Playwright Matthew Lopez knows the exact moment he got the theater bug — and he's got the picture to prove it.
A faded snapshot from 1980 shows a nearly 4-year-old boy in the Broadway dressing room of his aunt, actress Priscilla Lopez who was starring in "A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine." His eyes are wide and wondrous as she puts on her makeup and transforms herself for the matinee show for her Tony Award-winning performance.
Click! Destiny set.
"The course of my life was set on that trip and on that particular day," says Lopez, 37, the writer of "The Whipping Man" and other plays. "From that day forward, there was nothing else I wanted to do but work in the theater. Look at that picture. I'm like the junkie with his first fix."
That was the second stage show he ever saw. His first happened the day before when he saw Sandy Duncan in "Peter Pan," performing choreography by Jerome Robbins, a figure whose work would have a profound effect of members of his family.
Robbins also directed and choreographed the musical and film of "West Side Story," which has a connection to Lopez's family as well as his new play, "Somewhere." (The title comes from "West Side Story"'s classic song of yearning that begins, "There's a place for us/Somewhere a place for us.")
The family drama — with original music and dance — was previously produced in California but Lopez says this version "is a great leap forward for the play." It began previews at Hartford Stage April 3, opens April 9 and runs through May 4.
The production also stars his aunt, who was nominated for a Tony Award for the original 1975 production of "A Chorus Line." (She sang "Nothing," and the iconic "What I Did for Love"). She won a Tony a few years later for "Hollywood/Ukraine.")
"Somewhere" centers on a struggling Puerto Rican family in 1959 living on West 65th Street, a neighborhood at the time of blacks and Hispanics. The apartment buildings were eventually torn down to make way to build Lincoln Center, which was part of city planner Robert Moses' transformative vision — for good and ill — for New York.
When Lopez's fictional Candelaria family receives an eviction notice to leave their rented apartment in 30 days, tensions arise between a defiant, hope-filled mother and her practical-minded son who has given up on his dream of becoming a dancer in order to help the family.
"[The mother on the play, Inez] wants so much for her children," says Priscilla Lopez during a joint luncheon interview with her nephew at Dish during a recent break in rehearsals."She tries to keep things afloat, and no matter what is happening it's all good. I've always said [the character is like] my mother but my daughter says it's me."
"I always knew that the play would be a battle of wills between dreams and reality" says the playwright," and the attempt to make those two things co-exist. Because dreams without reality is delusion and reality without dreams is too depressing to even contemplate."
'West Side Story' Locale
Before the West Side neighborhood was completely decimated, Robbins used the area to shoot the film version of "West Side Story." If you look quick you might see Lopez' aunt and father in the film. Matthew Lopez's father, Frank and Aunt Priscilla — she was 12 years old at the time — were extras in the film.
"My father is in the movie," says the playwright, the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Polish-Russian mother, both teachers "He is very visible in the playground prologue when they're beating up Baby John and you see this 14-year-old boy running up to this break in the fence, watching the action, in the center in the movie frame."
The film "West Side Story" was special, too, for Matthew Lopez not only because his father is in it and that it is a great musical but because it was the first time he saw Puerto Ricans depicted in any popular entertainment, even though George Chakiris was Greek [heritage] and Natalie Wood was Russian [heritage].
"But these were Puerto Rican characters on screen and that's all that mattered. That meant a lot to me being raised in a part of the country [the Panhandle of Florida] where we were the only Puerto Rican family.
Through being an extra in the film, Priscilla Lopez became friends with the dancers and learned about the New York Performing Arts High School that she later attended, and which changed her life.
"I remember my mother asking me what if I didn't get into that school and I said 'Then I'm not going to school. I'll go out into the world — and I meant it. My mother wanted this for me, too, mind you. She made clothes for people in order to give me [singing] lessons. But she also said, 'Maybe you should study typing so you have something to fall back on.' And I said 'I don't want something to fall back on. It's like I gave myself no other choice."