Revolution RENT

Andy Señor Jr. on Making Theater History in Revolution RENT

Rent alum Andy Señor Jr. made theater history in 2015 when he brought Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award– and Pulitzer Prize–winning rock opera to Cuba. The production, directed by Señor, ran for three months in Havana. It was the first American Broadway-style show to be produced in the country in more than 50 years. Now, Señor’s experience is being showcased on screen in the new documentary Revolution Rent. The emotional film, also directed by Señor, follows the artist as he attempts to stage the musical in Cuba — all while trying to connect to his family’s heritage and their complicated history with the country. Entertainment journalist Frank DiLella recently caught up with Andy to chat about Revolution Rent.

Congratulations on this incredible documentary. You played Angel in Rent on Broadway, on tour, and in London, and you were the assistant director for the Off-Broadway revival of the show. How did you get connected to Rent in Cuba?

Alex Lacamoire [orchestrator/arranger for musicals including Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen] was doing some work in Cuba with another show, and I told Alex, “Listen, I’ve never been to Cuba. I’m dying to go. Please let me know if there is anything I can do.” And the Nederlanders actually reached out to Alex asking him to be the musical director for Rent and he couldn’t do it. And Alex said to them, “I can’t do this project, but I know who needs to direct this!” And that’s when I came into the picture.

Were you worried at all about bringing Rent down to Cuba? Cuba is a communist country and this is a show that promotes freedom, liberation — “La Vie Bohème”!

Yes, I was really concerned. I was concerned that they would want to censor and edit Jonathan Larson’s work. I was thinking, On one hand, the show gets to be done, even if it is censored — there’s still power in Jonathan’s music and words. But at the same time, do I want to promote censored work? But right off the bat, I said, “If we’re doing Rent, we’re doing Rent. And we’re doing it 100 percent as written, with nothing changed. And they said yes.

One of the major hurdles you encounter in the film is trying to find talent to perform in the show.

Since musical theater is not studied there and Rent is already a difficult show to cast, even in the U.S. and in other markets, I was really concerned about finding talent to pull this off. So we did a trip to Cuba to assess, to see if we even picked the right show. And that trip was Bohemia — I felt like I entered Bohemia, the spirit of the people. I saw some theater there that was incredibly cutting-edge and interesting. And I was like, wait, we’re not doing the Cubans a favor by doing Rent — they’re already doing work here that is way beyond what is written on the page for Rent. So that’s what excited me.

There are parallels between the actors and the characters they’re portraying. For instance, one of your actors got diagnosed with HIV right before the show opened.

Yes — Mario Alain. For him to even talk about this experience in the documentary was really difficult. We shot this in 2014; it took him a long time to be able to allow us to use the footage until now. He had just been diagnosed and it wasn’t something he was comfortable with. And he was afraid of the stigma of what it is to be an HIV-positive artist. And can you be an artist with HIV?

In the documentary, we also get to know your family — and they were not happy that you took the Rent gig in Cub. Both of your parents fled Cuba in the late ’50s–early ’60s.

As soon as I got the call that I booked Cuba, I knew I was going. And at the same time, I was like, Oh, shit. Because I know how I am, and I know there is nothing that’s going to stop me from going. So when I told my Mom and family, they were like, “Absolutely not.” So it was difficult to hear all their reasons, and my friends’ reasons, and that they might be right. There was a lot of fear for me about going to Cuba. Like, what if I’m incredibly naive here and what if I’m doing something that is not going to work out in any way.

June marks Gay Pride Month. Rent is a celebration of a lot of things, including the LGBTQIA+ community. What does Pride mean to you?

Pride means to me, taking ownership of who it is that you are accounting for, and acknowledging it. And it’s really what I love about the Cubans: They may live in the circumstances they’re in, but their spirit — you can’t mess with that. And Pride is owning that part of you that no one can mess with or take away from you.

Revolution Rent premieres June 15 on HBO/HBO Max.