Havana Music Hall: The Story Of Those Who Stayed Behind

The cast of the world premiere Havana Music Hall at Actors Playhouse / Photos by Alberto Romeu

By Bill Hirschman

It would be intriguing and accurate, but misleading to say that Havana Music Hall, the world premiere and hopeful Broadway musical about Cuban artists before and after the Revolution, is the brainchild of 72-year-old New Jersey-born Jewish insurance salesman Richard Kagan.

He dreamed it, conceived it, wrote the tuneful Cuban score, shepherded it through a dozen readings and workshops over four years, helped rewrite the script, and he is bankrolling all of a bill closing in on $2 million. In an interview at Actors’ Playhouse where the work was in previews last week, his freight-train energy and viral enthusiasm was overwhelming.

But between a score of self-deprecating anecdotes about his checkered career as a Broadway producer often supporting his “best friend in the world Marvin Hamlisch,” he spent a third of the interview crediting a half-dozen others who imbued this piece with the pungent ethnic flavor and specific cultural insights that he had only learned second hand.

Richard Kagan

There’s Maria Torres, a Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican-Dominican-Cuban, a veteran dancer best known as the associate choreographer of On Your Feet, but whom all who work for her agree is the force of nature molding the piece as director and choreographer. She helmed Actors’ Playhouse’s Four Guys Named Jose and una Mujer Named María in 2001.

There’s musicologist Jose “Perico” Hernandez who has helped guide much of Kagan’s work in part because he lived a portion of its story. There’s Grammy-winning dance arranger Oscar Hernandez, writer Carmen Pelaez and dramaturg Carmen Rivera, who are among numerous hands who helped Kagan and Torres shape and reshape and reshape the script.

And there is the 20-member Latinx cast and nine-member band, about half from South Florida originally or currently, and many others who have worked here.

The title itself is a tad misleading. While the intent is to stage an entertaining evening notable for copious irresistible music and dance, the story is a deeply dramatic one. The location in the title is simply the backdrop, not meant to make patrons think this is a shallow revue of what one actor termed “Ricky Ricardo music.”

Set in December 1958, the young husband and wife musical team Rolando and Ramona Calderon, who own the titular venue, are on the verge of a career breakthrough. But the Cuban Revolution upends the country. The brutal regime commandeers artistic expression, especially in the entertainment industry. Resistance has tragic results for the Calderons and their extended family. The second act is set 60 years later as the pair and their associates who have stayed in their beloved homeland try to cope with the new post-Castro Cuba.

While the story and setting reflect Cuba specifically, all of the creative team believe that the issues will resonate for anyone whose family once considered themselves immigrants from an “Old Country.”

“We have a story about today and about immigration, about the place of your birth and how do you survive and the power of family and the place you were born and the joy of music,” Kagan said.

Maria Torres

Torres, a verbal dynamo herself, repeated a catchphrase that her cast joked is her ever-present mantra: “The show is about three things: love, hope and redemption — the love of country, the hope to be able to exercise your voice as a musician trapped in your own country, and the opportunity to be able to redeem themselves of decisions that they had to make.”

For a predominantly Latinx team, the work had multiple resonances they could not ignore, mostly that their own stories or stories of people they loved were being accurately explored.  In Torres’ previous work on film, stage and television, she often “saw the underrepresentation of how these stories are told. I was always the caricature (role), the hot mama. You put the tightest dress on her, the makeup or give her a bra two sizes too small so it pops up. I always remember being that person. I was always filling in the quota of Puerto Rican and black because the way I looked.”

With this piece “I want to make a difference, creating a voice and creating myself as a person… to tell our stories from an authentic point of view, as well as knowing that there’s a commercial viability.”

Finally, “I’m an American citizen and I had to struggle within my own country to justify who I was as an artist. Because at the end of the day, the racism and the classism and the oppression and the story and the stereotypical shit is still the same.”

The older Ramona is played by Isbelia Duran, a standout as Fraulein Schneider in Area Stage’s recent Cabaret. She added, “How do you triumph and how you rise above that?” Echoing another Torres’ catchphrases, she said, “It’s the triumph of the human spirit.”

But back to Kagan, the insurance man. A half-century ago or so, he was playing piano at a girls’ summer camp where everyone raved about his predecessor named Marvin Hamlisch. When Hamlisch visited, the composer played piano for an enthusiastic crowd.  “And that was the moment I went in the insurance business… I knew I couldn’t do that,” Kagan said with a laugh.

That’s the quick story he likes to tell. Actually, he produced an off-Broadway show, “The World’s a Stage” when he was just 22, making him one of the youngest in the profession. It was not a financial success.  That’s when he went into the insurance business, he admits.

Still, Hamlisch “encouraged me to write music. He said, ‘You write melodies better than anybody….’ But I went to the insurance business luckily and I had the most amazing career.”  As founder and CEO of Kagan Life & Health Insurance in Century City, California, he made a lot of money selling policies to clients who included Karen Carpenter and John Lithgow.

At the same time, he worked closely with Hamlisch, becoming a co-producer on his shows like The Goodbye Girl, Jean Seberg, Smile and the non-Hamlisch Leader of the Pack (“I have two Tony nominations for lousy shows.”)  He later became the president and chairman of the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, one of nation’s largest not-for-profit companies.

With Hamlisch’s support – and still running his growing insurance company — he began writing pop songs with legends like Hal David and later for boy bands. His wife, actress Julie Hagerty, calls him “75-cent.”

“So I’ve had an amazing career that provided me everything I ever wanted. And this was never a dream I never dreamed — to write a (theater) score, to be involved other than producing.”

But a turning point occurred when he saw the 1999 documentary The Buena Vista Social Club about Cuban musicians playing pre-Revolutionary music. He was enthralled but could not get theatrical colleagues interested. Years later, he tried to get the rights to musicalize it, but the owners of the title wanted too much artistic control.

He retreated to his summer home in Maine, when “fortuitously” he saw the 2014 film Chef in which he spotted Jose “Perico” Hernandez. In a subsequent meeting, Hernandez told his life story now encompassed in this musical.

Kagan recalled, “He said in 1958 I was at the Hotel Capri. I was 23 years old. I was making eighty dollars a week. I was a singer. I had three children. Life was great. The regime came in. They took two hundred of us downstairs. They say you no longer work for the hotel; you work for us.… We have to tell you what to play and we also tell you how much you make. Are there any questions? He raised his hand. ‘My son was born with forceps and is mentally ill. I want to take him north for treatment’ and they said, ‘Okay.’ They gave him a place he had to be at nine o’clock in the morning (at) a ministry. They put him on a bus (for a labor camp). For three years, (he had) no contact with his family and told he could never be a musician again. When he got out, he cut sugar cane.”

With Hernandez’s in-depth help, Kagan penned a score that since has been reworked and added to and evolved.  Famed Broadway orchestrator Larry Blank has been in on the process since the early days. “He’s been very supportive because, look, I’m insecure as a musician because I’ve been in the insurance business. I know what I can do. I’m not Beethoven, but I know I write melodies.”

Then he sought a bookwriter. The torturous trek had defections and substitutions. “We’ve had five or six lyricists, three or four writers,” he said. Over four years, the work has undergone multiple workshops and readings in Seattle, New York and Los Angeles with the aid of Torres and, at one point, former Miamian Janet Dacal singing at one of the workshops.

The piece came to Florida in part because Torres has worked for Actors’ Playhouse’s Artistic Director David Arisco. She said, “I thought that the best way to do it for a tryout was to do it in Miami, 90 miles away from the country that we were talking about and to have an eclectic audience in addition to have access to the Cuban people, and to hopefully have it be a general audience that would embrace the haves and have nots,” Torres said.

She reached out to Manny Schvartzman, the veteran South Florida musical director who was the associate musical director on the national tour of On Your Feet. Schvartzman called Arisco last fall and asked if he would meet with Torres. That meeting, plus reading the script and music, stoked Arisco’s interest. But he realized the only way to move forward was to bring Kagan in from Los Angeles.

“There was always that question of, listen, this show sounds pretty big” so Kagan agreed to pay enhancement money, Arisco said. “That’s really where Richard came through, saying ‘Okay, listen, I want to take this thing to New York. And so this is the theater that we start that journey with. I will put in this much, you know, whatever.”

But the show, with its Cuban title and music, dovetail perfectly with the Coral Gables theater’s two-decade attempt to keep a Hispanic audience. Over the years, it has tried – unsuccessfully by its leaders’ own admission – to hang on to audiences who have shown up for such shows as Four Guys Named Jose. It has produced works by Pulitzer-winner Nilo Cruz, and several works centering on life in Cuba. Last spring, it produced an Evita with performances delivered totally in Spanish – a marked disappointment at the box office.

The Playhouse has been in these world premiere waters before. The highest profile was in 2003 when the company played host to the development of a Broadway-bound revival of Little Shop of Horrors, notable because after the show closed in Coral Gables, the producers hired a new director and fired everyone but the lead actor before going to New York.

But this is one of the largest undertaking the theater has been involved in, with many hands being brought in by Torres and Kagan. Arisco was involved in casting including pushing for a local casting call. Several of the troupe are local including Duran and Oscar Cheda. The production is aggressively marketing itself, including holding a blowout reception a week ago, extensive posts on social media, rehearsals in front of local TV news cameras, handing out Cuban-style fedoras with musical notes on them, playing cards displaying the show’s logo, and CDs of an early version of the score.

Kagan is inviting New York producing acquaintances to the show, but so far it’s been his solo investment “because I want to go ‘all in’ like a poker game,” he said. Part of that results from having worked in problematic shows with “committees” that could not agree.

Having found like-minded collaborators such as Torres, Kagan is ebullient about what will have its formal premiere on Oct. 19. For them, the show may not be about immigrants, but it will be immigrants and their grandchildren from many backgrounds who will be seeing what is hoped will resonate in a story of a homeland across the sea.

“We always thought (we would have failed) if people don’t come out thinking that this relates to them, that it really affects them, that they discover their roots… Last summer when we did a workshop in Los Angeles, people came up afterward crying, saying ‘This is my story.’”

“And they were from Russia, from Iran.”

Havana Music Hall is in previews through Oct. 18. Opening night Oct. 19. Runs through Nov. 18 at Actors’ Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. Performances 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $35-$75. A post-show party and buffet will be held on the street after the opening night performance. Visit www.actorsplayhouse.org or call (305) 444-9293.

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