Tony Award winner to star in ACT production of 'West Side Story'
Wilson Jermaine Heredia is best known for his portrayal of Angel Dumott Schunard in the Broadway musical “Rent.” He won a Tony Award and other prestigious honors for that role, and went on to reprise it at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre and in the 2005 film adaptation of the musical.
While he continues to work successfully as an actor, about five years ago, Heredia began teaching masterclasses and discovered a passion for teaching.
“I enjoy sharing the craft so much,” he said during a phone interview with a Herald-Mail reporter. “I like seeing the light turn on in people’s eyes. Sometimes something they think is so elusive is so simple in the way that I describe it. So what I like to impart is what I’ve experienced through trial and error. That way, they won’t have to go through it.”
One of his masterclasses took place during December 2018 at Authentic Community Theatre in Hagerstown while the group, known as ACT, was in rehearsals for its production of “Rent.” Following the class, ACT president Robbie Soto took Heredia to show him around The Maryland Theatre, which was built in 1915 and serves as an anchor to the city’s Arts and Entertainment District.
As he looked around the theater, Heredia said, “I have to perform here.”
“I wanted to because I loved the stage, I love the energy and the spirits in that theater,” he said.
Sometime later, as Soto prepared for ACT’s production of “West Side Story,” he contacted Heredia and asked if he would be interested in taking on a role in the show. Heredia shared with Soto that he’d always dreamed of playing the lead character Tony in the musical, but he didn’t think he would ever have the opportunity as, unlike the scripted character, Heredia is of Latin heritage.
On Friday, Jan. 17, and Saturday, Jan. 18, at The Maryland Theatre, Heredia will star as Tony in the ACT production of “West Side Story.” The musical, set in a blue-collar, 1950s New York City neighborhood, explores the rivalry between the two street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds — the Sharks whose members are from Puerto Rico and the Jets whose members are white. A storyline inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is complemented by music of Leonard Bernstein and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.
Discovering a passion
Heredia said his passion is for being onstage, “no matter if it’s in front of 10 people in the audience or 3,000 in the audience.”
“It’s my life’s blood. If there is an opportunity for me to perform, especially, you know, playing Tony in ‘West Side Story,’” Heredia said. “That’s something that would be very difficult for me to get on Broadway or anywhere because one, I am Latin, and two, I am up there in years.”
The character Tony is white and co-founder of the Jets. Heredia said he loves the “colorblind” casting and the suspension of disbelief in the approach of the production.
He first saw the film “West Side Story” starring Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony when he was about 11 years old.
“It really was Tony that resonated with me more than anyone else. I really related to him, to his optimism and romanticism,” Heredia said.
While he liked the music and the dancing, he didn’t have the background or vocabulary to name what he was watching.
“I didn’t know that I was watching a musical,” he said. “All I knew was that I wanted to do it.”
Heredia comes from a Dominican family, with his generation the first born in the U.S. Raised in Brooklyn, he didn’t have any formal training but worked as a professional dancer.
“I was dancing Latin, hip hop, freestyle back in the ‘80s,” he said.
His parents wanted him to become a doctor, so after high school, he became a medical assistant but continued pursuing the arts.
“The way I see it, I was healing in other ways,” he said, “with a lot less red tape.”
Breaking down barriers
Heredia thought his career would be in choreography so he pursued formal training. It was a dance injury that sidelined him for months and inspired him to take an acting class at Hunter College. A month after he began the class, he landed a role in an off-Broadway play.
“I didn’t expect to be a musical theater person,” he said. “I didn’t see anybody on Broadway that looked like me.”
He was so unprepared for his “Rent” audition that he didn’t have sheet music or musical theater songs prepared, so he sang “Great Balls of Fire” and “Amazing Grace.”
While typecasting occurs, Heredia said, he believes theater should break those barriers, and that’s when an audition calls for a specific description, actors who don’t fit should “walk in anyway.”
“They wouldn’t think of you unless you put yourself in front of their face. You might have to twist their arm a little bit just by being there in their face,” he said.
He points to the Lin-Manuel Miranda hip hop-based musical “Hamilton,” which casts non-white actors as the founding fathers of the United States.
For the ACT production of “West Side Story,” Heredia said, Soto first offered him the role of Bernardo, the Puerto Rican founder and leader of the Sharks.
“If I hadn’t given him the idea of me as Tony,” he said, “he wouldn’t have thought to cast it that way. When I told him, he made it happen.”
Starring in ‘a good musical’
The rest of the cast of the ACT cast is thrilled to be working with Heredia as Tony.
Lawren Palmer portrays Maria.
“I’m thrilled for the opportunity to work with such a talented and well-known artist,” she said. “It’s a huge opportunity for the cast and the community to work with and see him on stage.”
Heredia said Palmer “makes it easy.”
“We just met and clicked. It really helps playing opposite someone you have a lot of chemistry with. Not only is her voice phenomenal, she is a great actress,” he said. “I’m with her eighty percent of the show. It helps to have someone to vibe off of. She makes it easy to fall in love with her.”
Heredia commended the rest of the cast as well.
“Talent is everywhere,” he said. “There are fantastic people in the show and they are going to tell a great story.”
Heredia noted that a Broadway revival of “West Side Story” will officially open during February 2020, and that the Steven Spielberg film version will be released in December.
“I think it’s a sign of the times, where the things that make us different are bubbling to the surface all over again,” he said. “These divisions are always there and now people are more vocal about it. And this is just a good musical. It really is.”
Top photo: Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Lawren Palmer will portray young, idealistic lovers caught between warring street gangs in "West Side Story" at The Maryland Theatre. (Submitted photo)