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How the musical 'Rent' brought a group of young Cubans together — and made history

“Revolution Rent,” a documentary currently on HBO Max, explores director Andy Señor Jr.'s journey to take “Rent” to Havana — his parents' birthplace.
Andy Senor Jr. directs the cast of RENT in Cuba in a scene from "Revolution Rent."
Andy Señor Jr. directs the cast of "Rent" in Cuba, in a scene from the HBO Max documentary "Revolution Rent."HBO

When "Rent” opened on Broadway in 1996, it made history with numerous accolades.

In 2014, it gained another groundbreaking feat after it became the first musical in 50 years to be staged by an American company in Cuba.

"Revolution Rent," a documentary currently on HBO Max, explores the journey of taking "Rent" to Havana.

At the center of the documentary is director Andy Señor Jr., a Cuban American who played Angel in the original Broadway production. Señor Jr. had staged "Rent" before in cities in South Korea and Japan, but taking the production to his parents' native country meant exploring a painful past. 

“There was hesitancy in telling my family,” Señor said. “But I didn’t really think about it much because I knew that I wanted to go to Cuba.” 

Señor’s parents fled Cuba after Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959. Señor’s father, Andy Sr., never saw his country again. Gloria, Señor’s mother, expressed hesitation about her son's project in Cuba. “I love my country very much, and I’d love to go back, but in a different situation,” Señor’s mother says in the film. 

Andy Senor Jr., right, with Luis Alberto as Angel in a scene from "Revolution Rent."
Andy Senor Jr., right, with Luis Alberto as Angel in a scene from "Revolution Rent."HBO

Fortunately, Señor’s mother visited Cuba to see "Rent" before her death. 

“That was like a very full, complete moment for my mom. Her big thing was she didn’t want what happened to my father, where he passed away without going, and never seeing his home again. She didn’t want that to happen to her," Señor said.

The journey to put on "Rent" in Havana in six weeks was arduous. The show, which follows a group of young adults in New York City struggling with economic hardship and the rise of HIV/AIDS, opens on Christmas Eve. The show in Havana also opened on Dec. 24.

For Señor Jr., a major challenge was channeling the vision of the show’s writer, Jonathan Larson, who died unexpectedly just before the show’s first off-Broadway preview performance. 

“Jonathan’s words, music and reputation is the spirit of what 'Rent' is. People understand the impact of the show and the message of love and tolerance and family through him,” Señor said.

"Rent" in Cuba was a new opportunity, not just for Señor but for the Cuban cast. Many had never performed onstage prior to auditioning, and some had discomfort around the sexual and homosexual themes in the musical.

Reality versus expectations

Señor came to realize that coming to Cuba as an American meant experiencing major cultural differences and acknowledging the reality of how Cuba was far different from his expectations.

“Getting there and seeing how urban it was and that the young Cuban artists couldn’t relate to the nostalgia that was particular within the exile community was a bit new for me to understand,” Señor said. “So I thought, what is Cuba now that is not this nostalgic version?” 

There were a number of similarities between the story of "Rent" and the lives of the young Cubans in the stage productions. Mario, who played Mark, finds out he’s positive for HIV after he joins the production. Just like "Rent" highlighted the overcrowded, dismal housing conditions for many in New York City, the homes of cast members were in cramped, poverty-stricken areas of Cuba. A cast member even runs out of water in one scene of the documentary. 

In the musical, hardships bring the group together, as they did for the cast in Havana. "Having to come together as a community, a lot of that happens in Cuba," Señor said. "You just kind of have to depend on each other to get by.” 

Arguably, the most striking parallel occurs when an actress begins to yell out “freedom” for a scene. The camera later pans to the streets of Cuba where a large protest breaks out. 

“On that particular day, it was Human Rights Day. It was December and I was leaving the hotel and I walked past the protest," Señor said. "I saw that and we just happened to be rehearsing the performance piece, which is a protest that same day, and I was fascinated because they were just yelling out 'freedom.'"

A week before "Rent" opened in Cuba in 2014, the Obama administration announced steps to normalize relations between the two countries, including reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana. The cast of Cuba’s "Rent" even went on to perform at the embassy and at the White House.

After Donald Trump became president in 2016, the progress made toward better relations between Cuba and the U.S. was set back by further restrictions and policies.

In mid-July Cuba was roiled by historic protests as the government grapples with ongoing shortages, economic hardship and rising Covid cases, with the U.S. and the international community denouncing the arrests that followed the street demonstrations.

No other American Broadway production has been staged in Cuba after “Rent.” Señor said he wants to produce a show in Cuba someday that’s not an American import.

“I would love to create a new musical using Cuban music with our own Cuban stories,” Señor said. “The Cuban spirit is unbreakable. It doesn’t matter if the circumstances are political. The Cuban spirit, that joy, is just everlasting.” 

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