at 123 West 43rd Street. Tickets, priced $45 and $50, are available by calling (212) 307-4100 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com. Visit www.the-townhall-nyc.org for more information.

Principal casting is now complete for the Hollywood Bowl's upcoming production of Les Misérables in Concert. As previously announced, the starry mix of stage and screen actors will boast J. Mark McVey as Valjean, a role the actor has played both on Broadway and in London's West End; Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, the star of Broadway's Ragtime, Man of La Mancha and Kiss Me, Kate, as Javert; Melora Hardin, the singer-actress who plays Jan Levinson on TV's "The Office," as Fantine; Spring Awakening's Lea Michele, who played the young Cosette in the original Broadway production of Les Miz, as Eponine; Emmy Award winner and former Grease, Seussical and Fiddler on the Roof star Rosie O'Donnell as Madame Thénardier; and Aaron Lazar as Enjolras, a role the actor played to much acclaim in the Les Miz revival. Newcomers to the company include Jersey Boys Tony Award winner John Lloyd Young as Marius, Curtains' Michael McCormick as Thenardier and Les Miserables' Michele Maika as Cosette with Sage Ryan (Robert Zemeckis' forthcoming "A Christmas Carol") as Gavroche and Maddie Levy (Oklahoma! and Oliver! at The Downey Civic Light Opera) as Young Cosette. Richard Jay-Alexander, the Broadway producer-director who has staged concerts for Bernadette Peters, Barbra Streisand, Betty Buckley and Bette Midler, will direct the Aug. 8-10 performances at the famed outdoor venue. Show times at the Bowl are Aug. 8 and 9 at 8:30 PM and Aug. 10 at 7:30 PM. The Hollywood Bowl is located at 2301 North Highland Avenue in Hollywood, CA. For tickets, call (323) 850-2000. Visit www.hollywoodbowl.com for more information. Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Andrew Lloyd Webber among the "American Idol" hopefuls and host Ryan Seacrest.
Andrew Lloyd Webber among the "American Idol" hopefuls and host Ryan Seacrest.
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