Monique Montez is an award-winning vocalist who’s enjoyed a career in entertainment that has, so far, spanned almost 25 years. It was in 2010 that Montez had the opportunity to see the original Broadway production of In The Heights.
“I saw it with the original cast,” Montez tells Theatre People.
There was one role, she says, that stood out to her at that point.
“I wrote in my diary, ‘I love this show. If it ever came to Australia, I’d love to play Daniella’.”
Fast forward eight years, and Montez is playing the role of the spicy salon owner in the New South Wales professional premiere of the Tony Award-winning Best Musical, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“It’s a dream come true,” she says.
But when auditions were announced, Montez was overseas, so she got in touch with the producers, who told her to submit a video audition.
“The producers said to me only last night, ‘Monique, we never told you this, but we watched 60 seconds of your audition and we knew you had it’,” Montez says.
Luisa Scrofani, who plays Nina, was long encouraged to listen to the cast recording of In The Heights, but only heard it for the first time mere months before auditions.
“I finally listened to it, and I was enthralled by it, quite honestly,” Scrofani says. “Obviously, there was Nina, and I thought that I would love to play that role.”
Scrofani has previously performed at the Hayes, having made her professional debut in Blue Saint Productions’ critically-acclaimed staging of Violet at the end of 2015 in the role of young Violet.
Scrofani thinks that In The Heights tells a story like no other.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anything that’s quite like this story,” she says. “It really encapsulates a sense of community, especially the Latino community. That’s not something that you get to see on stage much at all. And it’s so honest and raw, which I think is really special, and it gives a voice to a demographic that might be marginalised sometimes or not have their voices heard in this kind of way.”
Montez loves the combination of stories told within the show.
“It’s got a story of independence, love, family, and it’s … very contemporary, so it reaches so many audiences,” she says.
Scrofani discusses Nina’s own story within In The Heights.
“She is the only person in her neighbourhood who has ever been able to go to university, so she really does feel the weight of the world, and everybody in the community looks up to her so much and believes in her,” she says. “When she returns, having had a really unsuccessful year and essentially dropping out, she’s just beside herself … because her parents have sacrificed so much for her.
“I can relate to the character in that I feel like I’m sort of playing my parents, because they’re both children of immigrants. They were the first in their families to go to university and get degrees, and so there was this massive weight on their shoulders as well because of what their parents – my grandparents – sacrificed for them.”
Asked about the challenges of the role, Scrofani talks about the vocal stamina it demands.
“It was something that I wasn’t expecting. It’s a massive sing,” she says.
But she thoroughly enjoys playing Nina.
“It’s a very emotional, weighty role,” she says, “it’s something that I’ve really enjoyed being able to sink my teeth into.”
Montez feels similarly, having taken on the spirited Daniela.
“She’s an independent, single woman and she’s strong, she’s really feisty, she’s got a lot of guts, but deep down inside, she’s actually a softie,” Montez says. “She knows everybody in the town … she’s a gossiper and she’s very funny.
“I’ve actually had the best time playing her. I’ve never played a comedic character before, so as a performer, I’ve learned a lot … I’ve been watching clips on YouTube of other comedic characters to see how they pace it and how they go about it … [And] I’ve had to sit down and really look at her character …”
But while taking on a comedic role represented a new challenge for Montez, it’s been a successful experience venturing outside of her comfort zone.
“I must be doing something right because the laughs come at the right spots,” she says.
And while she’s had the chance to see In The Heights performed in a full-scale Broadway production, she talks about how well the show has been translated for the intimate 120-seat Hayes auditorium.
“Because it’s such an intimate theatre, the audience becomes part of the show … and you can see everybody’s reactions,” she says.
“To be honest, I was a bit frightened to be this close to an audience. I’ve never worked at the Hayes before … [But] it’s an experience every actor, every performer wants to have.”
Scrofani also speaks to how well In The Heights works in the Hayes.
“It can work so well as a Broadway blockbuster on a massive stage, but at the same time, because these stories are really truthful and raw, I think it works very well in a really intimate space because the audience is able to see that emotion conveyed in its most honest form … It’s just you and the audience, and the audience is entirely on the journey with you.”
Asked to pinpoint particular highlights of the show, Scrofani mentions Act One number, ‘96,000’, which she says is “a showstopper”.
“It’s amazing the amount of energy that the entire cast is giving,” she says. “The whole point of ‘96,000’ is the possibility of winning $96,000, and because all of these people are living in quite a poor neighbourhood, $96,000 is a ridiculous amount [of money] for them. So, it’s them playing out their fantasies and it turns into such a showstopper. I watch it from backstage every night because it’s just awesome. The audience will love it!”
Montez talks about touches added to the Hayes’ production to enhance its contemporary feel.
“We’ve really given it an oomph and put our own edge on it by adding our own twists,” she says. “We’ve tried to do a few things differently than other shows, so that the show will be talked about – and people are talking about it already. It’s going to be great in that way. I think everybody should come and see it to see the changes.”
Montez is also excited to see Australian audiences supporting a new work, which carries a message about the importance of, and strength in, community – a message of relevance to audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
“Everybody supports the classic musicals, but they need to hear this and they need to embrace the new and the now,” she adds. “The Hayes and the producers, Blue Saint, are taking a risk in trying something new and different … They’re putting on a great piece of work … Everybody should come and see it.”
IN THE HEIGHTS – SEASON DETAILS
Season: Playing now until 15 April, 2018
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point)
Times: Tues – Sat 7:30pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm and 6pm
Price: $69 Adult, $64 Concession
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or by phone on (02) 8065 7337
Hashtags: #intheheightssyd and #inthehayes