Cuban Carmen Jones revives musical theatre on island

Once a strong tradition in Cuba, musical theatre is experiencing a renaissance in Havana with Carmen Jones

Just a year ago, Luna Manzanares had never acted on stage.

But for the past few nights, the 23-year-old singer has been plastering on red lipstick and taking on the title role in a show that is reviving musical theatre in Cuba, a tradition lost after the 1959 revolution.

"The Cuban sound, the vibe, is really hot and it's loved by audiences all over the world," explains Dutch producer Willem Metz, part of the international team that has combined that "vibe" with the classic tale of sultry femme fatale Carmen Jones.

This week, they have been showing the results on Havana's decrepit docks.

An actor puts on make-up on the set of Carmen Jones in June 2014 Havana's old docks provide a fitting backdrop for the musical
View of the old docks where Carmen Jones is performed in June 2014 The cast have had to improvise at times to cope with power cuts and other unforeseen problems
Sultry love story

Start Quote

There's a wonderful feeling of joy in the music that's infectious”

End Quote Alex Lacamorie Music director of Carmen Jones

The action of the 1943 Broadway musical with music by Georges Bizet and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein has been transplanted from the southern United States to pre-revolutionary Cuba, where cigar-factory worker Carmen becomes entangled in a love triangle, with tragic consequences.

"We lost the musical theatre tradition at the beginning of the revolution, when the idea was that musicals came from a bourgeois time: very glamorous and empty of ideological message," Cuban scriptwriter Norge Espinosa recalls.

He sees Carmen Jones as a chance to recover the genre now that official, ideological resistance has melted.

For the play's foreign producers, Cuba clearly has all the raw ingredients.

"If you just watch Cubans move, dance, sing, you start moving with them - even me as a stiff Dutchman! There's something magical about the Cuban culture," Mr Metz explains.

Cool groves

These days, the main impediment is financial: finding resources. That is where the international experts have stepped in.

The cast of Carmen Jones in Havana in June 2014 Carmen Jones combines the original score with Cuban music
Performance of Carmen Jones in Havana in June 2014 The musical is performed in Havana's old docks

Carmen Jones is the creation of a team including acclaimed British director Christopher Renshaw of Wicked and The King and I fame.

This week, they invited producers and investors from as far away as Australia and Korea, as well as London and New York, to view their work in progress with a view to snapping up the right to stage it in their countries.

Part of the audience perched on the back of old pick-up trucks, reversed onto the quayside.

"We took Bizet's original score, and - song by song - picked what would be the coolest Cuban groove for each moment," says Alex Lacamorie, the Cuban-American music director who gave the show its new, island flavour.

"There's timba, danson, contra-dansa, merengue, mambo - everything under the sun," he enthuses about his re-imagined Carmen, which taps his own Cuban roots.

Alex Lacamorie with one of the musicians on the set of Carmen Jones in June 2014 Alex Lacamorie (right) says the music in Carmen Jones has an infectious quality

"There's a lot of joy in it. Which is odd for a country with its set of troubles. But there's a wonderful feeling of joy in the music that's infectious," the musician adds.

Inspiration

The cast studied DVDs of classic hits such as West Side Story and Chicago to help grasp the totally new concept of a musical, and Luna Manzanares watched previous Carmens for inspiration - including the ballet version danced by Cuba's own ballerina Alicia Alonso.

But the young star also dug into her own experience.

"Any woman could be Carmen here. She has this temper that most Cuban women have, and a natural sensuality. In many ways we are very similar," the singer explains.

There have been challenges for the crew working in Cuba. The power cut out one night, and all the back-up generators failed; the dire lack of public transport means sometimes cast members arrived late to rehearsals, or not at all.

But the show has gone on.

If it does ultimately make it to New York or London, the team hopes Carmen Jones will blaze a trail for others from the island.

Boatload of talent

"Whatever the obstacles, we had to find a way to keep going. There's a boatload of talent here, and we've been able to tap into that to create something really special," says Alex Lacamorie.

Two cast members of Carmen Jones relax during a break in June 2014 There is no shortage of talent in Cuba for the producers to pick their cast
A performer prepares for Carmen Jones in Havana in June 2014

As for Carmen herself, Luna Manzanares now has big ambitions.

"Of course I want to go to Broadway. I would love to be on Broadway," the singer laughs.

"Let's hope it can happen - some day."

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