When StageArt producers first announced the cast of In The Heights they were described as being very diverse and pretty much unknowns. However, amongst the list of names, one in particular stood out – maybe not to regular theatre goers, but certainly to the tween-agers: James Elmer. If you don’t know who James Elmer is, ask someone aged between 10 and 16. If they watch ABC3 tv they’ll not only know who James Elmer is, they’ll also be able to tell you what an amazing dancer he is – and how seriously cool he is.
Elmer is one of the hosts of ABC’s Studio 3 and the Australian premiere of In The Heights last year was Elmer’s musical theatre debut. Elmer was invited to audition for the role, but his immediate response was to decline. His girlfriend had already auditioned for the show and had missed out. He explains she is classically trained in ballet, more like Snow White and nothing like the Hispanic characters of In The Heights. He describes her as a musical theatre geek (she recently appeared in the cast of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). He understands why she missed out on being cast in In The Heights but Elmer didn’t think it would be wise to try out himself. Then he looked into the role, realised it involved break dancing and decided he had to give it a go. He got the role and his girlfriend is now his biggest fan. (Well, besides his mum who would love him in anything he does.)
Elmer reluctantly got into dance. He describes himself as one of the class clowns during his high school years. He was doing “just enough” to get through, until he was informed by his principle that he wasn’t enrolled in sufficient subjects to complete his year 12. He was encouraged to stay in school and was offered the choice of two subjects: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies or Dance. Elmer says he didn’t know much about either subject but there was a girl he had a major crush on who was in the dance class – so of course he chose dance. Within weeks, Elmer had fallen in love with dance more than with this girl. The dance also lasted – the relationship with this girl didn’t.
Elmer was encouraged to dance at the local eisteddfod where he scored 99/100 in his first ever competition and won ‘best dance solo’. He was also invited to join one of Australia’s premiere hip hop crews, “365”. He is an accomplished dancer, actor, singer, television host – and now musical theatre performer!
When it opened last year, the cast of In The Heights received a standing ovation for their very first performance. Elmer says he kept being told it was “just a preview performance” but to him it was the real opening night – the first time he was performing in front of a live, paying audience. Elmer describes that first preview night and receiving a standing ovation as being crazy, adding, “Kids should say no to drugs and just do musical theatre because the feeling is amazing!” He admits he’s now addicted to musical theatre.
It’s a very different genre of entertainment to his television work. Elmer explains musical theatre is a massive team effort. There are so many people involved standing right beside you and of course there is the immediate feedback from a live audience. In the theatre you get a reaction: a laugh, a clap, a response as soon as you do something. Elmer says he is now hooked on this immediate audience response and the standing ovations! It is a stark contrast to his television work where he can film twenty segments in a row and receive no response at all. There’s no feedback, no applause, you just keep moving on. Elmer says the only feedback comes sometime later from a young fan who might stop him in the street to say how much he enjoys the show and loves his work. Elmer laughs as he says he may need the ABC crew to applaud his work in the television studio from now on.
Elmer then clarified his new found love of musical theatre. While he loves what he is doing, it is not so much musical theatre but the show In The Heights itself. He says In the Heights is such an amazing show and he’s really not sure he could do another show that wasn’t like this one. In The Heights has set the benchmark for musical theatre for Elmer. He’s having so much fun in this show he says he’d be happy to keep doing it for the rest of his life.
The audience response to In The Heights was incredible. Audience members commented to Elmer how amazing he was, but Elmer is quick to explain it’s not hard to be amazing when the show is written that way.
Elmer is hopeful regular musical theatre audiences will really appreciate and embrace In The Heights. It’s a show that Elmer believes will also appeal to his usual fanbase – the tween-agers – those between 10 and 16 who don’t normally go to musical theatre, but want to go to a rock concert. He feels In The Heights is the ideal gateway to regular musical theatre. The young person who enjoys In The Heights may then be prepared to see a more traditional show. He also knows regular theatre goers will love the different style of this critically acclaimed, award winning show.
The biggest thing Elmer has learned from his first foray into musical theatre? The use of the phrase, “That’s theatre!” With the pressure of live performance, Elmer has learnt the show must go on regardless because, “That’s theatre!”
Due to popular demand, In The Heights is playing a return season at the National Theatre in St Kilda for four shows only on March 10th, 11th and 12th. Tickets are selling fast. Grab a ticket while you can and experience what everyone is raving about. Laugh, clap, tap your feet then stand up and applaud at the end. The cast love it.