Penn State alumnus Jeffrey Nuñez feels right at home IN THE HEIGHTS
By Jennifer Pencek
ome actors claim they fell in love with performing before they uttered their first words. But for Jeffrey Nuñez, a member of the cast in the touring Broadway production of the Tony Award-winning best musical IN THE HEIGHTS, the discovery came much later — and by accident.
Nuñez, who graduated from Penn State in 2009 with a bachelor of fine arts in Musical Theatre, was at Freeport High School in Long Island, New York, when he thought he would give the high school choir a try. Despite always enjoying the idea of performing, he never “did anything with it” until the choir.
“Then I did some musical theatre. And at the end of my junior year, I decided to pursue musical theatre,” Nuñez says. “I went through the audition process for schools and decided to come to Penn State.”
It was at Penn State’s exclusive Musical Theatre program that Nuñez really learned about the life of an actor, including long hours and exhausting work. When peers would say how much fun it must be to be a theatre major, Nunez reminded them it was more than met the eye.
“I would tell them I have class from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., have two hours to eat dinner, and then go to rehearsals from 7 to 11, and at some point do homework,” he recalls. “I had a lot of friends who didn’t have class until 2 p.m.”
Cary Libkin, head of Penn State’s Musical Theatre program, agrees that many people don’t comprehend what it takes to get a bachelor of fine arts in theatre.
“Most students probably don’t think much about the program. But people tend to think of it as a fun major, mistaking the fact that it’s fun to be in shows for how intense the training must be,” Libkin says.
“It’s not an easy living, but it’s very fulfilling,” Nuñez says. “You spend a lot of time with very little money, and working at restaurants, and dealing with a lot of things you don’t want to deal with. But you have to be secure in yourself and be willing to work very hard.”
His work is certainly paying off. Nuñez returns to Penn State in the Center for the Performing Arts presentation of IN THE HEIGHTS October 18 at Eisenhower Auditorium. Nuñez performs in the ensemble and understudies three male leads — Usnavi, Sonny, and Piragua Guy.
Some critics liken IN THE HEIGHTS to another Broadway darling — West Side Story — because both are set in Latino communities in Manhattan. But Nuñez thinks IN THE HEIGHTS is actually closer to Fiddler on the Roof since both concern family dynamics and communities struggling with change.
As he researched IN THE HEIGHTS for an English paper at Penn State, Nuñez says he found a home.
“Right before spring break (2007) I went home, and I went to see it Off-Broadway with my sister, and it was life changing,” he says. “It’s special to me because I saw my own family up there, and it was the first time I had really seen that. I wrote a paper for my musical theatre class about the representation of Latinos in musical theatre, and while West Side Story was a beautiful production of theatre, and I love it, that wasn’t my family up there.”
The journey to becoming part of IN THE HEIGHTS included stints at a car dealership, a marketing company, and numerous restaurants. But for Nuñez, being in the musical’s cast gives him a chance to proudly say, when asked what he does for a living, that he is an actor.
“I was waiting for this show, and I knew I could be in it and be happy for the rest of my life,” he says.
Libkin is happy for Nuñez and all Musical Theatre alumni who find acting work.
“Jeff has wanted to be in this show since it opened,” he says. “I know that he is thrilled to finally get a chance. A student majors in Musical Theatre to prepare them to work in the profession, so we keep careful track of our alumni. Their success means that the program is on track.”
After graduating from Penn State, Nuñez performed for Penn State Centre Stage, in the Broadway on Allen Street series, and in the New York Musical Theatre Festival, among other “small, random jobs here and there.”
While he’s unsure of his next step after the IN THE HEIGHTS tour ends in June 2012, Nuñez is certain of at least one thing — he followed his dream.
“People should always pursue what they love,” he says, “because in the end you’ll regret it if you don’t.”
Audio description, which is especially helpful to patrons with sight loss, is available for this performance at no extra charge to ticket holders. Artistic Viewpoints, an informal moderated discussion featuring a visiting artist, is offered in Eisenhower one hour before the performance and is free for ticket holders. Artistic Viewpoints regularly fills to capacity. Seating is available on a first-arrival basis.
IN THE HEIGHTS
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 18
Adult $59, $53
University Park Student $44, $38
18 and Younger $54, $48
Kish Bank sponsors the presentation.
FOX 8, ABC 23, and MAJIC 99 are the media sponsors.