By Bill Hirschman
Actors Playhouse director David Arisco teasingly asks the reporter doing a story on the upcoming musical The Last Five Years, “Don’t you want to take a picture of our Broadway star?’
His joke is that while former Miamian Janet Dacal qualifies for the soubriquet, Dacal seems as far from a temperamental egotistical diva as you can imagine.
With a honey warm smile, flashing eyes and an unaffected demeanor, Dacal looks like the girl next door — if your neighborhood is Hialeah and the girl is the kind of fetching vision who half the boys have a crush on.
But her words exude that positivity that actors require to survive the vagaries of seductive triumphs such as her Drama Desk Award-winning supporting role in In The Heights and disappointments such as headlining the Broadway show Wonderland that failed to catch on with the public.
“Those are the things that make you question (yourself,)” she said before a rehearsal last week. “They push you forward: You have a choice. You can make it something that will stop and break you down, or you’re going to push through it and grow.”
Dacal is back in Miami as one of the two characters in Jason Robert Brown’s cult musical charting a couple who meet, marry and breakup over five years. The twist is that they tell the story separately in numbers in which he retells the tale chronologically start-to-finish and she tells it in reverse order, with them interacting only once, when their timelines converge in the middle of the show for their wedding.
“The music is delicious,” she said. Like any actress, she draws on her personal life and from the people she has met to fuel the character. But to navigate the unusual format, she has practiced the work going forward and comparing where she is in the script to where her acting partner Christopher Kent is in the arc of the relationship.
She thinks she has the better journey. Before the show starts, “I build myself up to that (tragic) place that is the end and, just luckily, I get to end on a happy note. So when this is done, I’m flying high.” She laughed. “And Chris ends up in the gutter, so I’m grateful for that.”
Working with her is pleasure for Kent, as well, who played opposite her and Oscar Cheda in the same space in 2006 for Five Course Love.
“I love working with Janet,” Kent wrote in an email. “She’s naturally funny and is a truthful actress who sings from her soul. Working with Janet is a blessing. She’s present in every moment, constantly evolving, and that is a beautiful quality onstage and off. What more could you ask for?”
The gig is a homecoming of sorts for Dacal. Although she was born and raised in Los Angeles, she has told interviewers that she considers Miami her home. She and part of her Cuban-born family moved to Dade County when she was 17, and she attended Coral Park High.
Once here, she connected with the Cuban culture that had been absent other than in her home life in California. It’s that cultural riff that she misses having lived in New York on and off since 2002: “It’s a dream to come back and recharge my Cuban battery, going to the juice bar, eating cortaditos, pastelitos cubanos, croquetas. It’s food for my soul.”
It also meant reconnecting with old friends and bringing her mother over from Naples to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Although she has loved performing since she was a child, her initial interest in Miami was singing and she backed up Gloria Estefan and Jon Secada. Things changed at the end of 2001 when a friend encouraged her to try out to replace the lead actress when Actors Playhouse briefly brought back its hit Four Guys Named Jose…and Una Mujer Named Maria after a few month’s hiatus.
Soon after, she began shuttling back and forth to New York. Her positive attitude was sorely tested.
“I didn’t know what was ahead. I didn’t know anything. I was out of my mind. Of course, I was scared,” she said, her voice climbing an octave. “I used to just take the A train because it was the one I knew how to take to get to my friend’s house.… I was in these terrifying audition rooms and there are these people behind this desk and I’m asking, ‘What am I doing here?’ Then I go see Patti LuPone in Gypsy and I go. ‘I have no right to be performing on stage. What am I doing?’”
But her inner resources pulled her through. “We tell ourselves ‘no’ before anyone else tells us ‘no’ and if you’re telling yourself ‘no,’ how is it ever going to happen? The minute we get out of our own way and try something, it may not be what you envision it to be, but it is one step closer than if you had not tried it at all.”
Her first audition was for an early reading of a sketchy work by “this kid Lin Manuel Miranda who only had about five songs,” she said. That began a five-year process of development readings, workshops and weekly get-togethers as Miranda threw out songs and added new ones about a supportive community in the Washington Heights barrio in New York, featuring a score that encompassed hip-hop and Latin music.
She returned home to portray the Star To Be in Actors Playhouse’s Annie in 2003. The following year, she made her Broadway debut in the ensemble of 2004’s Good Vibrations, a Beach Boys jukebox musical that closed quickly.
Janet Dacal will talk about “what it takes to make in on Broadway” in a talkback and coaching master class she will teach from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, at the Little Haiti Cultural Arts Center, 212-260 NE 59 Terrace in Miami.
The fee is $50. For more information, call (415) 952-8226 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
After the discussion, participants will perform a song they have chosen before coming and will be critiqued. They must bring sheet music to give to the class’ piano accompanist.
Back at Actors Playhouse in 2006, she played five different characters in Five Course Love. That performance won her a Carbonell Award nomination.
Finally, in 2007, she moved for good to New York and reveled in In The Heights’ initial off-Broadway run. She had also begun working on a degree in communications from Florida International University, which she completed before Heights opened on Broadway in 2008.
In The Heights was a surprising mainstream hit. Dacal created the role of Carla, a gossipy but vivacious spitfire of a beautician in a role that called on her triple threat skills as an actress, singer and dancer. It was a glorious time as can be seen in the PBS documentary about the making of the show or the YouTube clip of Miranda accepting Tony Awards with the cast behind him including Dacal. She left the show eventually, but returned in 2010 to play the romantic lead, Nina. Actors Playhouse is mounting the musical next March, although Dacal won’t be in it. “I’ve offered to give them whatever information they want,” she said.
Then came the lead role in Wonderland by the prolific Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde), a radical modern reinvention of Alice in Wonderland. She was working with Wildhorn almost from the musical’s inception and through its massive overhauls from tryouts in Houston and Tampa until it opened on Broadway in 2011. She received good critical notices and enthusiastic support from audiences, but the show didn’t last three months.
She doesn’t regret a moment. “That was really interesting even though the show didn’t have the success everybody hoped a show would have, but I loved it so much.”
Among the lessons were learning how a star helps lead the troupe on and off stage, setting tone, boosting morale and providing a positive example for the rest of the company, she said. “You are putting out there who you are in the world as a person, and what you bring spiritually, and your attitude, all of that is so, so important. When you’re creating with others, we have to be vulnerable and open.”
The artistic work aside, Wonderland and most other shows provide Dacal with an extra gift, she said. “Besides being able to do what I love, it’s the friendships that come out of it that are forever, I feel like I always find someone always in each show that’s like, ‘You’re in my car of the rest of my life. You’re coming along with me for my ride.’ ”
Wonderland also meant that unlike many of her colleagues, Dacal has been blessed with the opportunity to create roles in three Broadway shows: “It’s magical, because it’s what every actor wants to do, is create.”
But that carries slightly surreal and unexpected aspects, like listening to your voice on an original cast album that will be piece of Broadway history,
“To see In The Heights has gone on and out in the world and just to see this character Carla that I” helped create. “I had no clue that I was putting a stamp on it. And now it’s there for all time and everyone who does the show has to do it that way,” she said without a shred of ego, only wonder. “It’s crazy…. You’re forming what the character will be forever.”
Her success also has resulted in young theater professionals asking her advice whether to pursue it as a career. “I always say, first look to God and then look inside. He’ll tell you.… He doesn’t put these things in your heart and your mind if you’re not capable. I mean, I never dreamed of being a financial planner,” she said with another laugh.
“You’re fully equipped with everything you need already. It’s about you trusting and going out there and making it happen. If you feel like you’re ready to take the leap, take the leap; if you’re not and you feel like you need to do some more work, do that. But act on it. To sit and wish.… “ She shook her head. “In the end, you have to take action, you have to move forward somehow.”
Some of this determination comes from her upbringing, she said. “We live in a country where we have the opportunity to do that. My parents are Cuban, something that is very ingrained in my being. My parents did not have the opportunity to follow their dreams; they had to start from zero and learn a new language, work really hard. And they instilled those things in me and made me believe that I could do anything I wanted to do here. So I take that with me everywhere I go.”
It also has honed an outlook that can be philosophical about success or failure, such as when she has not gotten a part she has worked on in developmental readings.
“You realize you are more than just what you do. You do give it everything mentally, physically, spiritually, everything you have, you put it into your work. So the natural connection is to say, ‘That’s mine.’ But nothing is ours. You learn this through time and with experience and a little maturity, too. In the end, it’s really about the moment. You do it and take it for what it is at that moment and release it and let it go. If in the future, it doesn’t come around to you, it’s not as hard to set it free.”
Other than the current show, Dacal has no high-profile projects on her plate this instant other than some penciled in gigs such as going to Los Angeles for TV pilot audition seasons.
But that has a positive side, as well. It gives her the time to work on a personal project she’s longed to focus on: a CD album of Cuban lullabies employing a local producer and musicians she worked with as a teenager in Miami.
“These are songs I grew up listening to and my parents grew up listening to. My grandparents would sing them to me, so I just feel it’s important to have them in one collected place…and be available to the world,” she said.
“My uncle asked me, ‘Why are you doing this’ and I played a song for him. He said, ‘I haven’t heard that since I was like seven years old!’ And I said, ‘That’s why.’ “
Once again, it’s about embracing a new challenge.
“That’s what’s so wonderful about life. It’s about putting yourself in uncomfortable positions. See how far you can get. What’s the point of living life if it’s not full, if it’s safe and comfortable?…That’s what exciting.”
The Last Five Years plays Dec. 7-30 in the balcony theater of Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. Performances 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $40-48. Visit actorsplayhouse.org or call (305) 441-4181.