Today has been Non-Stop!
Right lyricist, wrong production, I know! It’s In the Heights Takeover Week, and the above is a little nod to 1) a stressful day and 2) my excitement for the Victoria Palace unveiling their Hamilton veil…if that makes sense!
The last in this series of In the Heights features is an interview with Usnavi himself, Sam Mackay. Like Gabriela and Damian, Sam has been with the show since day one, way back in 2014, having spent two years on this production. As it enters its final months of performances, Sam spoke to me about what the show means to him, the time he compared characterisation with Lin Manuel Miranda, and his plans post-show (hint: like Usnavi, they involve flying to a certain island).
Rona Kelly: We are so excited for the show!
Sam Mackay: Have you seen it?
RK: I’ve seen it twice before and loved it. My friend Anna hasn’t seen it at all!
SM: Yes, you’re dragging a new crowd in! Good work!
RK: She didn’t even know we were doing salsa earlier!
SM: Ha! And how was that?
Anna Marks: I think I’m slightly mentally scarred!
SM: I wondered if a lot of the people would be feeling that way!
AM: Well it was good to learn a number from the show, I’m looking forward to it.
SM: ‘Carnaval del Barrio’ is a really fun number and it’s a really fun show. I’m a fan of the show, regardless of my involvment in it. I love it! So I hope that people enjoy it, just as much as we do performing it.
RK: It’s such an energetic fun show, but there are some really poignant moments too.
SM: It’s absolutely got that ebb and flow to it. It’s devastating and wonderful in equal measure, and that’s such a wonderful thing to get to play.
RK: And you are playing Usnavi.
SM: I am indeed!
RK: And how would you describe him in three words?
SM: Ooooh…’Cornerstone of Community’!
RK: That is very good!
SM: ‘Of-the’, I just said ‘of community’…great!
RK: Well, we’ll just make it one word: ‘Of-the’. The ‘the’ is silent, so it’s fine!
SM: Yes! He’s Mr Reliable.
RK: So you’ve been with the show since the very beginning and you’re with it until the end, in January 2017.
SM: Well I had to see it out! I had to! As I said, it’s a show that I hold very dear to my heart and always will. So it only felt right, when the extension came up and it was just until January. I’ve been doing it here for a year, but actually it’s been much longer. 2014 we started and we had a big gap in between that and here. But it felt right and this is my baby in a way, in this country. I really love this role, I’ve put a lot into it and I just wanted to see it out with the community as I think Usnavi would, you know?
RK: Yes. And I guess you guys must become like a community, like family with everyone!
SM: Completely, it’s an amazing group.
RK: Okay, so one of the questions I have written down just says: ‘How do you even rap that quickly?’
SM: Ha! Well, I’ve been rapping since I was yay-high. I actually started off in grime, which is a speedier tempo. I listened to hip hop before, but I did grime and garage when I was in my teen years. I used to hang out in a shed in Neasden and do Pirate Radio sessions and be teenagers! And so rap has always been a huge part of my life. So actually the rap stuff is some of the least challenging aspects of the show, in terms of rhythm and stuff. It’s more about the storytelling for me. But the rap is just something that I’ve always listened to, always loved, and always been a part of. So it’s kind of second nature, I guess!
RK: It’s incredible! Just the words in the opening song even, ‘One dollar, two dollar, one fifty…’
SM: Yes, yes! I mean that gets tricky! It’s more the actions and stuff.
RK: And what about the dancing? How do you find that side of it?
SM: Well, again I actually started out as a dancer when I was younger. So I have to dance almost deliberately badly in this show! Because I think you endear yourself a little more to Usnavi if he’s not too cool! And I just think it suits him. Funnily enough, I had a conversation with Lin [Manuel Miranda, Usnavi in the BC] when he came across for Southwark. And I remember saying to him, ‘Lin, can I just say one thing I love about Usnavi is I love that he’s not really a dancer, he can’t really dance’. And he was like, ‘Yes, everyone always says that…and I was really trying!’ And I was like, ‘Oh God! I’m so sorry!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realise; I thought it was a great character choice!’ But I stuck with it, because I think it suits Usnavi.
But I’ve been a dancer since I was younger. I dance commercially, I did your X Factor and Dance for Artists and Girl Aloud and loads of things over the years.
RK: So it’s in your blood!
SM: Yes, dance is a huge passion of mine! And I have to dumb it down in the show, if anything!
RK: And finally, how would you spend $96,000?
SM: Oooooh! That is a good shout! I would love to say invest it, but first and foremost: housing. I’d just get a house, I know it’s boring. I would a bit of money on hitting LA and doing what I need to do out there, which I’m doing in February anyway. I’m doing pilot season, having meetings, so I’d spend a good bit on that. I’d come back via the Dominican Republic, because that’s another plan at the end of this production, to actually visit the Dominican and end the show there. So that’s another bit I’d spend it on. But I’d just need to buy a house, so my Mum could chill out! And not worry about me!
RK: Amazing plan and good luck! Thanks so much for speaking to us.
SM: It was lovely to meet you and thank you!