It was never a question that Andy Señor Jr. was going to be the one to put up Rent in Havana, the first Broadway production to be performed on the island in decades. But first thing’s first: Figure out how he was going to explain to his family why he was so willing to go back to a country they fled half a century ago.
“When I got the call, the decision wasn’t, am I going to go or not? It was, ‘I’m definitely going’,” he tells Rolling Stone. “If they had asked me to put on West Side Story, maybe there’s a decision there. It’s just a show, right? Again, West Side Story is beautiful. But it doesn’t come from the same place as Rent. I thought to myself, ‘I know what this show means to me.’ And I know what Jonathan Larson [who wrote Rent] has put inside those words in that music.”
Señor — who performed as Angel in Rent on Broadway beginning in 1997 — ultimately staged the production in Cuba for a three-month run starting Christmas Eve 2014 at the Bertolt Brecht Theater in Havana. In many ways, the documentary Revolution Rent, also co-directed by Señor (along with Victor Patrick Alvarez) is as much about his own autobiographical journey as a Cuban-American as it is about the struggles of throwing together a Broadway-level production in a developing nation. Notably, one of the first scenes isn’t of auditions, or even the rehearsal process, but Señor sitting at the dinner table with his family, attempting to justify his decision to direct the show. It’s hard to watch him explain how theater can transform lives to elders who may be jaded (understandably so) by years of heartbreak, sacrifices, and cultural and political upheaval.
“All you’re doing is helping the government,” his brother-in-law tells him in the film. “You’re not putting the power into the hands of the people.” They go around the table telling him how his career will be affected; how he won’t make an impact, and that he will, in fact, actually be making things worse for the people he’s supposed to be helping. All by giving them a taste of freedom they will never have. But it’s just a show, right? This is the part where one must explain that, if you’re Cuban (as I am), you have slightly different variations of this conversation with your family every week.
Older generations of Cuban-Americans often grieve for a “lost nation” — because they can’t return to the “free” Cuba that exists in their memories, and it’s difficult for them to understand why anyone else would. “I was so afraid to dishonor my family by going,” Señor explains. “I was scared that I was going to fail the whole time, and that in failing, I would dishonor them. But what I learned, not only by creating this project, but by releasing this documentary, was that my family is now expanded in ways that are immeasurable.”
There’s a lot the film says about what makes a “family,” some of which runs parallel to themes in the plot of Rent itself. The show inherently focuses on “found” or “chosen family,” the kind of queer belonging that comes from a unique kind of shared trauma, poverty, and lived experiences that the LGBTQ community faces. Some of these are parallels expected, such as when Señor turns the attention on himself and how incredibly at home he feels in Havana, in different ways than he would in Miami.
The way the cast eventually bonds as a “family” throughout the rehearsal process will also hit those familiar beats for anyone who’s ever done theater — yet the film goes out of its way to point out different degrees of unprofessionalism, from American Idol B-roll level auditions, to goofing around on set, shaky harmonies during vocal practice, and cast members weakly throwing out excuses for missing rehearsals for weeks. “They lack integrity with their own work,” Señor comments during one frustrating day on set captured for the film.
You’re left to draw your own conclusions about whether this is due to a lack of experience preparing for a professional production, or wider laissez faire Cuban cultural attitudes. But as much as Cuban culture can connect across political divides, Señor doesn’t shy away from demonstrating that we can’t, as Cubans or Americans, pretend that our lived experiences are the same. When a few of the actors struggle to put the necessary emotion into the lines while rehearsing “What You Own,” Señor requests they change the lyrics from “When you’re living in America / at the end of the millennium / you are what you own,” to use ‘Cuba’ instead.
“We worked a lot with substitution. Many of them have never been to the United States, they’ve never seen a musical,” he adds. “I think the key was figuring out how to change these words, find where the circumstances in the show matched their circumstances, for them to be able to acknowledge [the lyrics] and say, ‘Oh, this is me.’ Because those lyrics are yours now, and not Jonathan’s.”
While it’s clear when he’s putting a lot of emotional effort into building that camaraderie, Señor also recognizes his own privilege when it came to the cast. “You know what surprised me? My own ignorance. I was talking to an actor, and he was having vocal trouble. He had this water bottle and I was like, ‘You shouldn’t drink cold water because it’s not good for you vocal chords. You should go buy water that’s room temperature.’ And he was like, ‘Buy water? Like I have money to buy water?’ Or asking where I could find detergent because I had a stain, and them giving me a look. Just little things like that. They were learning the show and I was learning what life is like on the island.”
In this vein, the deepest, most illuminating moments are the ones where we get an intimate glimpse into the cast member’s lives beyond the show. Señor takes us into the homes (or rather, is invited in) of the cast, with a kind of hospitality that feels effortless and unforced: most times, the aluminum cafetera is already bubbling on the stove with espresso when the crew arrives.
“Life isn’t easy or hard in Cuba. It’s just life. It’s normal,” says the actor playing Collins, one of the many they visit. When asked whether Señor meant to frame the film to reflect this sentiment, Señor asserts that there is no specific agenda to be found. “What I wanted to do with the film was not add or subtract, just document exactly what we saw. It doesn’t feel like there’s a very specific point of view.” Just like the argument at his family table, this is a microcosm of what the ‘Cuban conversation’ is between Cuban-Americans, Cuba, and the world, he goes on to explain. “And yet it’s obvious what you’re watching.”
But it’s hard to expect a certain level of nuance from an American (and to a certain extent, international) audience that has been inundated with propaganda from all sides for decades. That’s what makes certain shots, like murals along the roads featuring portraits of Che and Fidel, along with a cut back and forth between two protests — both screaming “Freedom! [Libertad!]” — that tries to loosely connect the dots to the revolutionary imagery in Rent feel, at times, targeted at exactly what others think encapsulates the country’s legacy.
It’s a balancing act, recognizing that this is what makes up the nation’s history, one the film mostly executes by leaning into the more personal experiences of the cast, Señor and his family. Despite their hardships, it’s the connections the cast make to each other that reinforces the strength of the movie, and their production. Sure there are constant power outages, audio equipment gets held up in customs, they make extension cords from light sockets and zip ties. But Señor recalls an uplifting moment post-rehearsal that gets to the heart of of what they were trying to accomplish.
“We finished rehearsal on a Saturday night, and everybody goes across the street and gets a bunch of beers. They bring them on the stage and everyone’s on the same tables as we were doing ‘La Vie Boheme’, but with beers and croquetas. People are sitting there and they start dancing on the tables. I remember sitting in the audience and thinking, ‘If Jonathan Larson only knew that they were dancing here right now on the set.’ It’s amazing. It’s like I was watching ‘La Vie Boheme’ in its purest form.”
Which is why the gut punch comes swift and harsh when you watch the whole cast as they huddle around the TV together with bated breath, as Raúl Castro speaks about normalizing the complex relations between the Cuba and the U.S. with then-president Barack Obama. It’s a bittersweet moment, knowing what’s to come. Wherever you believe theater in Cuba will go after this production, it only gets more complicated from here.
“Well, I’ll tell you this much. They haven’t done a musical since,” Señor says about the aftermath of Trump’s policy changes toward the island. “Right after having done Rent, we were in discussions of what we were going to do next, and then the the policy changed. And it just got harder and harder and, right now, it’s the hardest it’s been since the Special Period [a decade of economic difficulties] in the Nineties, maybe harder.”
But for an hour and a half, to see a group form together, as “one human being, one body working together” in spite (and perhaps, because) of language barriers, cultural differences, different backgrounds, sexualities is what makes the legacy of Señor’s production such a revolutionary triumph. It could have been any show, right? Or perhaps there was no other path, no other road, no day but today, and no other show but Rent that could have facilitated those deep, lasting bonds. The film certainly works as an argument to say it does.
Revolution Rent premieres on June 15th, and is available to stream on HBO Max.