December 24, 2014 — not exactly at 9 p.m. eastern standard time — certainly capped off Andy Señor Jr. shooting without a script in Havana, Cuba as he staged a production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” and shot behind-the-scenes footage for what eventually became the documentary “Revolution Rent.”
Opening the show on Christmas Eve certainly became a gift, not only to the Cuban theater company he put together for the production and the local people the show touched once it was mounted, but for Señor himself, who took his career to the next level by directing the documentary alongside Victor Patrick Alvarez.
“It doesn’t matter what I do in my career, no matter what’s going on, if there’s an opportunity to do ‘Rent,’ I hope to always have this in my life,” Señor tells Variety. “There’s nothing more special than to see a group of actors discover not only the character in the show but discover themselves and what it takes to put on the show. It’s so beautiful. And it goes beyond words — it speaks to humanity and our souls and how we take care of each other and how we embrace each other. That’s the world I want to move in.”
Señor got his professional start playing Angel Dumott Schunard on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning musical about a group of struggling artists living amid the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the East Village. He later joined a touring production, performing everywhere from England to Asia. But he is hardly alone in feeling the pull back to the play: When he was staging his Cuban production, he brought along Marcus Paul James, who performed in various “Rent” roles on Broadway from Tom Collins to Benjamin Coffin III, to do the choreography, and he also enlisted original costume designer Angela Wendt.
The Cuban production of “Rent” was staged under President Barack Obama’s administration, opening just a week after he announced the beginning of the process to normalize relations between the two countries. A few months later, Cuba was removed from the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism and an American embassy in Havana was reopened. (As noted in the documentary, Señor performed at that re-opening.) But then, Donald Trump took office in 2016 and began to reverse some of those steps, such as banning certain business deals and tightening travel restrictions to the country. That same year saw the death of Fidel Castro, the one-time guerrilla fighter who led the transformation of Cuba into a Communist nation in the late 1950s.
Self-described as “the guy that was always shooting everywhere that we went” when he was on tour with “Rent” earlier in his career, Señor never stopped filming. When Castro died, a few of the Cuban performers he worked with on “Rent” were living with Señor’s mother in Miami. “There were all these people outside the restaurants with pots and pans and flags, cheering and so forth. And they had never seen that before,” Señor says. “They were a little shaken by that, but very, very taken by that.”
Although the political outlook was suddenly different and he certainly had more material, when putting together “Revolution Rent,” Señor opted not to include present-day elements. Instead, he shares that he wanted to keep the film focused on the “time capsule” of when he was working on the stage production.
“It captures a very particular moment, and it was made with with in a specific energy. Not to be hippie-dippie, but it had a very particular sentiment. I felt like the leap to now would be too much of a leap,” he admits.
Within the documentary, Señor captures as much of the “Rent” auditions and rehearsals as he does intimate moments with his collaborators. Making himself a subject of the story, he goes into his cast members’ homes in Cuba and also invites the audience into his family’s home where some of his family members, his late mother included, express deep fears about him bringing the show to Cuba in the first place.
“My mother was concerned for my safety. She was very afraid of what was going to happen to me. She really always said everything that was on her mind,” he says. And this was not just about his physical safety, but also what could happen to his career. “In Miami, if you were a musician at that time and you went to Cuba [to] perform, the Cubans would come together and burn your records. She was concerned that something like that was going to happen me — that I was going to be blacklisted in some kind of way, which I was concerned with, as well. I was like, ‘Is this detrimental to me and my community? Will they see this as a disrespect to their history?’ That was definitely real, but for me, it was a risk I had to take. I had to do it.”
Señor credits Alvarez for much of the raw, honest footage they captured. Bringing only one camera and their iPhones to Cuba, they didn’t set out to make a documentary alongside the theater production. But “having Patrick in the rehearsal room and in their homes, it was like the little brother that was just filming all the time, so they were incredibly open and transparent and loving,” Señor says. “Cubans, just by nature, they give everything they have, whether it’s welcoming you into their homes, whatever they have in the fridge — whatever they have to share with you, they’re going to share.” And that went for feelings, too.
Coming to HBO on June 15, “Revolution Rent” first premiered in November 2019 (at the Doc NYC Festival). Since then, Señor has educated new countries about the source material, including South Korea, where he staged “Rent” in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While putting the play up in Cuba came with complications that ranged from having insufficient tech tools to needing to train the ensemble on the basics of theater techniques and getting them to think about each other as a necessary community, in Korea, he notes, his cast told him HIV/AIDS education is still non-existent. “It’s not talked about,” he recalls them explaining.
“Fortunately,” Señor says, once places like Cuba and South Korea agreed to mount the show, there were no discussions about censoring its frank tone. “My first rule, always, is if it’s not ‘Rent’ the way Jonathan wrote it, I’m not doing it. [But] the all or nothing mentality is really hard. You want to fight for the integrity of what things are, but at the same time, you want to be able to provide opportunity.
“It would be hypocritical of me in the sense of going to Cuba and my parents and my family and my community want a complete revolution and democratic country overnight, but doesn’t happen that way,” he continues. “It happens step by step and it happens in conversation.”
Although these elements may add another complicated layer to Señor’s work as a director, it also provides him the opportunity to work with performers in the way he loves.
“I go into their lives,” he says. “There are core truths that Jonathan was writing about that he was experiencing with his group of friends that I think [everyone] experiences in some kind of way. And so, I do a lot of work to personalize: ‘Where is this real for you in your life? You’re singing “Seasons of Love” about somebody you’re losing, what’s this person’s name?’ I get them together in a circle and they sing the song and they fall apart and that’s where their masks start coming off. It doesn’t matter where I do it in the world, they really respond to it.”
“Revolution Rent” premieres June 15 at 9 p.m. on HBO.