“I started directing because I love telling stories,” says Luke Sheppard. “It’s only by accident that I fell into working on musicals.” He’s since developed a “passion for the collaborative process of creating musical worlds”, honed as associate Director on the RSC’s Matilda, and through taking the reigns of his own projects. It’s a drive that’s evident on hearing Sheppard talk, as he rapid-fires through his thoughts down the phone, always one step ahead of my next question and occasionally pausing to add, “sorry, I could talk for England about this”. The director is on a lunch-break from rehearsals of In the Heights, the UK premiere of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning, rap and salsa-powered musical – bringing a “slice of New York Latino life” to Southwark Playhouse.
“When I first listened to it, it absolutely took my breath away,” Sheppard remembers.“There was something about it so unlike anything I’d ever heard before – I think because the form is so intrinsically connected to the subject matter”. Fusing hip-hop and Latin influences, In the Heights is a panoramic “snapshot” of a weekend in Washington Heights, a predominantly Dominican-American neighbourhood in Manhattan. It encompasses an ensemble cast, but zooms in on star-crossed lovers Usnavi and Vanessa, whose burgeoning romance is complicated by “cultural differences”.
The show offers a range of roles for Hispanic performers, a welcome opportunity in a genre that’s predominantly a whitewash – Kooman and Diamond’s song-cycle Homemade Fusion memorably spoofed musical theatre’s lack of melanin in the soul number Random Black Girl. “We really wanted to reach out and try to keep the casting bracket open to people from these backgrounds,” says Sheppard. “But we were worried that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to connect exactly with the way we’d anticipated. As soon as we started auditions though, we found that these people are out there – one of the girls turned up on day one with her own Mexican flag to give to the production! Our cast is brilliantly eclectic and absolutely representative of that world.”
The team has also carried out “lengthy research” to honour and reflect Washington Heights. Choreographer Drew McOnie has investigated Dominican dance styles, a key aspect of creating the “musical world” of the piece. “What I love about working with somebody like Drew,” Sheppard reflects, “is that they’re able to turn a narrative kernel of an idea in my head into something that’s visual, exciting and physically manifested in the space.” A PhD student in cultural exchange has also been enlisted, whose work “focuses on Hispanic and Latino culture – it’s been great having him a part of rehearsals to get to grips with that”.
While this place and tradition is “absolutely the spirit and heart of the piece,” Sheppard says, “the story it tells has a much wider reach. In the Heights is about fighting for your dream, cross-generational differences and the loss of community – which absolutely has resonance in London.” The Heights are on the cusp of change, with “corporations moving in” and driving up rent, crushing family businesses and fracturing the community. Gentrification is a story Londoners know well – from Alex Proud recently claiming “cool London is dead, and the rich kids are to blame” to the East Street Market traders reporting losses of up to 80 percent from the “regeneration” of Southwark. It’s a theme that’s likely to hit home, and Sheppard’s acutely aware of the poignancy of his venue standing at the centre of a controversial redevelopment project – “from where I’m stood right now,” he says, “I can see five cranes.”
Londoners may lap up a cautionary tale of Shoreditch-ification, but In the Heights is also an aspirational American musical about love and money. Can our British cynicism handle it? “That’s interesting. I think yes, you could absolutely say it’s about the American dream, but not everybody in the piece is looking for money.” The musical argues that “you only have to look around to realise sometimes you have everything that you need,” Sheppard says, “and I guess that could be seen as a wonderful Broadway musical way of looking at life, but the way we’re approaching it isn’t about sugarcoating that pill – it definitely doesn’t have the saccharine factor.”
Sheppard and his McOnie never saw the Broadway run of In the Heights, which he hopes will give their spin on it a unique, local flavour. “All of us are quite excited that it’s getting a London-made production, and they’re very trusting of what we want to do over here. We owe the show the responsibility to invest in what’s gone before us, but it’s also very much our own version.”
Main image: Sam Mackay
In The Heights is at Southwark Playhouse, London, from 9th May – 7th June 2014. The first week is sold out with the best availability from 17th May. For more information and tickets visit the website or call 020 7407 0234.