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American musical 'Rent' premieres in Havana, Cuba

The Broadway musical "Rent" opened in Havana, Cuba,

The Broadway musical "Rent" opened in Havana, Cuba, on Dec. 24, 2014. This is the first theater show to open in Cuba in decades. Credit: Carlos E. Gonzalez

Even if President Obama had not begun to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba last month, the Havana premiere of "Rent" on Christmas Eve would have been astounding news.

And even if this were not the first full American musical to be seen on the island in more than 50 years, the choice of the show would have seemed improbable, even impossible, before Broadway producer Robert Nederlander Jr. put the deal together over the past year.

We are not talking about an uplifting classic by Rodgers and Hammerstein or some harmless fluff ball from the golden age of musical comedies.

This is "Rent," Jonathan Larson's 1996 Pulitzer-winning rock musical about penniless artists, homelessness, AIDS and drag queens, performed in Spanish with an all-Cuban cast directed by Cuban-American Andy Señor Jr.

Not only does the material contradict Cold War stereotypes about American fat cats, but, even in a time of loosening homophobic repression in Cuba, the embrace of gay characters feels shockingly bold.

And I am loving the whole idea. You see, I spent 18 memorable days in Havana in 1974. I was, almost by happenstance, one of the earliest American journalists to visit post-embargo Havana. I enjoy boasting that this fledgling journalist got there before Barbara Walters.

I had slipped in -- and that's really how it felt -- to send back stories to the Chicago Tribune about dancers Cynthia Gregory and Ted Kivitt, the first major U.S. artists to perform there since we broke relations with Fidel Castro in 1961. I was ostensibly on a visa -- obtained with an overnight stay in Mexico City -- to cover the arts at the country's ambitious International Ballet Festival.

But I found myself with surprising free-range access for what turned into a multipart news series. It now seems to me a time capsule about an isolated island of crazy-quilt contradictions -- reports of human-rights abuses amid eye-opening cultural vitality, daunting deprivation and lovingly maintained American cars from the '50s, a strict socio-economic experiment with a 90-percent literacy rate on a sultry, seductive Caribbean island 90 miles off the Florida coast.

My accommodations were nothing like the five-star hotel we glimpsed in photos of that controversial Beyoncé and

Jay Z vacation in 2013. I stayed at the Capri, a clean old relic with fading paint and almost no traces of the glamour days when it was George Raft's casino. My bathroom had no toilet seat, and the faucets were corroded. Telephone lines mysteriously cut off when I tried reporting all this to my paper.

But the Cubans, at least the many I met, had a warm generosity of spirit that enabled them to distinguish between feelings about our government blockade and our people. Friends I made there laughingly called me "periodista imperialista" -- imperialist journalist. Soviet-bloc gray, at least in those days, was simply not their color.

Besides, they had, and probably still have, a national ice cream called Coppelia, named after the 1870 ballet. And there is Alicia Alonso's major National Ballet of Cuba, which had a place in revolutionary pride up there near Fidel's "History Will Absolve Me" speech and milk-production records.

The internationally known company, which has made several visits to New York, is almost exactly as old as the Castro government. As Cubans enjoyed telling me, Alonso -- their homegrown ballerina and major American Ballet Theatre star from 1941 to 1960 -- declined Gen. Fulgencio Batista's offer to officially ally her own Havana troupe with his dictatorship in 1957. Her husband, Fernando, was harassed, the company's subsidy was removed, and she refused to dance in her country.

As Fernando explained to me then, Castro showed up at his door soon after the 1959 revolution and asked, "How much do you need for a company?" The country rationed food, but got ballet. In addition to Alonso's troupe, there was another in the Camagüey province, plus a Havana modern and folkloric dance company and coast-to-coast ballet on TV twice a month.

Movies were an obsession, and several directors were just beginning to have major international success. After the revolution, the influential film ministry started trucking movies into impoverished rural and mountain areas. When I was there, a pirated Chilean print of "The Godfather" was huge.

Havana theaters were packed on Saturday nights. I went to a union arts festival where a burly man lifted a table with his teeth. A Havana cigar factory had "culture Thursdays," when artists would entertain as tobacco rollers quietly rolled.

Before the revolution, Cuban arts were probably best known in our country for beautiful cigar bands, the rumba and Desi Arnaz's conga drums. When I was there, Afro-Cuban and folkloric music were so admired it seemed any Cuban could spot the difference between a Haitian or Yoruban influence in a song.

Boundaries on artistic freedom were impossible for an outsider to pin down. The specter of arrested poets, dissidents and gays has always been very real, but I could not see fear in everyday faces.

As history changes and "Rent" continues its three-month run, I am still haunted by those faces.

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