Fifteen Cuban actors took to a Havana stage Wednesday night and belted out some familiar songs: One Song Glory, La Vie Bohème, and Seasons of Love. The songs are probably familiar to any Broadway enthusiast, they're all from the Pulitzer-winning musical Rent. Staging a performance of Rent might not seem like a big deal - the play is so familiar that it's regularly performed in American high schools - but in Cuba, where Broadway musicals were banned after the Revolution, it signals a turning point in the country's approach to arts. It might also be an indicator of what the Cuban arts scene might look like as the country and the United States renew relationships.
Rent might seem like an odd choice for to serve as Broadway's inaugural ambassador. Loosely based on Puccini's 19th century opera, La Bohème, the musical tells the story struggling New York artists navigating poverty, creativity and the AIDS crisis. But producer Bob Nederlander told NPR that "It's a universal story which transcends particular nationalities - a story of love, friendship, struggling and succeeding over adversity."
Nederlander was asked by the Cuban Culture Ministry to stage the musical and, in turn, he tapped Andy Señor Jr. to head the project. Señor, a Miami resident, is best known for his starring role as "Angel" in Rent on Broadway. Nederlander chose Señor because he's a "leading member of Broadway's Cuban American community." For his part Señor was excited to take on the role, his parents were born and raised in Cuba. "I've always wanted to come see all the things [my parents] always talked about," Señor said, "and connect with my family here and the Cuban people."
In addition to heading the project, Señor was tasked with transforming the 15 Cuban actors into Broadway talent in a few short months. "None of them had really done musical theater and this was their first time in the medium" Señor told the Miami Herald, "It's a lost tradition [in Cuba]. It's a lost art form."
Rent premiered on nochebuena, a fitting debut night since much of the musical takes place on Christmas Eve. There seems to be enthusiastic support for Broadway-style theater in Havana, the first few nights of the musical were sold out and the actors' performances were well-received by its audiences.
Performances of Rent will continue for the next month. Tickets cost the equivalent of 50 cents.
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