In The Heights, an American musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, has won four Tony awards and a Grammy and has been produced all over the world. Following a successful run at Southwark Playhouse last year, it returns to London with a limited run at King’s Cross Theatre, where Jade Ewen joins the cast. Here, Jade talks to London Calling about the show, her career and growing up in London.
It was through an association with musical theatre that Jade Ewen was first brought to public attention – a rather big association, in fact. In 2009, Andrew Lloyd Webber had been roped in to write a song in our annual desperate attempt to win the Eurovision Song Contest, and he accompanied Ewen on piano as she sang at the live final. Placed fifth, she is still our most successful Eurovision act in over a decade. A Sylvia Young Theatre School pupil who won the role of Nala in the West End production of The Lion King at the age of 12, Ewen was more prepared for this high drama experience than most. Indeed, as she tells London Calling while on a break from rehearsals for the forthcoming musical In The Heights, it’s onstage where she is most comfortable, where “everything makes sense”.
Lin-Manuel Miranda started working on In The Heights while he was still a student in Connecticut in the late 90s. Based on his own experiences of growing up in Washington Heights, New York, the musical was his love letter to a deprived yet often joyous and ethnically diverse city neighbourhood. Promising Philadelphia born playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes drew on her own inner-city experiences when she was brought in to write the book a few years later. Does Ewen relate to her character Vanessa, a dreamer who wants a better life? “Oh absolutely, yes of course, because she’s from an underprivileged background, she lives in the ghetto, she feels like she wants more, she has bigger aspirations and she just wants to get out. She’s very strong and determined and focused, she’s got this fighting spirit; she’s quite sassy. It’s very easy for me to step into her shoes because so much of her character is me.”
Ewen grew up in Plaistow (pronounced ‘Plah-stow’ for anyone not in the know). What are her memories of the area? “My childhood is very mixed because I grew up in Plaistow and literally on a council estate. I remember going to primary school with my dad. He can’t see, he has a guide dog, so everyone in our area knew us. We’d be running behind him to school because him and the dog would be walking so fast!” A scholarship to Sylvia Young was the first of many twists and turns in her career: “I went from being in a primary school that had no uniforms to having to wear a blazer and a tie, getting on the tube to Baker Street, being in the middle of central London in a really posh private school, dancing every day and then coming back home.”
There is something very ‘big city’ about this contrast, and Ewen thinks this connects to the appeal of the show. “It doesn’t really matter that it’s about a Latino community (a friend helped her with her ‘Jennifer Lopez New York/Latino accent’) - it’s [relatable for] anybody that’s from a city. There are so many cultural influences, it’s all about family and aspiration.” She has always felt the push and pull of various cultures: “Caribbean culture is really strong, and my dad’s Sicilian, so I’m always somewhere in the middle, just trying to stay afloat!”
Ewen’s career path has hardly been linear. Television roles followed her early success in The Lion King, while a few pre-Lloyd-Webber attempts at pop stardom left her in A&R limbo with girl group Trinity Stone for a couple of years. Then after Eurovision, another all-female pop group came knocking on her door: one of the most successful of all time. Ewen is still technically a member of the Sugababes, but perhaps she arrived a bit late to the party, just prior to their indefinite hiatus. Her future in musical theatre seems more secure: next year sees her join the cast of a revival of Godspell.
Are these twists and turns all part of the same plan? “I think I’ve gone backwards and forwards with that and I think part of me - maybe this is the performer - always wants to be in control. Actually you’re not in control at all! The only moment you can take control is when you’re on stage delivering those lines, or the song. I was just stressing out, like ‘No, I need to be like this’, and you need to be able to just accept change. So right now I don’t really have a plan - I’m just going from one experience to the next. There is a plan ultimately out there; I don’t know what it is yet, I don’t need to know. But I’m just going to go with it.”
In The Heights opens this weekend at the King’s Cross Theatre. To book tickets, see website.
Read more at http://londoncalling.com/features/in-the-heights-interview-with-jade-ewen#jPxADaph3lxydDb1.99