Why you should care
Because love is a shiv.
Here is what most people know about Carmen: It’s a very, very famous opera — whatever that’s worth for an opera these days — about a promiscuous woman (named Carmen!) who eventually dies for her sins. Maybe they recognize “Habanera” from the movie Up or Beaker’s virtuoso performance on Sesame Street. But from the opening of Carmen la Cubana, when a massive Cuban flag falls away to reveal a stage filled with crumbling yet still classic stairs and verandas, it’s like someone lit a fire under a relic.
The revolution happens around the heroes, who are fearful of and excited by the changes sweeping their country.
Carmen la Cubana is billed as “The First Cuban Musical,” though surely one could dispute that it’s the first, that it’s Cuban (the director, Christopher Renshaw, is a Brit, though most of the cast and many other team members are Cuban or Cuban-American) or that it’s a musical (we’ll let the Broadway people and the opera world have that fight). What it indisputably is, though, is a production so firmly entrenched in Cuban music and dance traditions that it’s hard to believe it was written by a Frenchman in the 1870s.
The production, which just concluded a run in Paris, is set in 1958 on the eve of the Cuban Revolution, which Renshaw chose because he wanted to portray “a country on the edge of crisis.” It’s about politics, though it doesn’t take a political stance: The revolution happens around the heroes, who are fearful of and excited by the changes sweeping their country. Though the famous songs are all there, they’ve been reimagined with a new libretto — currently in Spanish, though the team has also workshopped it in Spanglish — that takes the classic “Love is a rebellious bird” aria and says what it really means: “Love is a shiv.”
That’s one of the first things Carmen tells the audience, and with her entrance the show makes clear that this is a feminist Carmen. The Carmen of Carmen la Cubana is not a loose woman with a romantic streak bouncing from man to man until one of them, betrayed, kills her. Instead, she’s a woman struggling for modernity and equality who enjoys love but doesn’t let it define her, and who is never embarrassed about saying exactly what she wants. “For a woman at that time, what it must have been like,” Renshaw says, shaking his head.
To be sure, this isn’t a new idea. Renshaw was inspired by Carmen Jones, a 1943 musical that had a similar interpretation set in the American South. And others have rewritten Carmen to be about Cuba — playwright Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project) has been workshopping an identical concept for two years.
Feminism is all very well, but — given the success of the ultra-political Hamilton, whose Tony-winning musical director, Alex Lacamoire, has been an instrumental part of Carmen la Cubana — the show’s real selling point may be that stories about Cuba are hot right now. The team is hopeful about a Broadway run, after the show tours London and Germany. And while nobody’s expecting them to capture lightning in a bottle as Hamilton did, the show’s incandescent newness against the backdrop of an old score could, one day, take it straight to the top.