Up Close & Personal with In the Heights Musical Director Eugenio Vargas
When Eugenio Vargas first saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking production in New York, he knew he wanted to be a part of In the Heights — but he always imagined his part would be on stage, not in the pit. Vargas, who is primarily an actor, was also a musical director in college. He continued to music direct occasionally, and in the past few years has started to shift focus from acting back towards music directing. We had the opportunity to chat with Vargas about getting involved in the Ordway, why In the Heights has a special place in his heart, his favorite projects, and more!
I understand you are first and foremost an actor — how did you get involved with this project, and why on the musical directing side?
I actually came to audition for James and Reid in February, during the season auditions in New York. As I walked out the door from the audition, I got a call from Lauren Villegas (who incidentally played Mary Magdalene in Ordway’s Jesus Christ Superstar). She said, “Just so you know, they’re looking for a musical director for In the Heights and I gave them your name – I hope that’s OK!”
So you’d already auditioned for a part in the cast — what made you decide to take the musical director gig, rather than pursuing a role onstage?
When it came down to being a part of the show, this obviously wasn’t necessarily how I imagined it. I could have gone down the road of callbacks, but I also know there will be plenty of chances to act, but maybe not so many chances to music direct. After a bit of hemming and hawing, I decided to go that direction.
What’s your history with In the Heights? Is this a show that’s familiar to you, and what makes you excited to work on this project?
In the Heights has been a really important piece to me since I first moved up to [New York City] after college. It was one of the first things I came up here to see, and one of the first times I saw people who looked like me, up on stage in a big way. It’s beautiful, smart and exciting. For ten years, I wanted to be a part of the show. I will never forget that it was a different type of music – and that wasn’t just the inclusion of rap. It was unapologetically Latin music, and that was exciting for me as someone coming to the city as a young college grad hoping to make it as an actor. Until then it was either hoping casting directors would think I could pass as white, or hoping for one of the token roles for people of color. In the Heights brings to light the fact that for people of color, there really are not a lot of opportunities for us to get on stage and tell our stories. To see the audience moved to tears, and that it was a story about people like me, that was really powerful.
Thinking about the score itself — what are you most excited about, and what do you think will be the biggest challenge in tackling this score?
This whole score has been in my head for the past ten years. There are a couple of numbers that even now make me feel a lot of the same feelings I felt when I first heard them. I’m really excited to work with such a skilled company of actors to see how they feel and what they express, and to see them discover and feel what I’ve been feeling listening to the cast album all these years. The biggest challenge, for sure, is that the keyboard accompaniment is notoriously difficult. [Tony-winning Composer] Alex Lacamoire, who originally did the music, even said that the part is notoriously difficult to play. Getting that style and feel and groove with such a challenging part will be tough, but I have every confidence that I will get it together.
What are some other projects you’ve worked on as a musical director?
I’ve music directed Carousel, The Wedding Singer, You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, Rocky Horror, and probably a few others. I’m also the associate conductor for the Astoria Choir here in New York City, which is a 60-70 member choir in Astoria and Queens. We program everything from classical masses and requiems to musical theatre reviews.
That is such a great variety! Of all these projects — musical, classical, or any other genre — what has been your favorite?
Oh, that’s easy – it’s Carousel. The first time I music directed it was in college. I understand why it’s a problematic show, but of all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work, the score is inarguably their best. The production I worked on was one of the larger student productions we did on campus, and it was the first large-scale orchestra I’d ever worked with. It was really what inspired me to go back and get a minor in conducting, and encouraged me to continue working in areas that challenged me. I’d love to go back and do that show again, knowing everything I’ve learned since then.
What is your dream role as an actor?
I know this might sound cheesy, but it was the first big professional show I saw when it toured to my town, the first cast album I ever owned and the first show I saw on Broadway – The Phantom of the Opera. It’s a sentimental favorite of mine, and I would love the chance to play Phantom.
It has been so great talking with you, Eugenio. Thanks again for your time and we can’t wait to see what you do with In the Heights!
Thanks! I’m so excited the Ordway is doing this show, and I can’t wait to bring it to Twin Cities audiences. I hope that with shows like In the Heights, we continue to engage even more new and different audiences.
In the Heights will perform September 12-24 in the Ordway Music Theater. Tickets are available on the In the Heights performance page or by phone at 651.224.4222.