Full Circle with Jai Back ’In the Heights’
Winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical, "In The Heights" takes us into the vibrant New York City Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights, in which the central character, Usnavi, narrates this story while passing out coffee and papers from his storefront. He knows everyone’s histories - three generations of local families and their dreams as they pass through his modest shop. "In the Heights" features classic musical elements plus hip-hop, salsa, meringue and soul music.
This regional production is directed by visionary Sam Woodhouse of the San Diego Repertory Theatre and is being done in partnership with The San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. Several directorial decisions have been announced, but by far, the two most exciting elements of this show are the live 20-piece orchestra and the casting of cutie-pie Jai Rodriguez, taking on the leading role of Usnavi.
Rodriguez has managed to bend and stretch beyond labels and categories - going from stage actor and singer (most famously Angel in "RENT" and Carmen Ghia in "The Producers") to reality television star ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"), then film and writing with several of his own one-man shows. You may have also caught him as a guest star working side-by-side with Reba McEntire and Lily Tomlin in ABC’s "Malibu County." He is also preparing to direct a new LOGO series on relationships and intimacy, actually discussing things in proper technical terms - no beating around the bush! So on this, the 10-year anniversary of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Jai discusses his next steps and his journey full-circle as he heads back to the theatre and taps into his New York roots.
What are you enjoying about "In The Heights?"
"In the Heights" is really different; The music is more radio friendly. I played Angel in "RENT" for half a decade of my life and loved it. This show puts me in a different zone altogether. I am enjoying it because it showcases a different side of who I am, my New York and Latino heritage - such a huge part of me and who the character is too - something that was always watered down on "Queer Eye." It’s fascinating that this is the 10-year anniversary of "Queer Eye." I was watching an old episode and thought to myself, "My gosh you look so young!"
Tell me how you are preparing for this leading role.
Usnavi’s role has great musicality and him being Latino, having been raised by his grandmother, then losing her, mirrors my own life. I grew up very close to my grandmother and lost her three years ago. I remember when the show closed on Broadway and then the tours ended I thought I would never have the chance to play the role. I was thrilled when this regional production was announced with such strong direction from Sam Woodhouse.
What was it like to be on a groundbreaking show like "Queer Eye?"
I struggled with being an out gay actor. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be attached to a show that had the word queer in its title; I almost said no. But it turned out to be a wonderful thing, uniquely different. I am pleased now to see groundbreaking shows like "The Fosters" and ABC Network’s inclusion of diverse, multi-faceted people who happen to be LGBT. Being gay isn’t the main storyline, gays are not the brunt of a joke and there are characters we haven’t seen before. The show was being made at the same time as "Malibu Country," but it debuted after we aired. It has a really great premise and I am glad Jennifer Lopez got behind it, because there are many different kinds of families. It’s good to show a picture of what another family dynamic looks like, they are a little more colorful than two parents, two-point-five kids and a dog.
I have to ask, what was it like working with Lily Tomlin?
Tomlin is very kind; she is a very generous actress and works to share the laughs. There was no superiority, we were all equal players and she trusted us to bring something to the table. She is magical, a really great actress. I would leave the sound stage and suddenly remember that I was working with Lily Tomlin, an icon.
What will you do in your free time here in San Diego?
I am single and being in San Diego for the play puts a wrench in any kind of social life. I basically missed Pride entirely because I rehearsed long hours and then after just went back to the cast housing. I went to the block party - I stayed for about 90 minutes of fun and then had to get back to bed for an early rehearsal. I am looking forward to exploring the city and getting back to squeezing in my daily workout, which is a struggle; I am lucky if I get in three regular gym days. Back home I like to be outdoors and hike, I enjoy dinner parties.
While here I have also been working on "Dirty Little Secrets," my one-man show. It’s about 90 minutes and rated "R," it’s sexy and raunchy! I think of it as the "Glee" version of my life - I tell anecdotes and sing popular music. I talk about things in my life that I have held onto and not shared; things I thought might be dirty, wrong. Oddly, now that I am older and wiser, I have found these are the things I should have celebrated. They are some of my most defining and unique qualities and I have to embrace and love and celebrate them.
A fun thing happens at the end of the show, audience members can write a question on a piece of paper asking anything they want and I will answer.
What’s next for you?
I head back to L.A. to start auditioning and putting together scripted stories for a show called "Bad Sex;" a place to help individuals and couples seeking help with love, sex and intimacy, airing again this fall on LOGO. The show will follow them through the counseling and in their home life, nothing will be off the table for discussion and there will be group and individual counseling. It’s my hope that people receive help and learn vicariously through the show. Also in August, I’ll be preparing for the "Queer Eye" ten-year reunion; all five of us are getting back together for it.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about your upcoming projects or about this production of "In The Heights?"
What I love about "In The Heights" is the feeling of home and community, the sense of belonging. It begs the questions: Where do I belong? Who am I? Where do I fit in? Which things will change the course of my life? It is a show that will make you want to facebook the people you grew up with - there is this warm feeling of neighbors. It gives you an appreciation for the new frontier of theatre; there is new music, but then there are clear traditions. It opens with a classic "Fiddler on the Roof" sort of feel - the culture of the community, how everyone knows everyone.
Follow Jai Rodriguez on Twitter: @jairodriguez.
For tickets and more information on "In The Heights" playing through Sunday, August 25 at the Lyceum Theatre in Downtown, call 619.231.4304 or go to sdrep.org.
Join us for Out Night, an evening for the LGBT theatre community in the Lyceum’s downstairs lobby at 6:30, just before the "In The Heights" performance on Saturday, August 17. Also, after the evening’s performance, there will be an audience talk back inside the theater for those that want to engage in a discussion about the play.