WASHINGTON — Growing up, 16-year-old Mateo Ferro of Clarksburg High School watched Vanessa Hudgens in “High School Musical” and jammed out to the hip-hop show tunes of Lin-Manuel Miranda, never dreaming that he would one day cross paths with both on stage.
This week, he’ll do exactly that in Miranda’s pre-“Hamilton” Broadway debut “In the Heights,” which raps its way into the Kennedy Center for five days from Wednesday through Sunday.
“He is a legend, modern Shakespeare, [while] I’m a small-town kid from Maryland; I’m from Clarksburg, Maryland!” Ferro told WTOP. “I grew up being in love with [Hudgens], watching ‘High School Musical’ and seeing how big of an artist she is. … She came for ‘Gigi;’ it premiered at the Kennedy Center and went to Broadway. … I’m still star-struck. I’m still on Cloud Nine.”
Set in Miranda’s home neighborhood, the four-time Tony winner explores the largely Hispanic-American community of Washington Heights, New York City, over the course of three days. After the death of his Puerto Rican parents, Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) runs a small bodega, along with his spunky, socially conscious younger cousin Sonny (Ferro).
“You always hear about ‘Hamilton,’ but my favorite is ‘In the Heights,'” Ferro said. “I know this role inside and out. I feel like I’m similar. Sonny is a scrappy kid. … Growing up, I always hung out with the older kids; I have an older brother. [Sonny] is 15 living with his best friends, his older cousin [Usnavi] is in his 20s; Benny, his cousin’s best friend, he is in his 20s, too. Nobody takes him serious, so he has to [use] comedy to get through to people. I feel like I’m like that.”
As a young, scrappy and hungry kid, Ferro didn’t attempt theater arts until middle school.
“I had stage fright growing up,” Ferro said. “I did a small show for my class project, then I auditioned for the middle school play and I got the lead. After that, I kind of fell in love with it. It happens to a lot of people — if you do theater, trust me, you’ll fall in love with it.”
That project was the Rocky Hill Middle School production of Disney’s “Aladdin.”
“Everybody gets a packet [and] you check off who you want to be,” Ferro said. “I’m going down, checking everything [and] got to Aladdin and I’m like, ‘I’m not checking that off.’ … I definitely did not think I would get it. I did not want to get it. I was scared of being the lead and having to sing; that’s a whole new world! … I got the role. After that I was like, yo, I like this!”
Still, the teenage soccer player never fathomed theater as a serious career path.
“I loved it, but I was still playing soccer on the side. My focus wasn’t on it,” Ferro said. “Then, going into high school, I did ‘In the Heights’ my freshman year. I played Sonny. Then in the summer, I got a scholarship from a beautiful program called Young Artists of America. … They were doing ‘In the Heights,’ too … so I auditioned and got Usnavi, who is the lead in the show.”
It’s just one of many opportunities provided by the Strathmore-based nonprofit Young Artists of America (YAA), who recruited Ferro for their summer intensive program last summer. During this time, Ferro and colleagues took classes by day, then rehearsed the show by night.
“You always expect the best performing arts to be in New York, but they bring it to the DMV,” Ferro said. “It was great. The people there — Rolando Sanz, he is the owner; Terry Eberhardt, he is the leader of the program; and [YAA assistant director] Paul Heinemann — they all contributed to a program that just really helped. From that program, I got the professional aspect of it … the mindset. From there, I was like maybe I can do this sooner than I thought.”
Indeed, that next opportunity came soon with “Shrek” at the Way-Off Broadway dinner theater in Frederick, Maryland, a gig he almost didn’t take due to a family vacation conflict.
“We were supposed to go to Colombia — that’s where my parents are from,” Mateo said. “My mom was like, ‘Alright we’re going,’ and something in my gut was like, ‘I need to stay.’ … I got the role in the small professional theater in Frederick, so I was like, ‘Mom, I need to stay. This might be something I can put on my resume to help me out. … This is my time.'”
Sure enough, the vacation sacrifice paid off, not only allowing him to do “Shrek,” but also allowing him to stay in the D.C. area during the very moment his big break arrived.
“In December, Rolando Sanz was contacted by the casting directors at the Kennedy Center. They were looking for people for [‘In the Heights’],” Ferro said. “He said he thought of me right away and I really thank him for that. … So I did the audition at the Kennedy Center.”
The Dec. 12 audition came just a day before his 16th birthday. His audition song? “My Shot” from “Hamilton,” a fitting choice for a teenager who was not throwing away his shot.
“I was like, ‘I have to rap. Sonny raps,'” Ferro said. “I wasn’t that nervous, to be honest. I was like, ‘If I have a shot in life, it’s this one.’ So I go in there. … She gave me sides [dialogue pages] for Sonny and I was like, ‘I have these memorized, let me show that.’ So, I put the papers down and I go off the top of my head and did it memorized. She said, ‘Do you have somebody to stay with in New York?’ When she said that, I was like ‘Whoa, this might mean something.'”
A couple of weeks later, Ferro got an email inviting him to a callback in New York City. So, he went with his mom and auditioned for “In the Heights” director Stephanie Klemons.
“Right off the bat, I was star struck — she was the associate choreographer for ‘Hamilton!'” Ferro said in awe. “I [performed the songs] ‘96,000’ and ‘It Won’t Be Long Now.’ Trust me, I worked hours for this. If you’re ever going to get anything, it’s because of hard work. … I had a tech rehearsal in Frederick that night, so I had to travel really fast [to get back in time].”
On the ride home, Ferro sent a “thank you” email and got a very promising response.
“Thirty minutes pass and I get an official email: ‘Hey Mateo, are you confirmed about staying in New York on all these dates? You’re really being looked at to be Sonny.’ … They told me they’d give me an answer by Jan. 10, so Jan. 9 comes, I come home from school, get a call from New York. … ‘Hello?’ ‘Hey Mateo, it’s Laura. You booked it.’ I got crazy! I screamed and ran around the entire house. … It was the best day. The best moment of my life for sure.”
Having booked the gig, Ferro had to skip the last few weeks of “Shrek” at the Frederick dinner theater in order to travel to New York City to meet playwright Miranda. For the past few weeks, he’s been rehearsing with a cast of musical all-stars, including Ramos and Hudgens.
“I didn’t find out the cast until you guys did,” Ferro said. “I Googled ‘Kennedy Center cast’ and I read it. I go on Playbill.com, and I just see my name next to all of these big people. It was crazy. … I was like, ‘Is this real?’ I ran around the second I saw Vanessa Hudgens. [Then I read] Ana Villafañe. I saw her in ‘On Your Feet’ on Broadway in August. She doesn’t know who I am!”
In a way, the show’s theme is exactly like Ferro’s journey, turning immigrant hopes into American dreams, from Colombia to Clarksburg, Washington Heights to Washington D.C.
“Usnavi, his dream is to go back to Puerto Rico. Something in the story happens and it might change his heart back to Puerto Rico or it might change his heart to where he is, Washington Heights. You’ll have to come see the show to see what happens, but it’s about family, it’s about community, loving everyone around you and not taking anything for granted.”
Find more details on the Kennedy Center website. Listen to our full chat with Mateo Ferro below: