For starters, it was an improvisation. In 1996, a recording session was scheduled in Havana bringing together Cuban and Malian musicians, but the Africans had visa problems and did not arrive. So instead, a collection of veteran Cuban musicians, some of them coming out of long retirement, recorded a collection of classic Cuban songs. This was “Buena Vista Social Club”, which became not only the best-selling Cuban album ever, but also a distinctive artifact of Cuban culture loved around the world.
Other albums followed: outtakes, derivatives, live recordings of shows like the one at Carnegie Hall. Wim Wenders made a documentary film. And now, almost 30 years later, there is a musical stage: “Buena Vista Social Club”, premiered at the Off Broadway Atlantic Theater Company.
This new project began a few years ago, when a producer with the film rights to the album approached Cuban-American playwright Marco Ramirez (“The Royale”).
“The first question,” Ramirez recalled after a recent rehearsal, “was ‘Do you know this record?’ And for a Cuban kid who grew up right around the time the record came out, the answer was, ‘Of course.’ The next question was, ‘Do you think there’s a play here?’”
The search for an answer to that question led Ramirez to Cuba, where he interviewed some of the surviving participants. “It was about finding the emotional truth at the heart of everything,” he said. “For me, it’s ultimately about a group of people who have been given the magical opportunity to take a second look at their past, to do something right or simply to relive their youth.”
This is the story that this “Buena Vista” tells. It dramatizes the making of the album in the way of getting the old gang back together, but also, through flashbacks, recreates pre-revolution Cuba, the golden age of the 1950s, of the musicians’ youth, suffused with nostalgia and regret.
This is “the emotional truth behind the factual truth,” Ramirez said. “It’s all inspired by real people and events, but I definitely take many, many liberties to tell the best story possible.”
Where no liberties are taken is with the music. The dialogues are in English, but the songs – taken from the larger “Buena Vista” catalog – remain in Spanish. “Old songs bring back old feelings,” says one character in the show. “Given these lyrics, given the moods evoked by this music, what story can emerge?” Ramirez said. “At first I felt that I was communicating with songwriters, dead for 80 years and more, that my collaborators were ghosts.”
Eventually, living collaborators joined him. The show, running through January 7 at the Linda Gross Theatre, is directed by Saheem Ali (“Fat Ham”) and choreographed by the married team of Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck (“Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story”). Casting was a challenge, doubly so since the flashback structure required finding two people (one older, one younger) to play each of Buena Vista’s distinctive real-life personalities.
“We had to find artists who could sing and sound like the originals,” Ali said. “But the Venn diagram of who also had to act or dance was pretty intense. Each of them does something with excellence, but they must challenge themselves to do something different because of what we are building together. We have started an international search for people who can embody the music in a way that feels truthful.”
The common denominator, Ramirez said, is that everyone has a connection to the “Buena Vista” album. Her voice comes through her Cuban grandparents, who played the songs in her home in Miami, so much so that when the album came out she already knew them; It was exciting for several generations of his family to talk about a new album together. “The bittersweet irony is that they were nostalgic for Havana, and now I listen to this record and I’m nostalgic for them,” he said.
In the role of the old Ibrahim Ferrer – who shined shoes for money when he was recruited to provide his golden voice on the boleros for the Buena Vista recordings – he is Mel Seed. He was a teenager in Cuba at the time of the album’s release.
“It became popular first outside Cuba,” he said. “But then we fell in love with this music again, and it became the music that many of us aspired to play.”
After graduating from the University of the Arts with a degree in classical percussion, Semé moved to Europe, slowly building a career as a drummer, guitarist, singer and bandleader. Since his acting experience was limited to commercials, he initially told Buena Vista’s music team that perhaps he wasn’t the person they were looking for.
“I feel like a teenager again, learning a new skill,” he said. Echoing a phrase used by many other cast members, he said playing Ferrer is a “huge responsibility” but he was helped by a deep connection with the singer, who found worldwide fame at age 70 and is died in 2005.
“Even though my story isn’t exactly his story, I also found some success late in life,” he said. “I have always seen Ibrahim as a role model. No matter how late in his life he got his chance, it was done with such grace.
Renesimo Avic he plays Eliades Ochoa, the cowboy-hatted musician who brought a more rural sound to the original Buena Vista group. Music, he said, “has been the backdrop to my entire life.” He was born in Santiago de Cuba, Ochoa’s hometown, and even met him once. An accomplished musician specializing in the tres, a version of the guitar at the heart of Cuban music, Avic is also a novice at acting. He said he feels the musical is “really honoring what music means to Cubans like me.”
Or like Leonardo Reyna, born and raised in Havana before embarking on a career as a classical pianist in Europe. The “Buena Vista” album “had enormous meaning for me,” Reyna said, “helping me rediscover forgotten figures like Rubén González” — the virtuoso pianist Reyna played as a young man.
The show feels authentic, Reyna said, “even from a writer and director who isn’t from the island,” because of its cultural sensitivity and an attention to musical detail that she finds touching. “Emotions arise from the distance that many of us have had to travel, from the separation of families, but also from a sense of identity that is somehow being reconstructed,” she said. “He’s healing.”
Among the cast members who are not Cuban, Natalie Venetia Belcon is a Broadway actress who does not speak Spanish. But when she was preparing to audition for the daunting role of Buena Vista diva Omara Portuondo, her songs brought out a wave of memories of her Trinidadian musician parents. Kenya Browne, the Mexican-born singer who played young Omara, knew the music as something her grandmother played. His mother told him “Dos Gardenias”, a bolero that she sings in the show, is one that her great-grandmother often sang.
Peck and Delgado — his parents were born in Cuba — have long loved the album. They chose a track from it (“Pueblo Nuevo”) for the first dance at their wedding. As soon as they heard about the musical project they asked to be involved.
“Since the songs are in Spanish,” Delgado said, “a lot of times our responsibility is to make the audience feel something through the universal language of dance, and you don’t even have to understand what’s being said.”
The variety of dance in Cuba, Peck noted, includes ballet, contemporary, Afro-Cuban and a number of social dances. “We wanted to create a dance language that honored that, so it’s not one thing,” she said. “And we also want to allow our imagination to come into play, our personal touch, so that it doesn’t feel like a documentary dance but a living one.”
Peck recalled the experience of walking around Havana, listening to music and seeing people move. “And then, as that sound starts to fade, another sound comes out in the distance and collides with it,” he said. “That energy is something we want to convey.”
Ali added: “It’s not a show where one thing ends and another begins. Everything passes from one to the other. We’re not following a template of what a musical is, but we’re letting the music lead and the songs dictate how the story should evolve.
Creating this way took a lot of trial and error, Peck said. “All of us have had this huge process of building a lot of things and throwing things away. But this is the only way to find the final recipe.”
Ramirez appreciated the process similar to that of Juan de Marcos González, the musician behind the original recording of “Buena Vista”: “He was the fixer, the guy who knew all the people involved, who knew where to find Omara and the right bassist. Like many young Cubans in that period” – the “Special Period” of economic collapse following the dissolution of the Soviet Union – “were not about to let an opportunity slip away. For me, he is the hero.”
“I’m not a jazz musician,” Ramirez continued, “but I feel like we improvised, making it up on the fly, building it up as we went along. I can’t think of a more Cuban thing to have done.