As Lin Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical Hamilton arrives in the UK this November, actor Cleve September who has been cast as Philip Hamilton/John Laurens is associate directing the Birmingham production of Lin Manuel Miranda’s other acclaimed musical In The Heights.
After a successful run on Broadway and Off West End, In The Heights opened at the Kings Cross Theatre back in 2015. London soon fell in love with the show, and over the course of two years it became a huge theatrical attraction.
Set in the sweltering heat of Washinton Heights in New York, it’s a musical that spans the lives of a group of young people over the course of three days, as they deal with the highs and low of life, love and family.
It’s a moving story heightened by Lin Manuel Miranda’s innovative combination of musical theatre, rap and Latino tones which give the production a vibrant South American flavour. With a powerful score and simple yet engaging storyline, BITA are taking on the challenge with the help of former In The Heights star and soon to be Hamilton star Cleve September. Alongside him in the creative team, award-winning choreographer Lindon Barr has been travelling from London to bring his hip-hop style and powerful choreography to the production.
The Birmingham Institute of Theatre Arts, known as BITA, is a performing arts school in which students train to enhance their skills in the three disciplines of musical theatre. Produced by 4Stage Arts Ltd, it is a non-for-profit arts school set up by Chris Passey and his wife Amy. Chris trained with the National Youth Theatre and toured with Bill Kenwright’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat before settling into teaching and composing.
Chris told me: “We wanted to create a school with a difference; one in which all three disciplines are taught simultaneously and not in one-hour sections. Also, it gave us the chance to offer extremely talented young people opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t get. Workshops with Kieran Brown, Louise Dearman and Lauren Samuels, not to mention Jonathan Reid Gealt and international singing and voice teacher Ria Keen. We started with 6 and now have 30 students joining us every week.”
After finishing the musical ’13’ back in October, Chris felt that the school needed a challenge. Similarly to many other young musical theatre fans, the students were all obsessed with the musical after seeing it in London. “In truth, I think the BITA lots funded the extension from the amount of times they went down to see it. 16 may have been the winning number!” Chris Laughed. “In The Heights is about family and growing up and deciding what to do with your future and for many of our students – off to GSA, Arts Ed, Urdang, Bird and many more – this is a very real subject matter. The music is incredible and it really speaks to their generation too.”
Despite going into rehearsals in a few months for Hamilton, Cleve September feels passionately about the school and what they are creating. He said: “I taught at BITA for the first time last year and instantly fell in love with the vibe and energy that Chris and his team managed to create with the kids that they have attending their school every Sunday. When I found out that they were doing In The Heights as their next show it excited me so much that I asked if I could sit in on rehearsals from time to time, simply because of my love for the show. After leaving in The Heights in September 2016 any opportunity that I could get to even just hear the music again I’d take. So when Chris asked me to be a part of the creative team I didn’t even have to think it over! I agreed immediately – the bonus is getting to see the passion these kids have for the arts.“
It isn’t just Cleve with an immense love for the show, the young performers connect deeply to the storyline and are instantly drawn to the dynamic soundtrack. Jack Christou who is 17 and currently studying musical theatre at the Midlands-based performing arts school Birmingham Ormiston Academy, is taking on the title role of Usnavi. “I used to always go and see shows when I was younger and I just realised I wanted to be the people on stage,” he said. “Then when I was about 10 I auditioned for Matilda and got into the original cast, so that is when I started taking it very seriously.” Jack gushed about the opportunities they are provided with at BITA and explained how what he has learnt he feels will really amplify his career. “I love the music in the show and the hip-hop influences, it isn’t your classic musical theatre so everything I’ve already learnt I kind of have to put to one side, it is a challenge.”
When I walked into the rehearsal room, I was hit with the striking vocals of Martha Graham who is playing Vanessa in the production. Impressed by the power coming out of a young girl, Martha usually sticks to classical singing as she is heading off to do a classical music degree next year, but she explained that she is relishing in the musical theatre style for In The Heights. She said: “There is nothing like In The Heights, the music is fun and it just has a great vibe to it.”
I was particularly blown away by Erin Chalk and Dec Foster who are playing Nina and Benny. Catching their performance of When Your Home blew me away, the vocals were slick and the emotion was evident.
— Amy Stutz (@AmyStutz) April 2, 2017
Chatting to lighting and set designer Andrew Exeter, he explained the intricacies of his creation that are going to make it such a spectacular yet detailed production. “It’s very different to London,” he told me. Which will mirror the way the cast are giving new life to an already outstanding show.
The cast are incredibly talented yet remarkably humble, they really are the stars of the future. If you missed In The Heights in the West End, or you loved it just as much as the next person, you’ll be kicking yourself if you miss this exciting production happening right in the heart of Birmingham.
On the 14th and 15th of July, tickets can be found here.