Podcast guest & original In the Heights cast member Stephanie Klemons discusses re-visiting the show 10 years later as Vanessa in Pittsburgh CLO's 2017 production.
10 years later….
The last time I was in Pittsburgh, I was on the first national tour of Bombay Dreams, making my Equity Debut. Later that year, on a day off from Bombay Dreams, I auditioned for a little workshop called In the Heights about a latino neighborhood uptown written by a guy no one had ever heard of, Lin-Manuel Miranda. A friend on tour, Jeremy Leiner, knew someone interning Lin’s literary agency, and so I had heard a demo on one of our bus and truck days. One of the songs stuck with me… it was “96,000." A year later, I’d be sitting in a rehearsal room with Andy Blankenbuehler, Tommy Kail, Alex Lacamoire, Bill Sherman and Lin-Manuel creating what we all know today as “96K." I had no idea what I had gotten myself into, I just knew it was special and like nothing else I had seen before. I felt like this was my forte, all of it, the dance, the look, the people; it was like finding home.
One day downtown, as we affectionately refer to our Off-Broadway run at the then 37 Arts (now Baryshnikov Center), my agents called me and said they wanted to add a Dance Captain to the roster. Michael Balderrama at the time was the only Dance Captain, and there was NO precedent for an “Assistant Dance Captain” or 2nd dance captain on an Off-Broadway contract. I fought for $150, my agents backed out of the fight at $75, and so I walked away with an agent-less raise, a new title, and big responsibility I knew little to nothing about.
I had no idea back then what adding “Dance Captain” to my resume would do for my career. I had already spent lots of time in the studio with Andy, Luis Salgado, and Joey Dowling helping to shape and create the moves we all now know as gospel in In the Heights, but I never fancied myself anything more than a performer. I had choreographed some musicals back in camp, and one of my two college degrees was Modern Dance and Choreography, but I was a performer.
Fast forward, I ended up serving as Associate Choreographer of the First National Tour of Heights, just by nature of my role with the Broadway show as Co-Dance Captain. At that same time, I found myself in a really interesting position with Andy. We loved working together, we were both unapologetic about how hard we worked and allergic to the satisfaction of finishing something before it was precisely sorted out. He was developing a new show at the time, Bring It On. A few months before we started the Heights tour at the unveiling of one of Lin’s faces at one of the Times Square restaurants (I mean who could keep track at this point?), Andy said, “This tour is your job interview for Associate Choreographing Bring it On with me, I hope it works out, for both of us.” We went on to create Bring It On and Hamilton together, as well as a few lesser known projects like “Fly," associate choreographed by Rickey Tripp in its Dallas run, “Only Gold,” a gorgeous piece conceived by Andy, and “Zelda” aka “Waiting for the Moon,” which was revived at Flatrock Playhouse. I choreographed the new numbers we created with Frank Wildhorn, and Jennifer Jancuska reset Andy’s other original numbers. (Michael Balderrama, Rickey Tripp and Jennifer Jancuska are all HamFam now… keep your friends close, and your really talented friends closer. :) When Andy accepted his Fred Astaire Award for choreographing Hamilton, he said something to the effect of me having single-handedly been one of the greatest influences on his career and art; well, obviously, it’s mutual.
So where did the performer go?
Back when I was a swing in Heights, I made that mean something. Being a swing that is…. I thought being a swing meant I was good, but just not as good as the people in the show. Now that I spend all my time hiring swings and ensemble members, I know that isn’t true. Back then, however, I also was not confident in using my voice. I just always had a fear of singing in front of people, which is kind of hard to face when you’re standing along on a Broadway stage ready to open your mouth for a solo. I always assumed being a principal was out of my reach. In fact, my first show as Carla on Broadway, (I understudied her once Asmeret Ghebremichael left to do Legally Blonde) Lin finishes his line, “on a 747 boarding JFK”… I was supposed to say, “the hydrants are open….” and nothing came out. Literally nothing, like the air had been sucked down through the basement of the Rodgers and off to another planet. I swear I could feel the hairs on the back of Lin’s neck stand-up, as I cross about a foot in front of him on that line. The generous and masterful Andrea Burns entered early and finished my line and then began to sing her harmony as written. I think I spent at least 5 years getting over that moment, so any time I nailed a vocal audition, I thought, this is great, but what if that happens again.
When I booked If/Then and my agents told me I’d be not only singing solo lines in the show, but understudying the beltress herself, Jenn Colella, I nearly dropped my cell phone.
Singing love duets with LaChanze, and four part harmonies with Idina and Tamika Lawrence…. were they kidding… again, I was proud of what I learned there, but not a show went by of all 400 where I didn’t have to talk myself off a ledge every single time I opened my mouth to sing alone.
How did she recover?
A few months ago I got a call about Heights coming to PCLO, a theater I’ve dreamt of performing at for years since my first time in Pittsburgh back before I booked Heights. I have spent so much time since If/Then making myself sing at cabarets and in front of others to really work on conquering the fear. So this was my chance to really try it out. If you can sing Vanessa in a 7-show weekend, for 3000 people, including your peers, then surely you will prove that fear is mental and you can do anything you put your mind to. So I set out to do that. I got myself back in some dance classes, which are always scary when a large portion of NY dance scene knows you as the one who runs the auditions, not the one who messes up a step in class, and I had a friend “plunk” the entire Vanessa portion of the Heights score so I could spend a few months practicing.
Any time a student asks me for advice, I say I don’t really have advice, our roads are all different, and surely I know that to be true, but I also know it to be true that there can be no substitute for PREPARATION. I prepped and was set to “do my best” in Pittsburgh, and I had to know that it would be enough. When friends who had done the show with me previously heard about my playing Vanessa, they tell me they thought, “Can she do that?”. A little voice inside me knew I could, but I had just never committed or seen myself do it. This time, I was not throwing away my shot.
Proof is in the Putting…
During intermission of our last studio run before we moved to the stage on July 6th, (that was 18 hours before we opened), the Assistant Director, Liz Kimball said to me, “you have to speak like you want to be heard.” I immediately burst into tears. My whole life, even as a child, I felt that when I spoke it was as if no one could hear me. She assured me that as the International Dance Supervisor for Hamilton and the Associate Choreographer with multiple Broadway credits, who runs that size ship, surely I had that skill somewhere, I just needed to apply it to the thing that made me most nervous, singing in front of people.
So, I tried it for ACT 2. I FELT CRAZY, but then something happened. I started to speak up. Let’s just say last week, I found my outside voice, and I don’t intend on locking it up again any time soon. I don’t know what the “return to the stage” means for Hamilton or my career, but I know in life, In The Heights, has been the gift that keeps on giving. Even now, 10 years later, I found something new in that old closet that I had never seen there before. I can honestly say as a woman, an artist, and a creator, I finally feel like I’ve come home.
And I can’t wait to see where it brings me next.
Listen to Stephanie on our Dance Captains episode.