’In the Heights’ newbie Kyle Beltran on stardom, rapping and the road

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Thursday May 13, 2010

When In The Heights won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2008, actor Kyle Beltran was some 300 miles from Broadway, attending classes as a junior at Carnegie-Mellon University. Today the 23-year old actor helms the national tour of the hit show playing the role originated by the show's creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Giving the role to the young and fairly inexperienced actor made something of a bold move by the producers; but In The Heights is a bold show for Broadway - set in the multi-ethnic neighborhood of Washington Heights, it presents a panorama of barrio life in a genre not known for pushing the cultural envelope.

"For the first time in a major scaled production a Latino community is being portrayed to something closer to what it is," explained Beltran recently. "Washington Heights is a neighborhood in New York City full of people who get up every day and pursue the American Dream and provide for their children so they will do better than they did. Of course there are instances of violence, or whatever; but that exists in every major city. So it is heartwarming to see Latinos played as people, because that is what the community is."

Getting the role

Beltran's voice pulses with excitement for the show, which he first saw on Broadway in the heady weeks following its Tony win for Best Musical. (It was nominated for 13, and won four - Musical, Score, Orchestrations and Choreography.) When he heard a national tour was being planned, he immediately set out to get cast as Usnavi, the musical's narrator -- a bodega-owner who guides the audience through the numerous story lines and cross-section of characters. "I was so passionate about being seen that I actually wrote letters to everyone I knew in the business, even a little bit -- everybody -- to campaign to get seen because I knew if I could just get in the room, I could show them what I got."

He got the audition, the first step in a six-month process that ended with what was called Usnavi's Camp -- a gathering of the final group of actors being considered for the role with the creators and producers that ended with Beltran receiving the word he was cast. "They told me in the room the final time with the producers and the creative team, and Thomas Kail, the director, said they want me to play Usnavi on the tour. I fell to my knees I was so excited. It's nice to know that people still trust young, inexperienced talent. This is my first huge gig, and it is great to have someone say that they believe in you."

Once cast, Beltran set out to make the character -- so identified with Miranda -- his own, most notably learning the style of rapping that Usnavi uses throughout the show, something he did not learn studying musical theater at Carnegie Mellon.

"It's funny, Lin is a rapper by trade, but I am a singer/actor by trade. So it's a bit weird for me in this role because Usnavi is not meant to be a singer. A lot of the time I had to pull back my desire to sing it, sing it, sing it, because he's a speech-singer; but whenever you create a character, you start from scratch. You're not playing yourself, you sing like the character sings. And Usnavi's primary form of communication is rap -- through rhyme-versed. That is what comes most naturally to him and is what the role demands." Story continues on the following page.

Watch this promotional video for the national tour of In The Heights featuring Kyle Beltran, Natalie Toro and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

A musical melting pot

In The Heights, though, is not a hip-hop musical, rather a show with real breadth of musical languages and styles (some have labeled it a pop operetta), which is another reason why Beltran wanted to be part of the show. " I'm excited by the experimentation in the music. It combines all different elements in the music. Like Lynn, I'm a music junkie - and I love how Lynn combines hip-hop influences, Latino influences, Musical theater influences, both contemporary and traditional. And it is really this melting pot of music, which is really exciting -- something for everybody."

Once he took the role, Beltran found similarities between his character and his own experiences. "Usnavi is someone I have in common with. He's a really young guy faced with a lot of responsibility, which I identify with. He's lost his parents, and I lost my mother to Lupus when I was 13. He's the kind of person who wants to carry everyone on his shoulders, which is something I really identify with. He has a lot of heart, so much that sometimes he doesn't know what to do with it. And that's every day in my own shoes. So when I saw it, something pulled my heart towards it. When the opportunity came, I knew I could tell that story."

As for rapping, Beltran quickly discovered that experience proved to be the best guide to adapting to this pop style. "Before I was cast, I did a workshop of a new pop musical called Kingdom at the Old Globe in San Diego. which had a lot of rap but a lot more singing than In The Heights. Prior to that, the only rapping I did was in my car to my radio. When people asked me if I could, I said, 'Yes. I can rap alone'. What's amazing is how my musical theater experiences prepared me because working on Kingdom gave me the confidence as a rapper. And now I really identify it as an art form. It is something that speaks to me. I love it. It is quick and passionate. It's a lot like Shakespeare because it is complex like that, and has clarity because it's story telling. Like Shakespeare, there's a lot of room to play, but you have to play within a very specific framework. So it's a blast to do every day."

Was he apprehensive about performing in front of Miranda for the first time?

"Of course I was. I respect him so much not only as an artist and creator, but a performer. I saw the show with him just after it won the Tony. It was terrifying. And when I first saw that he was going to be in the room, my heart skipped a beat because anytime you perform in front of someone who wrote the material, you want to impress them. You want to honor their work. At the same time, it is very exciting. And he's a very laid back guy. A really supportive guy. I really get him and I think he really gets me. So it's been awesome."

In an interview for the Hartford Courant, Miranda spoke highly of the show's star. ""I'm so wild about this kid. His name is Kyle Beltran and you've never heard of him. He's like 21 years old and he just graduated from Carnegie-Mellon this year. He's phenomenal. He was born to play this part. He comes from an African-American, Puerto Rican background and God, he's just so full of life. And he sings the role a lot better than I did."

"It was great to hear him say that," Beltran said when told the quote.

Still little prepared the young actor from the apprehension he felt when the tour opened this past October in a vast, 3000 seat Tampa theater. "It was a bit scary at first, but really amazing. Tampa has one of the biggest houses we've played on the tour, so it was amazing to play before so many wonderfully supported people. There's nothing like getting an ovation from that many people who are all moved and inspired by your work."

Moving from theater-to-theater, he's been surprised at how well the musical adapts to the scale of each venue. "One of the best things of the show is how marries spectacle with intimacy. It has all these huge production numbers that are all very exciting, but it is a very simple story about a community. The smaller houses are a lot more comfortable because I don't think we have to work so hard to bring people in. Everyone feels a little closer, so it's a little easier to welcome them to the family." Story continues on the following page.

Watch this behind-the-scenes look at the rehearsals for the tour of In The Heights featuring Kyle Beltran

A bit overwhelmed

Another layer of complexity for the young actor comes with touring, which will by tour's end bring him to some 25 cities from coast-to-coast. "There's no way to prepare for it, and at 23 is a bit overwhelming. But it is great to see all these cities and be part of a show that really inspires people. To see how it does it in city after city after city. You get to Appleton, Wisconsin and you wonder how people are going to relate to this show, and they can't get off their feet fast enough. It's really special. There's no better way to see the country than at 23 when you don't have anything tying me down. When I get stressed or tired or homesick, I take a deep breath and think of how extraordinary this is."

One of the risks involved in touring In The Heights is whether such a New York-specific show would play outside of Manhattan. Any fear like that dissipated in the warm response and standing ovations the cast has received as the tour moved through the Midwest the past two months. "We (the cast) were curious as to how each city was going to receive us. And it's a very, very rewarding and rejuvenating experience to see it do so well in so many different places, and have so many people relate to it. To be in Columbus, Ohio and have someone say they lived in Washington Height for six months, or have someone say that their grandmother emigrated from Russia and this is her story. Even though it is about a specific community, it is universal."

Still one of the few criticisms the musical has received came from those who contend it paints too pretty a picture of urban life. Such comments only annoy Beltran. "Essentially what those people re saying is that their impression of these kinds of communities comes from the media, if they don't see that perception, it's not real. That's funny to me, and that's why the show is so fabulous. Is there crime in inner-city neighborhoods? Of course there is. But are there also lots of loving, honest, hard-working people who celebrate where they're from and chase something better? Yes. It borderlines on offensive to me, because those neighborhoods aren't all gang violence and crime, like the news or some Law and Order spin-off says. That's a small part of the community. Lynn and Quiara AlegrŪa Hudes (who co-wrote the libretto) made a very conscious decision to shed light on another aspect of this community, and I applaud them for that."

Acting and singing have been a part of Beltran's life as long as he can remember. Singing, specifically, from church choirs as a boy. While he excelled academically and claimed many interests, acting remained his singular passion growing up. "My early memories are of wanting to entertain people and myself. I'm an only child, so I use to put on shows for myself in my living room for hours and hours. Imagination is the number one thing for me. I pinch myself every day that someone is paying me to do this because it's a constant joy."

Asked where his confidence came from, Beltran paused a moment before answering. "It's funny to say that because I am only 23 and I have a long way to go, but there was a very specific moment at the top of last year when I embraced the gifts that I have. they may not be best in the world, but they are mine and I celebrate them. So my feelings about being an actor is that I have a lot to share. My talents are unique to me, and if people want to share them with me, they can. It doesn't effect how I feel about myself. I am eager and hopeful and willing to give an audience everything I can on a daily basis. So I'm sure it will be a lifetime thing to maintain, but so far so good."

Watch Kyle Beltran sing "How Glory Goes" from Floyd Collins.

In The Heights plays through June 13, 2010 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St, San Francisco, CA 94102. For more information visit the SHN San Francisco website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].