The Making of Havana Music Hall
By J.P. Faber // Photography by Jon Braeley
As opening night approaches, there is a sense of energetic anticipation at Actors’ Playhouse. It’s not exactly anxiety, although a great deal depends on how well the musical is executed. It’s more like a fever pitch as the entire production crew and cast careen towards opening night. Literally everything is being tweaked – the dance numbers, the songs, the music, the lighting, the set, the sound systems.
Downstairs on the mainstage there is a crew screwing boards together and painting walls, banging and drilling and hoisting parts of the set aboard mechanical lifts. There is a general clanking and buzzing on the stage, while in the control booth technicians fiddle with banks of switches, knobs and screens, all tied into the lighting and sound systems by a medusa of cables.
Upstairs the dancers and singers are rehearsing, stretching themselves after doing vocal exercises and then going through the paces with a dance director who is wearing an “Artistic Gangster” T-shirt. They are in a rectangular practice room, with rubber-mat flooring and a wall of mirrors. Two Cuban flags bookend the space. Maria Torres, the director of the musical as well as its choreographer, comes in to check timing and goes through the paces with the dancers, showing them how to gyrate their hips and shimmy their shoulders at the same time. “Mambo ti ca, mambo ti ca,” she chants as they follow her lead.
Across the hallway, in the more intimate upstairs stage, a 10-piece band is playing the score written by Richard Kagan, the author of the musical and the creative force behind the production. He is watching as three-time Grammy award winning dance arranger and dance orchestrator Oscar Hernandez goes onto the stage to proffer advice on how to make the music brighter, and more in sync with the dance numbers. The melody is crisp, bright, and full of the kind of energy that only Cuban rhythms can percolate.
Welcome to Havana Music Hall, the largest and most significant production ever put on at Actors’ Playhouse. It is a full-blown $2 million Broadway-caliber musical being staged in Coral Gables as a prelude to an expected run in New York’s famed theater district. It could not have chosen a better venue, or even a better time to launch.
Havana Music Hall is the story of a Cuban song-and-dance duo about to make it big in Havana, at the height of their performing talents and at the height of the casino-fueled days of big stage, Tropicana-style nightclub performances. The year is 1958. Unfortunately for them, it is eve of the Cuban Revolution coming to power, with Fidel Castro’s columns taking control of the city on New Year’s Day, 1959.
I’ve always been involved in the theater and had ideas for musicals…but this was never a dream of mine, to create a show and write a score for itRichard Kagan, former Broadway producer
For the couple, the advent of the Revolution is a disaster. The Havana Music Hall – a mythical place, by the way – is shut down by the revolutionaries, with the protesting couple jailed and separated from their child forever. What happens to them, and how they are ultimately redeemed by love and hope, is the story that Kagan has brought to life. And while the story is a fictional tale, it is based on a true story.
BIRTH OF A MUSICAL
Flash back four years. Kagan, a former Broadway producer (Goodbye Girl, Smile, Leader of the Pack) now living in L.A., has been thinking about the movie “Buena Vista Social Club,” and wondering if he can turn it into a musical about Cuba. He’s already tried to get the rights to the name, but the owners want full artistic control. His wife, actress Julie Hagerty (of Airplane fame), suggests he just create his own story, like Dream Girls. That movie was based on the Supremes, but without the rights was a fictional tale.
Kagan and Julie have just seen the movie “Chef.” In the movie, Sophia Vergara’s father is a Cuban musician. Kagan tells his wife, “I’ve got to find this guy. I want to find out who he is in real life.”
Amazingly enough Kagan finds the man, Jose Perico Hernandez, now 80 and living in Los Angeles. He has dinner with Hernandez listens to his story. It was the year 1958 and Hernandez, 23, is performing at the Capri, the hotel built by mobster- cum-casino owner Meyer Lanksy. Hernandez is at the top of his game as a young performer. The revolutionaries assemble the 200 employees on the Capri staff and tell them they no longer work for the hotel, but for the new regime. Any questions?
Hernandez is the only person who raises his hand. A father of three, he says that one of his children has a birth defect will need medical attention in the United States. Would that be possible? Hernandez is told to report to a ministry building the following day at 9 a.m., where he is arrested and sentenced to three years of hard labor without contact with his family, and then forced to cut sugarcane for five years before being allowed to leave with his family to go to America.
“Then he asks me, ‘So you want to tell my story?’” recalls Kagan. “‘I’d like you to do that, he says, but you don’t look like a Cuban musician.’ I say, ‘No, I don’t. I’m a 68-year-old white Jewish guy who has never written music, not for 50 years. But I’ve started writing with a show in my mind.’ So, I sent him a song. The next thing I know he shows up with 12 Cuban musicians. And for the last four years, Enrico Hernandez has been my inspiration.”
Since that encounter, Kagan has doggedly pursued the creation of Havana Music Hall, hiring playwrights and musicians and choreographers, and along the way writing 40 songs – of which 22 will be performed in the final production. In its own way, Havana Music Hall is Kagan’s Hamilton – except that it took only four years instead of seven to bring it to the stage.
How, you may ask, can a Jewish boy from New Jersey write a musical about Cuba that is filled with a lively, lovely score written in the vernacular?
Part of the answer is that Kagan is not exactly a stranger to music. As a young man, he became best friends with Marvin Hamlisch, composer of the Broadway hit A Chorus Line, along with a huge list of pop hits (“The Way We Were,” “Nobody Does It Better,” “The Entertainer”). They met at a summer music camp in the Pocono Mountains, where they wrote some songs together. But when Kagan heard Hamilsch play the piano, “I knew I had to do something else. His talent was overwhelming.”
So, each went their ways creatively, with the occasional re-uniting. After his stint as a Broadway producer (“I never made any money at it,” he says), Kagan went into the insurance business, launching a successful career selling life policies to Hollywood stars (his first sale was, ironically enough, to Karen Carpenter, who later became his first policy to cash-in). And every so often, when Kagan would speak before audiences in the insurance industry, Hamlisch would come on stage with him for a piano duet.
Hamlisch has since passed away (2012). But when asked how he has managed to pen such an outstanding musical score for Havana Music Hall, Kagan says first that he has always loved Latin music and second, that he has no idea. “Somehow it feels like I am channeling Marvin from heaven. It just comes to me and I am amazed.”
THE CORAL GABLES CONNECTION
How Havana Music Hall made it to the stage in Coral Gables is the next piece of the puzzle, and that has as much to do with our musical heritage as a community as anything else.
In Los Angeles and New York, Kagan conducted an intense search for the talent he needed to realize his project. About three years ago, he reached out to Maria Torres, a veteran dancer and choreographer with a long list of credits under her belt. One of these was On Your Feet, the Gloria Estefan musical, which Torres co-choreographed. (The Estefans had hired Torres based on her reputation as one of the pioneers in Latin Jazz dance.)
“I was in the middle of On Your Feet. Richard called me and sent me a CD with this music, and said he wanted me to be involved from the beginning,” recalls Torres. “I thought it was strange at the time because normally the choreographer comes in at a much later date, when there is a stage reading. I found it fascinating that he wanted me in that early.” The reason was that Kagan wanted Torres to be not just the choreographer, but also the director of the musical.
“I was suddenly taking on both hats,” says Torres. “It was an enormous responsibility. The director is also responsible for the language, the music and visuals. I was assembling my team for the choreography, but now I had to make sure the pulse of the
production was designed for the dance movements. It needed a pace different from the norm, because it’s a dramatic musical that takes you into some heavy scenes. But we wanted a pulse and a pace that would keep it moving.”
Says Kagan, “I wanted someone who could meld the dancing with the dramatic arch of the story. So, she was perfect.” As for the perfect place to launch the musical, that was
Torres’ inspiration. In addition to working with the Estefans in Miami, she had worked 15 years earlier at the Actors’ Playhouse on a production of Four Guys Named Jose.
“We thought about where it should be tested, and I thought it would be great to do that in a playhouse 90 miles away from Cuba, in a setting [South Florida] that was truthful to the kind of story this is,” she says. So, Torres approached Actors’ Playhouse Artistic Director David Arisco, who presented it to the board.
For Barbara Stein, the executive director of Actors’Playhouse, the timing could not have been better. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of the company. Born in a humble venue in Kendall, it expanded and eventually found a home in Coral Gables at the Miracle Theater, which they helped restore with community donations and funds from the city. This is not the Playhouse’s first bound-for-Broadway production – in 2001 they worked with Richard Frankel on Little Shop of Horrors, which was vetted at the Miracle Theater for six weeks and then ran on Broadway for 9 months. But Havana Music Hall is a much larger production.
We thought about where it should be tested, and I thought it would be great to do that in a playhouse 90 miles away from Cuba, in a setting that was truthful to the kind of story this is…Maria Torres, director and choreographer
“This is the biggest one we have ever done. It’s a very complex project for our organization,” says Stein. “It’s a large team down here for this. There are music arrangers, a musical director, a set designer, a lighting director, a sound director, all from New York, with assistants. It’s a Broadway production in all its creative aspects and development.”
Normally, the fall showcase at the Playhouse would have a maximum budget of $400,000, says Stein. The budget for Havana Music Hall will come in at more than five times that, the difference coming from Kagan and his investors.
“But, where else but Miami would you do this?” asks Stein. “It’s a Cuban story, but it’s also a story about immigration, which is profound for our community. And even though it has a Latin ring in this case, it’s a universal theme now. People are trying to get here [the U.S.] like never before because of world conditions.”
Stein says that when Torres presented the idea to Arisco, “He thought it had a lot of worthiness, and was cutting edge. We agreed that it would serve a purpose for our community and for the theater,” she says, including financial rewards should i succeed. And, as the biggest production in playhouse history – another $25,000 for just sound equipment will be added to the theater’s existing gear – “it has such high production values that it gives us a chance to really punch up what we do. We do great stuff with our funding and our resources, but what people will see with this is phenomenal.” It will also enhance the reputation of Actors’ Playhouse – and hopefully develop a new audience. While it is an exemplary theater (garnishing local and national grants in Miami-Dade County second only to the New World Symphony) Actors’ Playhouse faces what all live theaters outside of New York face: a shrinking audience.
“Theater supporters are passing on, and empty nesters are leaving. The millenials have no idea about live theater. And then there is the diversity of the community – live theater is not necessarily their priority. This is an opportunity to increase our audience base. As an area public institution, we have an obligation to grow ourselves.”
It has such high production values that it gives us a chance to punch up what we [normally]… What people will see is phenomenalBarbara Stein, executive director, Actors’ Playhouse
If the stakes are high for Stein and the Actors’ Playhouse, they are even higher for Kagan. For him, it is “all in” and the fulfillment of a dream – albeit one late in the life of an insurance agent for Hollywood stars. Not only did he compose the music, he had to advance the entire process, including intense pre-production workshops in New York’s theater district this summer.
“I’ve always been involved in theater, and I’ve had ideas for musicals, like one I tried to do for I Love Lucy,” says Kagan, who has served on numerous theatrical boards, including L.A.’s Center Theater Group, the largest non-profit theater company in the U.S. (Children of a Lesser God, Angels in America). “But this was never a dream of mine, to create a show and write the score for it.”
Having committed to the idea, however, Kagan has spared no expense in bringing talent to cast and crew. He already had a huge Rolodex of contacts from his early years producing Broadway shows (he was twice nominated for Tony’s as a producer), compounded by decades of hobnobbing with the Hollywood elite as an insurance salesman.
In addition to the technical directors for sound, light, dance, set design and lyrics, the band itself is laden with talent; one worked with Celia Cruz, one with Tito Puente, another with Gloria Estefan. “This will be the hottest band to ever play a Broadway show,” says Kagan. To help with the orchestration, Kagan called on Larry Blank, the famed composer, arranger and conductor who received three Tony nominations for his orchestrations of Catch Me if You Can, White Christmas and The Drowsy Chaperone.
“I met him in the Hamlisch days,” says Kagan. “I called him and said, ‘I’ve written a score.’ He said, ‘But, you’re an insurance salesman!’” He humored me by listening to one song and in the middle of it said, ‘That’s it. I’m in.” Blank’s orchestrations (and the script) were reviewed by Miami music legend Luis Serrano, a music historian in his own right who Kagan calls his “Cuban music authenticator.” Then there is Tony Seepersad, the band’s director, who is also a concert violinist and member of the Miami Symphony and Florida Grand Opera.
“In addition to them, we have 19 actors and dancers in the cast, and another 30 people from our production side, and the Actors’ Playhouse has about ten. And that doesn’t include theater staff, like ushers. It’s a big production.”
The real question, says Kagan, is whether enough people will come to the show. “I just have to get people to know about it, and to fill the seats,” he says. If they do, they will be exposed to a musical performance that is lyrical, melodic, beautiful and moving – and, to an authentic event. One of the elements that Torres added to the production was the idea that the Miracle Theater will become the Havana Music Hall.
“Our pre-show and after-show is something to come and experience,” says Torres. “It is an immersive element that I created for people to take in as part of the Havana Music Hall, from the moment they arrive in the front of the marque.” For those who go inside and see the show, she says, “It is a story of love, hope and redemption. The love of Havana, the hope that you can express yourself through music, and the redemption for those who had to stay and endure in Cuba. But I can’t give that part away. That is part of the discovery of going to see it.”