Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana

Claire Allfree
Thursday 27 November 2014 23:30

It's fair to say that Havana won't have seen anything like it. On Christmas Eve, a new production of Rent – the smash hit, Pulitzer and Tony award-winning musical about drag queens, homelessness, homosexuality and Aids in Alphabet City, New York – will open at the Bertolt Brecht Theatre in Havana for a three-month run.

Cuban audiences who have managed to survive half a century without Coca-Cola, The Simpsons, Oprah Winfrey and a Big Mac, thanks to the decades-long US embargo on the country, will suddenly be confronted with the quintessential American export: an all-singing, all-dancing musical – the first time a Broadway show has opened in Havana for 50 years. "It's been a learning experience," admits Robert Nederlander, the founder of Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, which is bringing the show to Havana.

This unique project began three years ago when the Cuban Ministry of Culture invited NWE (a veteran American entertainment business and prolific Broadway producer) – to "explore what was happening creatively in Havana". Nederlander responded by bringing Broadway Ambassadors – a revue of Broadway hits sung by Broadway actors – to the 14th Annual Havana Theatre Festival, and the reaction was so positive that he was encouraged to return with something more ambitious.

"We wanted to bring a Broadway show in a way that was authentic and allowed Cuban actors to perform it in their own language," he says. "We were looking for a contemporary story, which would resonate with a younger Cuban audience."

Ah, yes, the story. Rent, which is loosely based on Puccini's 1896 opera La Bohème, begins on Christmas Eve in an East Village bedsit. Not only does it have an anti-capitalist bent (the title song refers to the refusal of two lead characters, a filmmaker and a musician, to pay the rent on their squalid apartment), it features a bohemian cast of drag queens, bisexual dancers, HIV sufferers, the homeless, gays and lesbians, all struggling to live a creative life in downtown New York. It's certainly easy to see how Havana's gloriously artistic, passionate, and, in places, highly impoverished, population might embrace a story that reflects many of their own experiences.

On the other hand, while homosexuality has been legal in Cuba since 1979, and the country has made big recent advances in LGBT rights, same-sex marriage and civil unions are still some way off, same-sex displays of affection are frowned upon, and homophobia – a hangover from the early post-revolution years when gay people were sent to labour camps – is a recognised problem. Is that all the more reason to bring Rent to Havana, then? "The Cuban National Council never raised any concerns over the gay subject matter," says Nederlander firmly. "We showed them a DVD of the Broadway production and they never had one objection."

Nederlander, whose family own the Nederlander Theatre that hosted the first Broadway production of Rent in 1996, has nothing but praise for the Cuban government agency promoting the show, although it's tempting to read between the lines when he says that "it's not any more bureaucratic than I've found in other parts of the world – China, for instance".

Rather, a potential bigger issue is the fact that the show's new Cuban cast are unfamiliar with the culture of a Broadway musical. "The challenge has been working with outstandingly creative actors who haven't done this sort of thing before," Nederlander admits. "But the passion and the talent is incredible. All the right ingredients are there."

He has been helped enormously by the fact the show's director, Andy Senor, not only performed in the Broadway Rent as the cross-dressing percussionist Angel, but is Cuban American. "That's been a godsend for us." Still, only the response of Cuba itself can dictate whether Rent in Havana will be a success. Tickets have yet to go on sale, although Nederlander is quick to point out they will be at a nominal cost. "The purpose of this venture is not commercial," he says. "It's really all about the cultural contribution."

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