London In the Heights Star Sam Mackay on Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton & More

first_img View Comments Sam Mackay in ‘In the Heights'(Photo: Johan Persson) Londoner Sam Mackay might seem an unexpected choice to inherit Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway role of the bodega-owning Usnavi for the British premiere of In the Heights, but Mackay earned raves for the production that won three Olivier Awards. He took time before a recent matinee to talk to about Manhattan neighborhoods, rapping at the Royal Opera House and—of course—Hamilton.You’re a Londoner playing a Latino character whose family is from the Dominican Republic. Were you surprised to find yourself in this role?Not really. I’d grown up listening to New York hip hop and rapping, and I feel like nowadays we have such access to that material and that culture in any case. I may be white and British, but I can flow with the best of them, man.Did you wonder whether the show would find a London audience?I’d always been of the school of thought that this would work here and never even questioned it, maybe because it’s right up my street; if I wasn’t in the show, I would be there watching it! But I knew there was hesitation from various producers about whether they would be able to cast it since London doesn’t have so big a Latino community, but I think they did well to introduce it in a small venue [Southwark Playhouse] and then transfer it to a bigger venue [King’s Cross Theatre].So you saw the universality in a potentially niche musical/Hip hop for me transcends so many ethnicities now: it’s a worldwide phenomenon that isn’t just for black New Yorkers. I mean, if people here can get a show about the French Revolution or Mormons, why can’t they jump into a story about a contemporary neighborhood in New York? At the end of the day, it’s the storytelling that matters, and this is a great story told in a fresh way.What do you think of Usnavi?Or UKs-navi, as I’ve been dubbed here in London! Every day I feel like I try to be a little more Usnavi. He’s such a warm, reliable character, and I love the way that he’s a real cornerstone of the community. He may not be the coolest, but he has this love and passion that I admire greatly.Did you know a lot about the musical before it came here?Oh, yes! I had done musical theater earlier in my career and then taken a few years out to move toward straight acting, but there was one show and one part that I said to my agent, “Wherever I am or whatever I am doing at the time, I’ve got to do it!” I had long had my eyes on this role.Have you ever been to Washington Heights [where the show is set]?I never got a chance because I was broke, but now that money is coming in again, I’m in a good place. As soon as I finish this run, I’m going to fly to the Dominican Republic: I want to kick back on the beach there, going via New York and “The Heights,” so I can have one last goodbye to the show.What about the title: do audiences here know what “The Heights” refers to?We get a lot of people calling it Into the Heights. That’s the most common thing as if it’s some sort of parody of Into the Woods. The funniest is when you see people who haven’t got a clue and then it starts and they’re hit with this rap narrative and you see them go from confused to slightly startled and huge grins and a slow nodding of the head, as if to say, “Oh, I like that—who knew?”Were the Olivier Awards fun?Can I just say, I RAPPED AT THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE! That actually happened! If I had told the 15-year-old me that would have happened, I don’t know what his reaction would be. I kind of walked offstage going, “Did that just happen?” It was crazy, crazy, crazy.Have you had much contact with Lin-Manuel Miranda?He missed the original run at Southwark, but he did come and meet with us after it had finished. He flew over and said hello and we had some nice drinks with him and [Miranda’s wife] Vanessa, who was pregnant at the time. He’s a lovely guy.Did he give you any pointers about the role?It wasn’t as if he was imparting any wisdom but more about being appreciative and on the level. He wanted to share in our love of the show, and we gave him a hell of a lot of love because our company adores the show. It made us feel as if we were part of this really cool family, so it was like saying hello to another member of that family.What about Hamilton, which is due in London during 2017?God, I would love to audition for that show—to be a part of that. When I first heard the cast album, I had it fleetingly popping in and out of the background; it wasn’t until I sat down to listen to it from start to finish that I was just blown away and thought, “This is genius.”Have there been discussions yet on Hamilton?Well, as much as this is a great showcase for me to put myself in contention to be in on the auditions, there’s no guarantee yet. I’m sure everyone in our company would love to be part of Hamilton in London. People who’ve watched our show have said to me, “That’s it; you’re going to be Hamilton,” which is very lovely—but as a performer you’ve just got to say, “Thanks, cool” and put it to one side.It sounds whatever happens as if this has been a win-win scenario.The great thing is that this is not a difficult show to convince people to come and watch. Harvey Weinstein has been in and [film director] J.J. Abrams; there’s no shortage of people wanting to see it. It’s opened some wonderful doors and, as they say, put me in the right place. In terms of opportunities, this has opened incredible doors.last_img read more