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Tell us about Abuela Claudia, the character you play in IN THE HEIGHTS. Who is she?
Abuela is the wonderful, warm and loving matriarch of the tight-knit Latino community at the center of the show. She doesn’t have children of her own but she practically raised Usnavi (the lead and narrator) since his parents’ untimely death years ago when he was but a child.
What is she best known for in this community?
She has probably been in the neighborhood the longest of anyone and she has seen it all. She maintains a link with the past and in that way helps to inform and influence the culture and traditions of the neighborhood. She is loved and respected there and on any given day she may offer up guidance, support, a place to hang out or a mean plate of rice and beans. 🙂
What do you think is the key to playing the character?
I don’t have kids of my own, but I do have nieces and nephews. I’ve always tried to be the Best Aunt so I try to draw on that experience. The circumstances of this production and this particular cast also lends themselves well to what I’m trying to do with the character. There are many college-age performers in the cast and I’m literally old enough to be their mother. I find myself wanting to protect the young ladies and feed the boys. (I know, it’s weird.) Being around these incredibly hard-working, talented, and driven young people reminds me of what my life was like 20 years ago. They really bring me a lot of joy. It makes it easy to convey how Abuela wants to take care of all of them.
Without using any numbers or giving anything away, aren’t you a little young to playing someone’s abuela?
I am a bit young to play a grandma, but some days my arthritis makes me feel like I’ve been typecast. 🙂
What are the challenges the role presented to you as an actor?
Playing the physicality is a big challenge for me and it’s something [Director] Paul [Daigneault] pushes me to work on all the time. I am in the habit of standing long, tall and lifted and I normally present myself that way when I take stage – especially when I sing. Luckily, I am up and down stairs the whole show; that, coupled with the aforementioned yet unfortunate arthritis slows me down and reminds me all too well that I’m playing an old lady. 🙂
Is it hard not to fall into playing a caricature of an older person?
Not with these knees.
I’m actually enjoying this work a lot and I do hope it’s not being perceived as a caricature but I’m probably not the best judge of that. It’s been fun changing the timbre of my speaking voice all while trying an accent and speaking a little Spanish. No one asks me to do any heavy lifting or dancing on this one so I have ample opportunity to focus on Abuela’s physicality and her inner strength and warmth. Every time Abuela walks across the stage hunched over and breathless from the heat, I consider her as stooping to conquer.
This role is often cast with an actor who is much younger than the character. Why do you think that is?
I think Abuela is not usually cast with a 70-ish year old woman because of the challenges of her signature song ‘Paciencia Y Fe’. It’s wordy and fast and there’s about a million cool things going on with it at all times. Both this song and the duet ‘Hundreds of Stories’ require tons of breath support and core strength to sing properly. This kind of muscle-through singing gets more difficult as one gets older and we do 6 -7 shows a week. I’m sure there are some amazing 70 year-old Cubana singers out there who can handle the songs but it’s very very difficult to find them and cast them.
Abuela’s motto is “Pacienca y Fe.” What is the translation of that phrase?
“Patience & Faith”
What does it mean to the character?
It’s the motto her beloved mother passed down to her. It reminds her to have patience when life gets difficult and to maintain faith that life will indeed get better.
Do you have your own personal motto?
Yes I do. ‘The first thing you have to do is show up.”
This show – IN THE HEIGHTS – is all about family and community. Tell us a little bit about your family and where you grew up.
I grew up in Buffalo, New York. It’s a great little place to raise a family with really nice people who really enjoy their food. I was doomed. My parents had 6 kids together. We are pretty much all over the country now.
Is anyone else in your family an artist or artistically inclined?
We are singers. My father was a Gospel Tenor and he had an amazing instrument. My sister Sandra has this lovely clear Soprano voice but I don’t think she uses it much anymore. My brother Michael sings as well. He lives on the West Coast and he sings in his church a lot. He has been on Glee a few times in some of the choral numbers.
How did you get your start?
I’ve been singing in some form since 2nd grade. I started seriously doing musicals – and actually earning money for it – when I was 18. But I was as green as a salad so I knew I had to go somewhere and really study the craft. So I transferred to Niagara University and became a theatre major.
At what point did you also decide to try your hand at acting?
The first time I presented [Shakespeare’s] Sonnet 130 in acting class. It was an unmitigated disaster. I was 19. I’m better now.
Was your family supportive of your artistic ambitions?
They thought at first that I was goofing around and taking a hobby too seriously. They were worried I’d wind up in a ditch somewhere – poor, battered and broken. But they were nice about it. Mostly. They started to come around some when I started working with people they’d actually heard of. And when they needed a loan.
In 1997 you made the leap and moved to New York City?
What that a hard decision for you to make?
Not at all. It was always the goal. It just took me a little longer to get there than I would have liked. Sometimes you have to get out of your own way. Maybe that’ll be my new motto. 🙂
Tell us about some of the projects you worked on during your time there.
It’s funny – I’d been doing musicals for years but my first hired gig in NYC was a Woody Allen film called Sweet & Lowdown. I actually had lines and everything. He hired me for two more after that but I ended up on the cutting room floor on the third one. It’s too bad – I would love to have kept that gravy train running. Some other highlights were three Encores at City Center productions and two Broadway National Tours for Bring In Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk and The Civil War. Noise/Funk was awesome because as well as getting to travel the country, we went to Japan for a month. There was a ton of cool Regional stuff and some Symphony work as well. When it was good, it was very good.
You have been living in Boston since 2007. What brought you to Beantown?
I came to Boston for love. I was in the midst of a long-distance relationship for a while and it was just time to be together. By then I’d taken a job at Bank of America so I was able to transfer relatively easily. We married in 2011. He’s been to the show three times and plans to come again. He’s good that way.
What types of projects have you been working during your stay here?
IN THE HEIGHTS is the first musical I’ve done since moving to Boston and it’s been the perfect vehicle for me. Before this I have mostly been singing with some gospel choirs in the area. I am a member of the Boston Pops Gospel Choir, the Boston Community Choir and the NEC Millennium Choir. I just love these groups and singing and working with Gospel music has helped me in my craft so much. My ear is much better than it was and I’m learning to trust myself more. Above all and most importantly it literally teaches me patience and faith. (Do you see what I did there?)
I have heard rumor that you are a die-hard Yankees fan. Is it true? And if so, how difficult is it hard to cheer them on while living in the heart of Red Sox Nation?
It’s all too true. There are pinstripes tattooed in blood across my forehead. And my husband is a dyed-in-the-wool Sawx fan so that’s a real party. But we make it work and end up having a lot of fun with it. We respect each other very much even though we don’t care for the other’s baseball team. At all. There’s even a YouTube clip of us at a Sawx-Yanks game. We’re both in our gear wearing our colors and ESPN thought that was cute and put us on the air.
Are there any local sports teams that have won your heart?
You betcha. I’m a big Pats fan. Huge. I love Brady as much as the next guy, but I think Wilfork is my favorite. I schedule the rest of my life around football because I hate missing a game. I love the C’s and I dig the B’s. I’m very concerned the C’s are going to have to blow up the team but I’m not sure they have very many other alternatives. I would miss both Garnett and Pierce greatly but I realize it’s a business.
What’s up for your summer once IN THE HEIGHTS closes on June 30?
I have no theatrical projects lined up. It’s tough because I work a full-time job in addition to any performing I might do here. I love theatre obviously, but I have a mortgage and taking the time to do a show needs to make sense for me. IN THE HEIGHTS has been optimal for me and everyone at Bank of America has been great and very supportive. So far, my summer plans consist of doing some landscaping, working on my house and going to P-Town in August. I’m thinking if I’m to do more shows here in town I’ll only be able to do one full production a year. And if the right thing comes along I hope I get it. 🙂