Interview: Stephen Lopez talks about dancing up a storm in the salsa musical In The Heights at Sydney Festival

Melbournian actor, Stephen Lopez played Usnavi De La Vega in the debut Australian production of In The Heights in Melbourne in 2015. The show, a quadruple Tony award-winning work, written by Hamilton creator and Moana composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a modern summer musical boasting hot, Latino rhythms. A return staging of the show will be hitting the Sydney Festival in January, fresh from critically acclaimed and sold out run at Hayes Theatre Company.

Ahead of the show’s return we sat down with Lopez to learn how he went about reprising his role, as well as the ins and outs of salsa dancing on stage, and what he would do with a big lottery win.


Can you begin by briefly introducing yourself? How long have you been working in the arts industry?

I’m Stephen “Stevie” Lopez, a Melbourne born actor who’s been working professionally in Theatre, Television & Film since the age of eleven.

How would you sum up or describe In The Heights?

In The Heights is a story which takes place over three days during a heat wave in the New York City neighbourhood of Washington Heights. In an ever gentrified city, the people in it are trying to figure out who they are, where they belong and where they fit in the world. It’s a story of love, community and family.

The show had its Australian debut in Melbourne in 2015, and more recently had a run at the Hayes Theatre earlier this year. How does the 2019 adaptation of this musical differ from the previous instalments?

Having had the privilege to be part of the debut season and originating the role of Usnavi in Australia, I can safely say both productions have absolutely captured the core values of the show – and that is its heart. The sense of community, love and family is what drives the whole production and the moment I met the 2019 cast, I knew I was home.

This 2019 production is incredibly immersive, intricate and real. Which is all due to some magnificent directing and choreography by both Luke Joslin and Amy Campbell. Both Luke and Amy have done an incredible job of keeping the piece honest, with every direction and movement not only justified but anchored in truth. They are both an actors dream to work with.

Can you briefly describe the character you’re playing? What drew you to this particular role?

I play Usnavi De La Vega, I run the local bodega (corner store) in el Barrio. My bodega doubles as the hub of the street where people pass through for coffee, lottery tickets and gossip – but not always in that order. I’m a hard worker who cares about my family, community and heritage.

A long time mentor and friend of mine, Chris Parker, first introduced me to the show many years ago. I still remember him whipping around his laptop and saying “I really think you could play this part one day”. In awe I watched the In The Heights performance from the 2008 Tony Awards – a lead of a show, from a diverse background, who wasn’t a bad guy, running and rapping all over the stage – I was sold.

The show promises to be a fabulous one, because it’s written by Hamilton creator and Moana composer Lin-Manuel Miranda. What’s your favourite song from this musical and why?

That’s a tough one! I honestly love so many of them! BUT if I have to choose I will say that some of Nina’s songs really resonate with me. “Breathe” and “Everything I Know” hit me straight in my core. I think at some point we’ve all felt the pressure of living up to expectations and also have people to thank for who we are.

This show has been described as a joyous summer tale. What are your favourite things about summer and why did you choose those?

For me summer means time with my family down the coast at our family beach house. It’s a time to reconnect with one another and a tradition we have had since before I was born. I truly love it and look forward to it every summer.

Part of the show centres around someone buying a winning lottery ticket. If you won a major jackpot how would you spend your winnings?

I would take my family on a holiday – a BIG ONE.

Why should readers come and see In The Heights?

It will not only have you singing and dancing in your seat, but hopefully pulling your loved ones closer as it will remind you of who and what’s really important in your life.

This show is a modern musical infused with salsa rhythms by a ten piece Latino band. How much salsa did you have to learn for this role? What things did you have to do to prepare for the role?

Luckily for me, I have spent many Sunday nights at the “Nite Cat” in Melbourne honing my salsa skills on the dance floor – Ha! Amy Campbell is doing a wonderful job getting me up to scratch!

With any piece it really revolves around finding where it lives inside of you. The best part of getting to reprise a role is the opportunity to go deeper and discover more. A process which I’m thoroughly enjoying.

In The Heights plays the Sydney Opera House as part of Sydney Festival from January 16th to January 20th. For more information and tickets please visit HERE