November 26, 2014 / 7:04 PM / 3 years ago

Broadway finds a new stage in an old venue: Cuba

Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment CEO Bob Nederlander Jr. speaks during an interview with Reuters in Havana November 25, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

HAVANA (Reuters) - In Bob Nederlander Jr.’s mission to export Broadway to new markets around the world, he found an old one where the American art form lay dormant for a least 50 years - communist Cuba.

After testing the Cuban appetite with a 2011 concert of Broadway show tunes, Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment decided to stage a three-month run of “Rent,” the first Broadway musical exported to Cuba in decades.

“We were all blown away by the reaction,” Nederlander said of the 2011 show. “Standing ovations. People cheering, on their feet dancing.”

Based on that and interest from Cuba’s Culture Ministry, “we then suggested we bring authentic Broadway here to Cuba; that we do it in Spanish with Cuban actors and musicians,” Nederlander told Reuters from Havana’s 350-seat Bertolt Brecht Theater on the second day of rehearsals.

“Rent” will premiere on Dec. 24, just two months after casting. The Americans will direct and provide set design, sound, lights, choreography and the wardrobe.

Nederlander is part of the third generation of his family business, the entertainment empire behind hits such as “Chicago,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “West Side Story.”

The Cuban production is a total financial loss meant as a cultural exchange, Nederlander said, declining to reveal any details. Cuba’s National Council for Performing Arts is sharing expenses.

Broadway shows were popular in Cuba before the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, but what happened after that is unclear, an official from the National Council for Peforming Arts said. The United States imposed a trade embargo, and Cuba banned some capitalist influences from the Caribbean island.

Whatever the reason, the curtain came down on Broadway in Cuba.

Nederlander, who has a license from the U.S. government for this show, said “Rent” was chosen because it was contemporary, youthful and had a relatively simple set. The show debuted on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre in 1996, winning the Tony for Best Musical, and ran for 12 years.

Andy Señor Jr., a Cuban-American who will direct “Rent” in Cuba, also hoped the play’s gay story lines would resonate in a country where homosexuality was not decriminalized until 1979.

“‘Rent’ is such a celebration of who you choose to be in your life,” Señor said. “I‘m hoping the gay community knows about the show and comes to see it, and that they’re able to see themselves on stage.”

Reporting by Daniel Trotta. Editing by Andre Grenon

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