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.