Roush Review: The Theatrical ‘Rent’ Revolution Heads to Cuba

Review
HBO

A quarter century after it first rocked the theater world, Rent continues to make waves wherever it goes.

That was especially true in 2014–15, when the late Jonathan Larson’s exuberantly edgy musical homage to La Bohème was produced in Cuba, the first Broadway show to be staged there by a U.S. company in more than 50 years. A bold choice, considering the show’s inclusive celebration of gay characters was being presented in a Communist country that persecuted homosexuals during Castro’s revolution.

The poignant and deeply personal documentary Revolution Rent is the backstage story of that production—and of its director, Andy Señor Jr., who played the role of Angel on Broadway in the 1990s and is the son of Cuban exiles. Returning to his ancestral homeland, Señor is inspired and unsettled as he walks the historic streets of family legend and assembles a local cast, many of whom reflect the bohemian outsider spirit of Rent‘s beloved characters.

With only five months before opening night on Christmas Eve—a date special to Larson and the show—rehearsals in Havana are beset by technical difficulties and a lack of resources; a veteran production coordinator calls the enterprise “Broadway Survivor. Señor keeps a tight focus on his inexperienced ensemble, coaching them to overcome personal and cultural insecurities so they can fully embrace Rent’s message of love and tolerance.

During the process, one actor learns he’s HIV-positive. Though she’s playing a proud lesbian in the show, an actress in the cast shrinks at being touched or kissed by another woman. “The only way to get by here is to help one another,” says an actor.

Another observes, “For this show, the unity among people is fundamental, or the show won’t succeed.” In the best tradition of Broadway—or in this case, as off-Broadway as it gets—the show goes on. And like everywhere where Rent is welcomed, the result is the same: sold-out houses.

Revolution Rent, Documentary Premiere, Tuesday, June 15, 9/8c, HBO