To celebrate one year of In the Heights on the London stage, this week my blog features an In the Heights Takeover Week. Though given my love of the production and Lin Manuel Miranda’s writing, when is any week not an In the Heights week?!
Today’s feature is an interview with Damian Buhagiar, who plays Sonny. Buhagiar returns to the production to reprise his role, having taken a year away from the show. And it’s no wonder he’s back; you can tell just how much love and appreciation he has for the show, as he discussed with me what it means to him…
Rona Kelly: Thanks for joining us today. First of all, how does it feel to be coming back to In the Heights?
Damian Buhagiar: Before I started back in Southwark, people were saying that is was kind of a ‘me’ show, but I’d never heard anything about the show. And now I’m actually doing my dream, I’m actually living the dream! There’s no other show like In the Heights at the moment and it’s something different. Even the cast, they’re so friendly and like a community and it shines on stage; that’s something that you don’t really find a lot in musicals nowadays, even in the dressing rooms. But with this cast, I’m always looking forward to work; I’m always coming in and feeling good vibes, positive energy! You just work through it together, even if you’re tired, you just work through it. It doesn’t feel like work when you’re with friends!
RK: And can you tell us a bit about your character?
DB: I’m playing Sonny and he’s Usnavi’s cousin, his little cousin. He’s quite young and quite innocent. He’s focused and passionate as well, which I kind of like because I can relate to it. I can relate to the character myself, because I like playing young characters because it suits me. He’s very determined, obviously you’ll see in ‘96,000’ in his rap where you’ll see Usnavi and Benny are talking about their own thoughts on what they would do with the money. And then you get Sonny, who thinks about the community.
RK: Yes, because he’s like ‘computers and web-browsers’.
DB: Yes, he’s not just thinking about himself; he just wants the community to feel more like home. Everything is based on home with Sonny and I kind of like that. He’s got the edge to him, because he’s very sensitive and he takes things to heart. When Usnavi leaves, he takes that quite seriously. The fact that Nina used to babysit him and Benny takes over his place, it’s kind of like that innocent, young character which is really nice to play.
RK: I love that line: ‘She was my babysitter first!’
DB: ‘She was my babysitter first!’ Yes! And it really means a lot to him, that other people are making fun of him. But actually when you’re young, you see these things as a big deal.
RK: Yes and these relationships are really important to your character, your and Usnavi’s relationship in particular. You’re cousins, but you’re so close, it’s like you’re brothers.
DB: Yes and you have to let that shine through on the stage.
RK: Are you guys close off-stage as well, and maybe that helps to build that bond?
DB: Absolutely, because I did it in Southwark when it started, in the very beginning. So I’ve been playing with our characters since ages ago. And then I left and took that year gap, and then coming back to it and he’s still here. It makes it stronger.
RK: Is it like nothing’s changed? Like coming home and seeing a family member you haven’t seen in ages?
DB: And there’s always new things that we find together that makes it really interesting and special again.
RK: What kind of things have you found have changed in your portrayal of the character?
DB: As Sonny, I find that I am understanding the story more and I am into it more. At that time, I had just graduated so it was kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really exciting!’ But now, I get to invest in the character more and now I know what the story is, I can play around with Sonny more, with what his background is like.
And also the humour as well, I’ve found a bit of humour in him that I’ve never done before and never thought about before.
RK: How is it different from Southwark run?
DB: Here at the Kings Cross Theatre, the stage is different. And I have to say, on both stages it worked really well. However, this stage makes it a little broader and makes you work harder to connect with the audience. Southwark was literally how we are now, sat right there in front of me. It’s really intimate.
And here, because you’ve got this massive stage, you can see different stories play out. And that’s why you have to be really careful and focus on the storyline between each person on stage and what their relationships are like. Because it’s such a broad stage, so if you look there and see two couples, you want to know what the story is like and that’s why you have to invest in storyline. That’s what this space makes you do; it makes you work harder on the story.
RK: And it’s not just the story that makes you work hard; those dance steps are pretty hard too! We’ve just come from the salsa class with yourself and the rest of the cast…
DB: Ah yes! You guys did really well!
RK: We tried! How did you find learning the dance sequences? Are you someone who learns by doing it again and again?
DB: Yes, definitely. And coming back to the show, I fell back into it because I had done it before, it kind of got into me. But as soon as something changes, you have to learn it from scratch. Once you get used to it, you just flow through it.
RK: And what would you do if you won $96,000?
DB: If I won $96,000…as me? I really like cars! So I would get a car, a nice car. It’s a dream, but it will come true! Someday!
RK: What kind of car?
DB: A lamborghini! I enjoy art, I do car drawings. I usually use pens and biros, but I’ve just bought new markers, pro-markers. I’ve never used them before, but they make the cars stand out really well. Real, real drawings!
RK: Brilliant! And finally, what’s your favourite moment from the show?
DB: My favourite moment is ‘96,000’ by far! It just bring out my spirit, literally.
RK: That’s brilliant! Thank you so much.
DB: Thank you so much! Lovely to meet you!