Broadway returned to Havana on Wednesday night for the first time in a half-century with a three-hour, invitation-only opening of the Tony Award winning musical Rent.
It was a natural to do on nochebuena, said the director, Miami native Andy Señor Jr., because the 1996 Tony winner about struggling artists in New York City mostly takes place on Christmas Eve.
Famed Broadway producer Robert Nederlander Jr. undertook the cross-Florida Straits collaboration between a Broadway creative team led by Señor and home-grown Cuban talent that, in two months, transformed 15 Cuban actors, ages 19 to 28, into a Broadway-style cast.
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“None of them had really done musical theater and this was their first time in the medium,” Señor said by telephone Christmas Day from Havana’s Hotel Nacional. “It’s a lost tradition here. It’s a lost art form.”
He declared the show’s opening before dignitaries and theater people invited by the Cuban National Council of Performing Arts a success. “We rocked the roof off the theater,” he said.
It opens to the public Friday night for three months of weekend shows. The first two weekends are sold out, he added. Tickets cost the equivalent of 50 cents. A top Broadway musical goes for $125 a ticket or more.
The show was fully licensed and completely cast before President Barack Obama’s surprise Dec. 17 announcement that he was resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, cut in 1961, and expanding trade and travel to the island.
Señor said cast and crew broke from rehearsal Dec. 17 to watch Cuban leader Raúl Castro tell the nation about the diplomatic breakthrough on a television brought into the Bertolt Brecht Theater, where the musical is being staged.
Then, five days later, they performed the show for family and friends, which Señor called “probably one of the most wild Rent experiences ever.” People in the audience “were screaming from the top, so excited, thrilled and crying after the show and so proud of the work that they did.”
Nederlander said in a news release last month that the Cuban Ministry of Culture invited his Worldwide Entertainment group to undertake “the first Broadway musical with a full cast, musicians and first-class production elements produced in the nation of Cuba in over 50 years.”
He chose Señor, calling him “a leading member of Broadway’s Cuban American community,” and cited his “long Rent pedigree” — starring as “Angel” in on Broadway, London, Asia, Los Angeles and U.S. national tours, then later as a protégé of the show’s original director, Michael Greif.
It uses an existing Spanish language translation provided by MTI, Music Theater International.
Señor, associate director of the upcoming musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan, On Your Feet, is artistic director of Miami’s District Stage Company.
He said his Cuban-born mother, also named Gloria, “is thrilled” about the Havana show and her son’s role in it. She was unable to get her passport and paperwork together for the Christmas Eve opening, he said. But he hopes she’ll have it done in time to bring her from Miami to Havana for the March closing.
Miami Herald staff writer Christine Dolen contributed to this report.
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About the show
“Rent” is Jonathan Larson's contemporary take on the opera “La Boheme.” It is set in New York’s Lower East Side with most of the characters as struggling artists. AIDS and compassion for those who are suffering is a major theme. Larson died the night before the shows’s first preview at the New York Theater Workshop so he never knew of its success. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama posthumously.