On January 21, 2017, Healy wasn't thinking about St. Lou Fringe success, much less making it off-Broadway. That Saturday, the real question for The Gringo was simply how COCA could fit all the excited people who'd turned out for its staged reading into the facility's small blackbox theater.
While that evening offered the second staged reading, it was the first time the story would be performed in full. Theatergoers showed up in droves, forming a line that stretched through COCA's lobby and down the connecting hallway. Staffers had to add chairs along the walls and put the start time on hold as they worked to accommodate the crowd. By the time the theater reached capacity, a long line still waited outside. Healy had people put down their contact information, already mulling the idea of another reading to accommodate the demand.
St. Louis-based actor Jon Hey witnessed the incredible reaction.
"It seems so passe to say it was electric, but it just was kind of alive," Hey remembers. "The audience was excited and very supportive, the cast was in it and supportive and really excited — I just didn't get the feeling that anybody had been dragged to the theater that night."
The enthusiasm only continued after the show, as audience members chattered about their favorite songs, characters and parts of the story. Hey found himself swept up in similar feelings. "A couple of the songs we just thought were brilliant," he recalls, "not only in how it was staged but how it was written and what he was trying to depict and the story he was trying to tell."
Original cast member Alicia Reve Like can't put her finger on what made that reading so successful — maybe it's because people know Healy is talented and want to see his work, she suggests, or because it was free, or simply because of the magic of theater. A professional singer and actor as well as a COCA teaching artist, she will be reprising her leading role, Kahlo, in the fringe festival production.
"The reason why I've stuck around besides just looking at the project and being like, 'This is so cool!' is it's one of the few times where as an artist I get to use my art as activism. It doesn't come along often," says Like. "So it's not often that as an actor you get a script, you look at it and you're like, 'Whoa, this has to be done.'"
The crowd at the January 2017 reading only affirmed her feeling that The Gringo is something special.
"That also solidified for me, like, 'We have a gem on our hands. Like, maybe we have the next hot thing in the country.' Because everything has a starting point. Like, you don't get Hamilton overnight. You don't get Hamilton in a year. You get Hamilton over years. And Colin has already put in years of writing and composing."
Since that reading, The Gringo has seen its fair share of changes. Healy has made the show a collaborative effort, looking to his cast and team members such as Page-Sanders for their thoughts and ideas on the work. Page-Sanders stresses the need for honesty and authenticity in the process, rather than simply trying to create a good book.
"Because we are dealing with heavy social issues — police brutality, violence, the struggle of people of color in this country right now — we have to be completely honest. We have to be completely open," he says. "The question is, what message are we trying to say? What message are we trying to send out to the world, and how do we do that? Especially emotional moments, because there are many emotional moments in The Gringo. How do we create an emotional moment with a message and not whitewash the message?"
Now as the show sees its final edits and rehearsals, the next question is whether The Gringo can draw the kind of crowd it saw at that staged reading to its performance at St. Lou Fringe — and see life beyond the festival.
"Where I want it to go, of course Broadway," Healy says with a small laugh. "I want it to be a licensable product that's accessible for casts of any color, creed or financial ability to put on, as simple or as complicated as you want it to be."
And if that's all The Gringo ever does, Healy says, it will be victory in his book. But of course, he'd like it to have a life of its own before becoming a licensable product, and Broadway is always the dream.
He's not the only one with such a vision. Both Page-Sanders and Like express similar hopes about The Gringo, and many others have bought into its message along the way. After all, it's not every day you find a story that resonates with so many people — and amplifies the voices of people who too often go unheard.
"I believe so much in this project that it legit is like, 'Oh, this is a Tony winner,'" Like says. "And I want to be on the fricking train when it's a Tony winner."