By Brian Seibert
It was an improvisation to begin with. In 1996, a recording session was scheduled in Havana combining Cuban and Malian musicians, but the Africans had visa trouble and didn’t arrive. So instead, an assemblage of veteran Cuban musicians, some coming out of long retirement, recorded a collection of classic Cuban songs. This was “Buena Vista Social Club,” which became not just the bestselling Cuban album ever but also a defining artifact of Cuban culture beloved around the world.
More albums followed: outtakes, offshoots, live recordings of performances like the one at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Wim Wenders made a documentary film. And now, almost 30 years later, there is a stage musical: “Buena Vista Social Club,” in previews at the off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company.
This newest project started a few years back, when a producer with the theatrical 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 piece of theater here?’”
The search for an answer to that question sent Ramirez to Cuba, where he interviewed some of the surviving participants. “It was about finding the emotional truth at the center of it,” he said. “To me, it’s ultimately about a bunch of people who were given a magical opportunity to do a second take on their past, to make something right or just relive their youth.”
That’s the story that this “Buena Vista” tells. It dramatizes the making of the album in getting-the-old-gang-back-together fashion, but also, through flashbacks, recreates the pre-revolution, Golden Age 1950s Cuba 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’m definitely taking many, many liberties in order to tell the best possible story.”
Where no liberties are taken is with the music. The dialogue is in English, but the songs — drawn from the broader “Buena Vista” catalog — remain in Spanish. “Old songs bring up old feelings,” a character in the show says. “Given these lyrics, given the moods evoked by this music, what is the story that can emerge?” Ramirez said. “At the beginning, I felt that I was communicating with the songwriters, who have been dead for 80 years or more, that my collaborators were ghosts.”
Eventually, living collaborators joined him. The show, scheduled to run through Jan. 7 at the Linda Gross Theater, 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 necessitated finding two people (one older, one younger) to play each of the distinctive real-life Buena Vista personalities.
“We had to find performers who could sing and play like the originals,” Ali said. “But the Venn diagram of who also needed to act or dance was quite intense. They each do something with excellence, but they’re having to challenge themselves to do something different because of the thing we’re building together. We put on an international search for people who can embody the music in a way that felt truthful.”
The common denominator, Ramirez said, is that everyone has a connection to the “Buena Vista” album. His comes through his Cuban grandparents, who played the songs in his Miami home, so that when the record came out he 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.
Playing the older Ibrahim Ferrer — who was shining shoes for money when he was recruited to supply his golden voice to boleros for the Buena Vista recordings — is Mel Semé. He was a teenager in Cuba at the time of the album’s release.
“It became popular outside of Cuba first,” he said. “But then we fell in love with this music again, and it became the music many of us aspired to play.”
After graduating with a degree in classical percussion from the University of Arts, 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 the Buena Vista musical team that maybe he wasn’t the person they were looking for.
“I’ve been feeling like a teenager again, learning a new skill,” he said. Echoing a phrase used by many other cast members, he said that playing Ferrer is a “huge responsibility,” but he has been helped by a deep connection with the singer, who found worldwide acclaim in his 70s and died in 2005.
“Even though my story is not exactly his story, I also found a little bit of success late in life,” he said. “I always saw Ibrahim as a role model. No matter how late in life he got his chance, it was done with such grace.”
Renesito Avich plays Eliades Ochoa, the cowboy-hat-wearing musician who brought a more rural sound into the original Buena Vista group. The music, he said, “has been the background of my whole life.” He was born in Santiago de Cuba, Ochoa’s hometown, and even met him once. A successful musician who specializes in the tres, a version of guitar at the heart of Cuban music, Avich is also an acting novice. He said that he feels the musical “is truly honoring what the music means for Cuban people like me.”
Among the cast members who aren’t Cuban, Natalie Venetia Belcon is a Broadway actress who doesn’t speak Spanish. But when she was preparing to audition for the daunting role of Omara Portuondo, Buena Vista’s diva, the songs sprang a flood of memories of her Trinidadian musician parents. Kenya Browne, a Mexican-born singer who portrays the young Omara, knew the music as something that her grandmother used to play. Her mother told her that “Dos Gardenias,” a bolero she sings in the show, is one her great-grandmother sang often.
Peck and Delgado — her 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 learned about the musical project, they asked to be involved.
Peck recalled the experience of walking through Havana, hearing music playing and seeing people move to it. “And then as soon as that sound starts to fade, another sound is in the distance rubbing up against it,” he said. “That energy is something we want to weave through.”
Ali added: “It’s not a show where one thing stops and another begins. It all hands off to each other. We’re not following a template of what a musical is, but letting the music lead and allowing the songs to dictate how the story should evolve.”
Creating in this fashion required much trial and error, Peck said. “All of us have had this huge process of building a lot and throwing stuff away. But that’s the only way to find the final recipe.”