Cuba It’s about 1,300 miles away, but in a rehearsal space in midtown Manhattan, it doesn’t feel that far away. Cradling their percussion instruments, trumpets and guitars, a band of ten musicians, some of them from Latin America, prepare to play a sinuous piece of Cuban son, while a theater team (director, writer, actors and choreographers) hovers around ..
“Nothing like this has ever been attempted before,” says music supervisor Dean Sharenow. “It is important that this is real, not a broadway musical production”.
Welcome to the next version of the enduring saga of Buenavista Social Club.
Released the same year as Radiohead. OK computerJanet Jackson The velvet rope and Bob Dylan Time out of mind, Buenavista Social Club became the least likely musical phenomenon of 1997, and of almost any other year. A tribute to the classic. son In the style of the 1940s and 1950s, the album brought together veteran Cuban singers and musicians who had been successful in their home country but sometimes struggled after the 1959 revolution in their country. In 1996, when they were all in their sixties, seventies and eighties, they were recruited for a new album honoring that genre, under the tutelage of Ry Cooder and British producer Nick Gold of World Circuit Records. Sung entirely in Spanish, Buenavista Social Club became the must-have album in both Latin and non-Latin households, selling millions of copies worldwide and winning the Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance. in his novel RageSalman Rushdie referred to “that Buena Vista summer” of 1998. “When you listened to that record, it could be 20 degrees Celsius, but it was a sound that warmed everything,” says playwright Marco Ramírez (the real, about black boxers in Jim Crow America in the early 20th century). “It’s like aromatherapy.”
Buenavista Social Club It also spawned an unexpected cottage industry, leading to US tours, spin-off albums by some of its members, and two documentaries (including Wim Wenders’ Oscar-nominated film). Buenavista Social Club). “Something about that album struck a chord,” says Orin Wolf, the theater producer known for The band’s visit. “For some reason you put it on and whether you speak Spanish or not, it moved people. I can’t point to a reason why this became what it became. But it is surprising how much it has become a brand.”
Since those heady days, many of the ensemble’s original members (bolero singer Ibrahim Ferrer, guitarist and singer Compay Segundo, pianist Rubén González and bassist Orlando López) have passed away. But is there a future for the Buena Vista Social Club franchise? Can it appeal to a generation that was barely born when the album made a splash a quarter of a century ago? That question can be answered with its next variation: a musical.
Opening in mid-December for a limited one-month period in New York, Buenavista Social Club will not only tell the story of the ’90s recording session that gave rise to the album (a happy accident in itself), but also the backstory of many of its key players, including the majestic singer. Omara Portuondo, already a star in his home country before becoming part of the ’90s set. Juan de Marcos González, the youngest Cuban musician who brought together all the musicians and singers for the album, is also a central character. Ramírez, who wrote the book for the musical, says: “It’s about Juan knocking on doors and saying, ‘We have seven days to make a record and come with me on this adventure.'”
However, coming up with a finished product based on a 26-year-old album was a challenge even by the standards of putting together an expensive musical. Wolf, who came up with the idea in 2017, says that he “was always fascinated by Cuba as a place and culture and its relationship with the United States and the West.” He contacted Gold and World Circuit, the UK-based label that recorded the album and has owned the label since 1999. According to Wolf, Gold had already rejected attempts to turn the story into one or two feature films. “I was very cautious,” Wolf says. “Nick has always been protective, so at first he resisted.” (Neither Gold nor Cooder were available for comment.) After Gold traveled to New York and saw The band’s visitAccording to Wolf, he changed his mind and the theatrical reboot would continue. (If there’s any doubt what brand it has become, the musical’s title includes a trademark symbol.)
In some ways mirroring Wenders’ film, the setting Buenavista Social Club alternates representations of the album sessions with flashbacks of the musicians from the 1950s. Different actors play younger and older versions of the team, sometimes crossing paths on stage. “I knew the ’90s had to be the focus,” Ramirez says. “But what are the old grudges and heartbreaks of musicians?” Ramírez says the show also takes a degree of creative license with the characters, causing some of the musicians to feel less recognized in their later years than they were. “We’re making them less known in Cuba, so when that happens, it’s a big problem,” Ramírez says. “We want to dramatize the story of the homeless.”
The musical’s team then made the decision to make the show as authentic as possible, which was easier said than chosen. The dialogue would be in English, but the songs (taken from the original album but some taken from the solo projects) would remain in Spanish. “It wouldn’t have seemed right to translate the songs into English,” says creative consultant David Yazbek. “To hear these people singing these beautiful songs written to be sung in Spanish, but then translated, would be very cheesy.” Some of those lyrics are painful love songs, but others, even Yazbek admits, are sillier. “When people look up the lyrics to ‘Chan Chan,'” he laughs of the album’s most popular song, “they say, ‘Huh?’ There are a lot of hints and some instructions!
Jared Machado, who plays young Segundo, has Cuban roots (his father was born there), but he himself grew up in the United States. For him and others, singing those songs in Spanish was demanding. “I had to make sure my pronunciation of certain words I wasn’t very familiar with was on point,” he says. “We worked with a dialogue coach to make sure that anyone who spoke Spanish or English pronounced the words correctly.”
In 2019, some of the creators traveled to Cuba, both to absorb the country’s atmosphere and to locate the Havana “social club” building where the music and dance had taken place (and which gave its name to the new project). There they learned that the structure, which had been closed by the government in the 1960s, was now a gym. That was not the only obstacle to the investigation. Given the scarcity of cinematographic images of the meetings, choreographers Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck, supervising six dancers in the show, decided to fuse modern dance with styles common in Cuba during the 1950s, although not the expected ones. “When you do your research, mambo and all those dance styles that are now codified in New York happened between the ’50s and ’90s,” Delgado says. “There are no images of the Social Club, so we did a lot of imagining how people would have moved together in the room. We had the freedom to go out and not feel like we had to stay in that mambo lane.”
Director Saheem Ali also made the decision to place the musicians on stage, not in a pit: “The band is on stage and the character also plays musical instruments. Some musicians have lines in some of the scenes. “We wanted to blur the lines between who is the singer and who is the musician.” To ensure that the music was as faithful as possible to Afro-Cuban styles, everyone realized that they would have to reach out to more than just New York-area musicians who regularly play in theater productions. “Musical theater as a form tends to dilute any form that is brought to it,” Sharenow says. “If you have a musical with jazz musicians, it becomes musical theater jazz.”
In a process that would take two years (extraordinarily long for that part of the process), Sharenow ended up searching the Internet for qualified cast members, contacting musicians and actors in places as far away as Barcelona, Amsterdam and Venezuela. “Many nights I would wake up at three in the morning, go on YouTube, do Google searches, and come across someone’s website,” she says. “Imagine hearing someone in New York talk about a musical about their culture. She probably felt like a scam. They would ask: ‘What is this? I’ve never acted before.’”
One of those searches led to Kenya Browne, a Mexican college student who had never acted professionally but who sent in an audition tape without fully knowing what the show was. “They translated everything into Spanish and said they were looking for people for a new musical project in the United States and that was it,” she says. Because Browne didn’t have a visa, she ended up auditioning over Zoom before producers flew to see her in Mexico.
Like some of his cast members, Browne was not born when Buenavista Social Club It was released and only from it through parents or relatives who had the album or knew the songs. However, stories like his speak to the legacy of the original album. Growing up in Kenya, Ali remembers listening to her father’s cassette of the album. Although her father was born in Cuba, Machado remembers watching Wenders’ film when he was in Spanish class in high school in California.
For other cast members, the connection to this decades-old history and material took other forms. Olly Sholotan, the Los Angeles-based actor and musician who plays the dashing Ferrer, was not as familiar with music as other cast members, as he grew up in Nigeria before moving to the United States. But as a result of portraying the younger Ferrer, who was shining shoes and selling lottery tickets at the time of the album sessions, Sholotan connected with what he calls the “class issues” with his character. “Ibrahim addressed the effect of colorism in real time,” says Sholotan. “In the ’50s, being too dark to be considered marketable, being the ‘wrong kind of black,’ we see some of those problems today. We have come so far but we still see the effects of colorism. “That was really fascinating to me about him.”
In some respects, the timing of the show couldn’t be better: the Latin music, although Exclude of the Grammys’ top categories, has never been more prevalent or uncompromising in mainstream American culture, and its current stars sing in their own language. It’s too early to predict whether that will translate into an eventual Broadway production. (Relations between the United States and Cuba also remain difficult and complicated.) For now, the creators simply hope their universal story transcends the music.
“It’s a story about second chances,” says Ramírez, who was also a preteen when the album first arrived. “And the older I get, the more I think about that and doing things right. If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?
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