Feature: In the Heights – “I only produce stuff that I love”

In The Heights rehearsal (c) Sam Mackay
In The Heights rehearsal (c) Sam Mackay

The twenty-first century musical In the Heights, set in Washington Heights in Manhattan, is coming to London. In 2008, In the Heights was nominated for 13 Tony awards and won four including Best Musical, so it is perhaps something of a surprise that producer Tristan Baker has chosen to give the show its UK premiere at South London’s Southwark Playhouse.

Baker recognises that the vibrant multi-cultural community of Southwark reflects that of Washington Heights. “In The Heights is about different communities and the way they survive and their stories. It’s also about hopes and dreams, tradition and change,” he says. There is a Latin-American community in Southwark, which is a match for the Latin and hip-hop infused score by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Baker also has a high regard for the Southwark Playhouse, which has also this year been recognised by The Stage as Fringe Theatre of the Year. “It’s a wonderful space with a very loyal audience,” Baker stresses.

With its pedigree, this Broadway smash hit could have started in the West End, like Memphis and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but Baker says he and co-producer Paul Taylor-Mills wanted an “organic start” for the show. They believe that it needs to be discovered by UK audiences here, just as it was off-Broadway back in 2007. The Playhouse has a young audience, which is also appealing to Baker: “It’s such a great space, so friendly and welcoming and very accessible. It’s a good opportunity to be able to appeal to all sorts of ages and demographics.”

New musicals have an unfortunate recent record in London as we know from the unexpectedly short runs of I can’t sing! The X Factor Musical, From Here to Eternity and Stephen Ward. None of these, however, sprang from a previously successful, award-winning show. While Book of Mormon has been hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, Baker acknowledges the difficulties of making an American show work for a British audience. “You never really know how it will do. It’s a brilliant show, I love it and I just hope the audiences love it over here. That’s the only way I produce, I produce stuff that I love. You can’t be too scientific over these things.”

In The Heights is a brand new production with a young creative team led by Luke Sheppard, Associate Director of the brilliant RSC Matilda in the West End. Choreography is by Drew McOnie, who has a reputation for merging the worlds of contemporary dance and musical theatre. ‘They’re doing something very new and very exciting with it,” enthuses Baker. He also believes the supporting team is exceptional. “They are the most sensational cast, Olivier Award-winners and nominees, stalwart West End performers and very fresh debut performers as well. We’re really very lucky to have got together such incredible talent.”

Baker set up his company while he was still a student at the University of Birmingham. He first put on Little Shop of Horrors in Northampton. A director at the Derngate Theatre then said “Anything you got, give me a ring.” This was too good an opportunity to pass up, so Baker negotiated the rights to Calamity Jane while doing his finals and went straight into production as soon as he graduated. And he’s been producing ever since.

For Baker, the best way to start is just to get on with it. Rule number one, there are no rules. “There’s no set way to become a producer,” he says. “You don’t become an apprentice for 20 years and work your way up the ladder.” He believes that if you’ve got the passion, drive and determination then anything is achievable. He is frank about the jobs difficulties but offers wise advice. “For most people in this industry, their stock answer is no. And I think it’s learning when to hear the no and when to actually disagree with the no and carry on regardless. Probably the majority of times it’s better to ignore them.”

One of the best songs in the musical is ‘96,000′,  in which the characters debate what they would do if they won the lottery. I asked Baker what he would do if he won $96,000. He didn’t hesitate with his answer. “I’d put on a show. That’s what I always do. I put on the next show.”
In The Heights runs at Southwark Playhouse from 9 May to 7 June. For more information and tickets visit Southwark Playhouse’s website

Kate Wyver

Kate Wyver

Kate is studying Theatre and Performance at the University of Bristol. Despite this, she has never broken a leg.