Luis Salgado is the definition of a multi-hyphenate. He’s a performer who has been in the original casts of Broadway shows (In The Heights, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Rocky, and On Your Feet!). He’s performed and assisted choreographers in the films Enchanted and Step Up 2. He’s directed musicals all over the world including last year’s In the Heights in Washington, DC that garnered nine Helen Hayes Awards, two of which went to Salgado for choreography and directing. He also created R.Evolución Latina, an organization that works with thousands of Latino children each year. He is, in a word, amazing.
When I first met Luis, he talked to me about being in the cast of On Your Feet on Broadway.
“For me, there are two different things that are imperative when it comes to this show,” he said. “One, it’s my history. Not just culturally, but speaking about my career as well. When I came to New York City, my first Broadway show was meant to be Mambo Kings, and that show didn’t make it. It was a hard time and I remember reading on one of the Broadway sites, something like “the show is full of Latinos, it will never make it to Broadway.” Ten years later, it’s being embraced. In The Heights opened a giant door and that door has multiplied. You no longer have to come out on the stage with a gun in your hand or with cocaine in your pocket as a Latino character. On Your Feet Is another opportunity for so many Latinos to be proud and for the world to understand this story of acceptance and cultural awareness. I’m a part of art that contributes to our society and I’m so proud of that.”
Salgado is more than “a part” of that art. He’s at the forefront of creating both art and opportunities for people who haven’t had them before. At the mention of R.Evolución Latina, Salgado becomes visibly energized.
“R.Evolución Latina is right now in the process of the Dance-a-Thon, where we fund-raise so we can do more programming. Last year, I was in Mexico during the first earthquake and then the second one was the devastating one. We were able to put money into helping there as well as coordinating logistics with some artists locally who knew how to get into zones. The way we do things, we try to do everything through the artistic community first. The second place our money went was to Puerto Rico after the hurricane. That was backed by the Hispanic Federation and by Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS. So Dance-a-Thon is where we collect the funds that we can then attribute where there’s need as well as to fund our programs. It’s a month of fundraising from the volunteers and students with a five hour dance-a-thon at the end. Last year we were able to raise a little over $75,000 and most of it has gone to the necessities of helping in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and our scholarships.”
When the first earthquake hit Mexico, Salgado was teaching, something he says he does whenever given the chance.
“I go around to the places I’ve been a part of—Mexico, Argentina, Columbia and Peru for the most part and Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic occasionally—and I do workshops. Either through R.Evolución Latina or Salgado Productions. I scout talent, give out scholarships to bring people to New York to learn here. Once they’re in New York, they’re here for two weeks to a month, and we try to give them the most complete experience we can. Sometimes that involves taking them out to places to meet the community or see shows, but the main focus is the train them in the acting, singing and dancing they don’t always get to experience in their environment.”
That training includes opportunities to learn from the best in the business.
“We partner with people who can give them the training they need,” he said. “For example, Ian Hersey who worked at The Public, began partnering with us probably eight years ago. So he comes in and teaches Shakespeare to these people that will challenge our Spanish-speakers to not only speak English but to speak it in a Shakespearean way.”
That challenge of using language as a teaching tool is something Salgado is familiar with. His Helen Hayes-winning production of In The Heights gained notoriety not just for its artistic merits, but for being performed predominantly in Spanish.
“I remember being in the workshop for the Broadway show and looking at the Kevin Rosario character,” Salgado explained. “In my head, I remember thinking a lot about a piece of theater, a Puerto Rican play called La Carreta. And La Carreta, for me, was the essence of the father of Nina Rosario. That play, whether Lin knew that play or not, carried a lot of the background story of Kevin Rosario. La Carreta was about the political dilemma between being a part of the United States or fighting for independence. That’s the broader scope of the play, but the dichotomy of which that theme comes out is through two characters, Don Chago and Luis. Don Chago is the grandfather and Luis is the young guy. Don Chago was a farmer working with sugar cane and coffee and wants to fight for the land but Luis was the guy saying that the future is in industry and that’s coming from the States. When Kevin Rosario in In The Heights sings, ‘My father was a farmer, his father was a farmer, and you will be a farmer but I told him, ‘Papi, I’m sorry, I’m going farther,’’ right in the middle of that line, Luis from La Carreta comes into play. And from that moment in the workshop, I knew that at some point I needed to direct In The Heights and approach it with the scope of La Carreta. Almost ten years later, I got the chance.”
Whereas the formula for the Broadway production was basically 80% English and 20% Spanish, Salgado got to flip that and his Heights featured 80% Spanish and 20% English.
“On Broadway,” he said, “the audience got a thrill out of hearing the Spanish language like that in the musical so for me, it was the opposite question. How does the English come into play? We got 18 Helen Hayes Award nominations from which we won nine of them, so something felt real and organic and relevant or needed.”
His production of In The Heights was a home run with critics but I asked if he read reviews of his shows. He affirmed that yes he did but his reason why surprised me.
“As a performer, I don’t care. Most of the time, I’m really proud of the work I’m doing. It’s new work, something that’s never existed, and we are doing what we love. But as I started directing, I began going to the reviews of other people’s work to find out what worked and what didn’t. For instance, if I was directing Company, I’d want to read the reviews from productions over the years to see what worked and what didn’t. Then I want to analyze what of those things that worked can I own and what of the things that didn’t work can I attempt to make better? Reviews have become a little more familiar to my processing of developing. You learn so much. Everyone has an opinion and there are a million ways to do a show. So what’s the way I want to do it?”
Salgado has directed shows across America and all over Latin America. After having spent time on Broadway, I asked if there was a difference in making art on the Great White Way as opposed to theatre in other places.
“The truth is, yes there’s a difference,” he said. “There’s more money on Broadway than in other places for one. But I’ve been going to Latin America a lot to direct, choreograph and write shows and one of the things that gives me access to those countries is the fact that I’ve been on Broadway. I’ve been doing these smaller pieces with a lot less money in the budget or festivals in New York where you only get six hours to tech. In doing the big productions, I’ve realized there’s so much you don’t need. On Broadway, you get access to everything you could want, but as a director, I have to be smart enough to know what I actually need to tell the story. I wish there was a world where Broadway salary and benefits were present all the time but you have to ask yourself what you really want. What I want is to study and learn every day. I want to get better.”
“Is that the key to longevity in your business?” I ask.
“I think so,” he says. “I remember when I came to New York, I did a movie for PBS and lots of people I admired were in it. I was new to the city and they were talking about how hard the business is and how every show you close seemed like it could be your last one. Something in my mind told me I didn’t want to feel that way. It’s always been about doing what I love. Doing what I love is not Broadway. Broadway came to fruition and became a reality and God, thank you for that blessing. But going to Columbia and doing work there is something I love. Working with Sergio Trujillo is doing something I love. Doing a show that only uses dance to tell the story is something I love. I just want to do what I love.”
When I asked him how he handles the periods of time when no one is paying him to do what he loves, he, again, surprised me with his answer.
“I don’t want this to sound cocky but I’m never not doing art,” he said. “That’s because I get to do so many layers of art. If I’m not working in a show, I get to teach. If I’m not teaching, I’m choreographing or directing. I’m still shaping my craft even if I’m not in a show. I’m developing a new script or I’m doing R.Evolución Latina which means I’m promoting the arts. I’ve found a bit of a net where I’m always involved in what I love.”
At the end, I wanted to ask him about the show that had originally brought us together, On Your Feet.
“Did you know I got hurt during the workshop of On Your Feet?” he asked. “I hurt my hamstring and had to be in recovery for months. That was the span of time between the workshop and the show coming to Broadway and I feel blessed that Sergio and Jerry still wanted me to be in the show. That was loyalty, and family and an artistic community that holds each other together. That was the initial event in my On Your Feet experience.”
He explained that as a member of the ensemble, it was a weird experience for him, not because of what he was doing, but because of what he had done before Broadway.
“I was a concert dancer for Paulina Rubio and Thalia and I left that because I wanted to tell stories. Now here I was doing a Broadway show that’s 50% a concert and 50% a story. So it was interesting to have that artistic challenge to motivate myself for that 50% I left because I felt it was confetti so I could be a part of the 50% that was telling a story about Gloria and Emilio, who I love.”
But it’s what happened after his time in On Your Feet that’s provided the most interesting plot twist.
“When we were in Chicago, I remember sitting next to Jerry Mitchell and asking why the lights were positioned one way or asking the tech guys what different instruments did. I had a hunger for learning. Little did I know that two years later, I would be in Oregon watching theater, about to say yes to a contract in Columbia when Jerry called me to ask if I would direct On Your Feet in Holland. How many people could’ve been selected for that position but Jerry believed in me enough to know I could contribute the cultural background needed for the Dutch cast but also have the knowledge of why things were decided in our experience. The fact that Jerry Mitchell trusted me to direct his show in Holland. I’m so grateful and it validated a lot of my passion and hunger for learning. Now I can’t stop.”