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Hitting "Heights" Priscilla Lopez returns to musicals--and to her roots--in the rousing "In the Heights."
Priscilla Lopez has crossed over, and now she's crossing back--in more ways than one. The Broadway star who originated the role of Diana Morales in A Chorus Line and won a Tony for A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine has in the last decade appeared mostly in non-musical plays, and she's found herself playing the sorts of Latin roles she had seldom or never taken before.

This Bronx-born child of Puerto Rican immigrants once built a successful musical theatre career with only passing reference to her ethnicity. That changed with such dramatic roles as Frida Kahlo in Goodbye, My Friduchita and a series of parts in plays by Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics, The Beauty of the Father). Now, with a supporting role in the vibrant new musical In the Heights, set in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights, Lopez has come full circle, integrating both her heritage and her musical theatre resume.

"My character doesn't have her own song, though she does a lot of singing," Lopez says from her home in Montclair, NJ. "Initially I was concerned about that, but then I thought, 'Nah, this is a good way to get back into musical theatre.' " She was sold as soon as she heard the music: "I said, 'This is really different.' I loved it, th mix of rap, Latin music, and Broadway. I knew we'd get all those audiences: the young, the Latin, and the Broadway audiences, the true-blue fans."

Lopez plays Camila Rosario, one of the parents of the show's young female lead, a teenager concerned about the financial strain her college education is placing on her family. Though hers is not a lead, Lopez says, "It's pretty all-consuming. I haven't done a big musical in a long time. It's complicated--there are so many people that if someone's out for a night, it causes a chain reaction. Just when you think things are calming down, the salad gets tossed again. Since rehearsals, we have not calmed down on this show. After a while, you feel like you never the theatre."

Lopez, who has a son in college and a 17-year-old daughter, finds a lot of things in common with her character, Camila. "Oh, we're very similar," she says with a chuckle. "Can't afford college? I can identify with that. The different wills within a marriage, being part of the Latino community--I can relate to all these things." Though she once resisted the pressure to be typecast in Latino roles, she's found that getting cast in "mother" roles puts her in touch with her family, her community, and her past: One woman recently approached her after a performance of In the Heights and said, "I think we're related," then supplied the proof. And she certainly can't complain too much about getting as J. Lo's mom in the film Maid in Manhattan (no relation there, alas).

Her return to musicals puts her in competition with her own past, in a sense: Not only has A Chorus Line made a triumphant return with a new cast, but so has the show that provided her first Broadway success, and introduced her to director/choreographer Michael Bennett (not to mention her pit-musician husband Vincent Fanuele): 1971's groundbreaking Company. A walk down Shubert Alley must feel a bit like Old Home Week for Lopez.

"The original cast went opening night and had a reunion," Lopez says of the current Chorus Line revival. "It's the weirdest thing--it was like watching the show in double vision. I saw both the show in front me and the show that I did years ago. The show is so ingrained in my every cell that when the new actors would step forward I could see the original people step forward."

Among the many firsts of the show's watershed 1975 production--that it was developed through workshops and based on the dancers' real-life experiences, that it had no overture and an unconventional structure--Lopez remembers one oft-overlooked detail.

"It was the first show that used an electronic light board," she points out. "The stagehands' union freaked out--they thought it would put them all out of a job. The light board would sometimes take off on its own and it would be three cues ahead of us. That was fun."

Such details date Lopez, of course, but she doesn't mind. Her Broadway career started at age 19 with a role in the ill-fated 1966 musicalization of Breakfast at Tiffany's, and looking back over the ups and downs of the intervening years, she's unabashedly nostalgic.

"There's so much about the old days that I miss," Lopez says. "Like actually rehearsing in a theatre, and auditioning in a theatre. Now they audition and rehearse in these rehearsal rooms. And going out of town--I used to love to go out of town, do four weeks in Boston. People say, 'Oh it's economics.' Wasn't Broadway always about economics?"

As In the Heights proves, Lopez is still in the game and on the cutting-edge. At 37 Arts, it's an Off-Broadway show--for the moment. Though no one should never second-guess a show's chances for a Main Stem transfer, In the Heights' strong reviews and audiences certainly point in that direction.

We have a humble suggestion, though, if the show moves: Write a song for Priscilla Lopez. The original singer of "What I Did for Love" can handle it.

Pictured above: Lopez and John Herrera in In the Heights, which plays at 37 Arts, 450 West 37th St. (212) 307-4100.