July 8, 2007 / 9:52 PM / 10 years ago

Musical aims to put Cruz's name back in lights

MIAMI (Billboard) - Latin-themed musicals are a rare commodity in the theater business.

But an upcoming production based on the life of Cuban music queen Celia Cruz has potential to reach Latin and mainstream audiences in a major way.

The biggest draw of “Celia: A Musical Journey,” set to open September 12 off-Broadway at New World Stages, is the artist’s name.

Cruz, who died in July 2003 at 77, was one of the most universally beloved figures in Latin music. Since her death, she has been remembered with a handful of biographies, TV specials, greatest-hits albums and her very own traveling Smithsonian exhibit.

A musical would undoubtedly draw Cruz fans, but it could also grow from there.

“In my experience, biographical musicals have to rise above the anecdote of a person’s biography and have a compelling element many can relate to,” said veteran director Susana Tubert, who is executive producer of Teatro Latino Fest. “That’s what’s going to make it cross over into an audience that may or may not know the icon.”

“Celia” comes at a time when there is more receptivity to Latin-themed musicals, added Tubert, whose directing and production credits include “The Capeman” and “Four Guys Named Jose ... and Una Mujer Named Maria.”

SUCCESS STORIES

“In the Heights,” a musical about Dominicans set in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, is about to move to Broadway after a successful six-month run off-Broadway. Other off-Broadway success stories include “Four Guys Named Jose” in 2000 and 2001’s “Quien Mato a Hector Lavoe?,” based on the life of the Puerto Rican singer (who is also the subject of the feature film “El Cantante,” starring Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez and opening August 1).

But there have also been flops, including 2000’s “Selena Forever,” which originated in Texas and shut down before reaching New York. “The Capeman,” produced by Paul Simon in 1998, closed after only three months, despite a stellar cast that included Anthony and Ruben Blades.

One of the challenges facing Latin musicals, Tubert said, is infusing an eminently American genre -- musical theater -- with the rhythms and sounds of Latin music. To that end, “Celia” brings Latin music and theater veterans together.

Henry Cardenas, CEO of event marketing/promotion firm CMN, secured the rights to the musical production in December 2004, bringing in investment partners who include reggaeton star Daddy Yankee.

The group is banking on the salability of a show that will feature many international hits popularized by Cruz, plus an original score penned by pianist/arranger Isidro Infante and Oscar Gomez, both longtime Cruz collaborators. Infante will also act as musical director and lead a nine-piece house orchestra.

The play’s director is Jaime Azpilicueta, a veteran whose credits include Spanish versions of “My Fair Lady” and “Evita.” The role of Cruz will be played by Xiomara Laugart, a former singer with tropical/fusion group Yerbabuena who can dance and act in Spanish and English.

“We’re fortunate in that we don’t need a (big-name) actress to lead the play,” Fojo says. “The Celia name does the job alone.”

Unlike Selena or Lavoe, whose reach was more regional, Cruz was an international star. Her name will no doubt ring a bell for thousands of tourists attending New York theaters.

In a departure, “Celia” will run six weekly performances in English and two in Spanish, with the latter aimed at an older, Latin audience.

Reuters/Billboard

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