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.” Luna Manzanares has been starring as the sultry femme fatale 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.

[. . . ] 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.

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.

[. . .] “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.

[. . .] 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.

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