Cuba is about 1,300 miles away, but in a rehearsal space in midtown Manhattan, it doesn’t seem that far away. Packing their percussion instruments, horns and guitars, a band of ten musicians, some from Latin America, prepare to perform a twisty play by Cubano’s son, while a theater team – director, writer, actors and choreographers – hovers around..
“Nothing like this has been tried before,” says music supervisor Dean Sharenow. “It’s important that this is real, not a Broadway musical production.”
Welcome to the next iteration of the enduring Buena Vista Social Club saga.
Released the same year as Radiohead OK computerjanet jackson The velvet rope and Bob Dylan Time out of mind, Boa Vista Social Club became the least likely musical phenomenon of 1997 – and pretty much any other year. A tribute to the classic son In the style of the 40s and 50s, the album brought together veteran Cuban singers and musicians who were successful in their home country but who sometimes struggled after their country’s 1959 revolution. In 1996, when everyone was in their sixties, seventies and eighties, they were recruited for a new album paying homage to the genre, under the tutelage of Ry Cooder and British producer Nick Gold of World Circuit Records. Sung entirely in Spanish, Boa Vista Social Club became the must-have album for Latin and non-Latin families alike, selling millions of copies worldwide and winning the Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance. In your romance FurySalman Rushdie referred to “that Buena Vista summer” of 1998. “When you heard that record, it might have been 20 degrees outside, but it’s a sound that warmed everything,” says playwright Marco Ramirez (The real, about black boxers in Jim Crow America in the early 1900s). “It’s like aromatherapy.”
Boa Vista Social Club it also spawned an unexpected cottage industry, leading to US tours, albums by some of its members, and two documentaries (including Wim Wenders’ Oscar-nominated film). Boa Vista 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 pinpoint a reason why this thing became what it did. But it’s surprising how much of a brand it has become.”
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, and can it appeal to a generation that was barely born when the album hit a quarter of a century ago? That question can be answered with its next variation: a musical.
Opening in mid-December for a limited month-long run in New York, Boa Vista 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 story of many of its key musicians – including royal singer Omara Portuondo, already a star in her country Christmas before she became part of the nineties set. Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the young Cuban musician who brought together all the musicians and singers for the album, is also a central character. Says Ramirez, who wrote the musical’s book: “It’s about Juan knocking on doors and saying, ‘We have seven days to make a record and come with me on this adventure.’”
Coming up with a final product based on an album released 26 years ago, however, was a challenge even by the standards of staging an expensive musical. Wolf, who came up with the idea in 2017, says he “has always been fascinated by Cuba as a place and culture and by its relationship with the United States and the West.” He approached Gold and World Circuit, the U.K. record label that recorded the album, which has owned the label since 1999. According to Wolf, Gold had previously rejected attempts to turn the story into one or two feature films. “He was very cautious,” says Wolf. “Nick has always been protective, so at first he was resistant.” (Neither Gold nor Cooder were available for comment.) After Gold traveled to New York and saw The band’s visit, according to Wolf, he changed his mind and the theatrical reboot would continue. (If there’s any doubt about what brand she became, the musical’s title includes a trademark symbol.)
Mirroring Wenders’ film a bit, the stage Boa Vista Social Club alternates between depictions of the album sessions with flashbacks to musicians from the fifties. Different actors play young and older versions of the team, sometimes crossing paths on stage. “I knew the ’90s had to be the focus,” says Ramirez. “But what are the musicians’ old grudges and hurts?” Ramirez says the show also takes a certain amount of creative license with the characters, making some of the musicians feel less recognized in their later years than they were. “We are making them less known in Cuba, so when all this happens, it will be a big problem,” says Ramirez. “We want to dramatize the story of the oppressed.”
The musical’s team then made the decision to make the show as authentic as possible, which was easier said than chosen. The dialogues would be in English, but the songs (taken from the original album, but some taken from solo projects) would remain in Spanish. “It would have felt wrong 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 really cheesy.” Some of these lyrics are heartbreaking 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’re like, ‘Huh?’ There’s a lot of innuendo and some guidance!”
Jared Machado, who plays the young Segundo, has Cuban roots (his father was born there) but was raised in the United States. For him and others, singing those songs in Spanish was an arduous task. “I had to make sure my pronunciation of certain words I wasn’t very familiar with was correct,” he says. “We worked with a dialogue coach to make sure anyone who spoke Spanish or English could pronounce the words correctly.”
In 2019, some of the creators traveled to Cuba, both to absorb the vibrancy of the country and to visit the building of the “social club” in Havana where music and dancing took place (and which gave its name to the new project). There, they learned that the structure, closed by the government in the 1960s, was now a gym. This was not the only obstacle to research. Given the scarcity of footage of the encounters, choreographers Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck, supervising the show’s six dancers, decided to fuse modern dance with styles common in Cuba during the 1950s, although not the ones expected. “When you do the research, mambo and all those dance styles that are codified now in New York happened between the ’50s and ’90s,” Delgado says. “There are no images of the Social Club, so we really imagined how people would move together in the room. We had the freedom to go out and not feel like we had to stay on that mambo street.”
Director Saheem Ali also made the decision to place the musicians on stage rather than in a pit: “The band is on stage and the character also plays musical instruments. Some musicians have lines in some scenes. We wanted to blur the lines between who is the singer and who is the musician.” To ensure the music was as faithful to Afro-Cuban styles as possible, everyone realized they would have to reach more than just New York-area musicians who regularly play in theater productions. “Musical theater as a form tends to dilute whatever forms you bring to it,” says Sharenow. “If you have a musical with jazz musicians, it becomes musical theater jazz.”
In a process that would take two years – unusually long for this part of the process – Sharenow ended up scouring the Internet for qualified cast members, contacting musicians and actors in places as far away as Barcelona, Amsterdam and Venezuela. “I spent a lot of nights waking up at three in the morning and going on YouTube and doing Google searches and finding someone’s website,” he says. “Imagine listening to someone in New York talk about a musical about their culture. It probably looked like a scam. They asked, ‘What’s this again? I’ve never acted before.’”
One such search led to Kenya Browne, a Mexican college student who had never acted professionally but sent in an audition tape, not knowing exactly what show it was. “They translated everything into Spanish and said they were looking for people for a new musical project in the USA and that was it,” she says. Since Browne hadn’t seen it, 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 Boa Vista Social Club was released and only through parents or family members who owned the record or knew the songs. However, stories like hers speak to the legacy of the original album. Growing up in Kenya, Ali remembers listening to the cassette of his father’s album. Although her father was born in Cuba, Machado remembers watching Wenders’ film when she was in high school Spanish class in California.
For other cast members, the connection to this decades-old story and material took other forms. Olly Sholotan, the Los Angeles-based actor and musician who plays the elegant Ferrer, wasn’t as familiar with music as the other cast members, having grown up in Nigeria before moving to the United States. But in portraying the younger Ferrer, who shined shoes and sold lottery tickets at the time of the album sessions, Sholotan connected what he calls “class issues” with his character. “Ibrahim dealt with the effect of colorism in real time,” says Sholotan. “In the 1950s, being too dark to be considered marketable, to be the ‘wrong kind of black’ – we see some of those problems today. We’ve come so far, but we still see the effects of colorism. That was really fascinating to me about him.
In some ways, the timing of the show couldn’t be better: Latin music, though excluded from the Grammys’ main categories, has never been more prevalent or uncompromising in mainstream American culture, and its current stars sing in their own language. Whether this will translate into an eventual Broadway production is too early to predict. (Relations between the U.S. and Cuba also remain complicated and complicated.) Right now, the creators simply hope that their universal story will transcend music.
“It’s a story about second chances,” says Ramirez, who was still a pre-teen when the album was released. “And the older I get, the more I think about that and fixing things. If I could do it all over again, what would I do differently?”