Hitting new heights
Ever since the original Broadway cast recording of In the Heights was released in 2008, Ryan Gonzalez has been “obsessed” with the show. So, he was thrilled to be cast in the production opening at the Hayes Theatre Co this month.
Not only that, but he is playing Usnavi de la Vega, the role originated by LinManuel Miranda who wrote the music and lyrics. Miranda famously went on to create the hip-hop musical Hamilton, currently the hottest ticket on Broadway.
“I was beside myself!” says Gonzalez.
“I was actually in New York when I found out, and I was there on my own so I had no one to celebrate with, but it was amazing.
“I think Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius. Going through the score and learning it, it’s just incredible music.” Coupled with Miranda’s sharp, witty lyrics, it’s “really, really juicy.”
Born in Wollongong into a Spanish family, Gonzalez is a sensational dancer. He has played ensemble roles in musicals including Legally Blonde, Strictly Ballroom and King Kong, and recently donned drag to play one of the Angels in Kinky Boots.
He is currently in The View UpStairs (at the Hayes until March 11), a sweet show about a gay bar in New Orleans destroyed by arson in 1973, killing 32 people — which means he is performing at night, while rehearsing In The Heights by day.
As his career builds, Gonzalez is now landing leading roles as a singer-actor. Usnavi is not really a dancing role. And in September, he will play the alternate Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys.
“It’s incredible. I do two shows a week,” says Gonzalez excitedly.
In The Heights is set in Washington Heights, a New York City neighbourhood on the cusp of change. We meet a group of colourful residents, most of them Spanishspeaking migrants from Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican backgrounds. Through a series of vignettes, we discover their hopes, dreams and struggles.
Usnavi owns the local bodega (store).
“Unfortunately, his parents died when he was very young, and he doesn’t have any family there except his cousin Sonny and they kind of run the bodega together. And there’s Abuela Claudia (who looked him when his parents died). But it’s so beautiful because he has befriended everyone else in the community,” says Gonzalez.
The score combines Latin pop, hip-hop and a Broadway sound. In the opening song, Usnavi introduces the closeknit community through a rap number — Gonzalez’s first time rapping.
“I think I am kind of lucky because I grew up with that kind of music. Being such a hard-core dancer as a kid (from age three), we used to dance to all that stuff so I’m quite familiar with it,” he says.
“You want to get the style and the flavour of the rap and the hip-hop and the Latino music that is behind it. But you also want everyone to hear every single word because, especially for my character, most of the story-telling is in the rapping. So that’s proving interesting and quite hard, but I love a challenge.”
Stepping into the shoes of Lin-Manuel Miranda is a dream come true for Ryan Gonzalez.