Andy Señor on taking Rent to Cuba: 'I wanted to be the one to do it'
Andy Señor's life changed drastically when he landed the role of Angel in the Broadway hit Rent, and he wanted to do the same for others.
In 2014, Señor took the show on the road to Cuba, and his journey is chronicled in the new documentary Revolution Rent (now airing on HBO and streaming on HBO Max). This was a controversial move for the Miami native of Cuban descent, as Florida is the state with the largest population of Cuban exiles in the United States.
Señor met with resistance from family and friends, but for him it wasn't a political matter — it was all about art.
"My mom and my dad were against me doing this, but they knew there was nothing they could say or do to dissuade me from it," Señor tells EW. "Had this been about anything other than Rent, I might've considered it, but it wasn't. I told them this was a non-negotiable. I wanted to experience that with the Cuban community and put on a show the way it was meant to be done. If it wasn't me, it was going to be somebody else. I wanted to be the one to do it."
Señor's love of Rent transcends his connection to it as a performer. It speaks to his passion for the work of playwright and composer Jonathan Larson, who transplanted Puccini's La Bohème to '90s New York City, against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic.
"What Jonathan Larson wrote in the music — the truth, the pain, the love — is timeless," Señor says of Rent, which marks its 25th anniversary this year. "I've been a part of this show for so many years in some capacity, and I know what it can do for a group of actors when they put on that show and what it does for the audience. His words speak beyond theater and entertainment. It speaks to community, acceptance, love, and oneness. If there's one thing I want to happen between Cuba and Cuban Americans and U.S. and Cuban relations, it's what you see happen in that show."
He adds, "Did I worry about being canceled by doing this? Yes, I was terrified all the time. But I would be canceling myself if I didn't go. I'd rather be canceled by everyone and knowing I did right by me. The gift that Jonathan and [director] Michael Grief gave me with the show and the life it afforded me, why wouldn't I go to Cuba and share that?"
Señor's production changed the lives of his cast members, local Cuban actors with stories of their own to share.
"I wanted to be a vessel, to share the blessings I received from being a part of Rent with the cast in Cuba," he says. "And they embraced me and my culture. For example, Mario [Alain], who played Mark and discovered he was HIV-positive as we were beginning work on the show: He went through this whole journey with us and then ended up in Miami living with my mom, and now he's on the Univision series Enamorándonos as a performer because of that decision that I made. It was incredibly brave of him to expose his diagnosis as he did, especially as he's working right now in Spanish-language TV. He didn't allow us to use our footage until last year, when he finally felt ready. His fear is that because of the stigma that still exists, he won't be able to carry on with his career here. It's possible that he could lose that singing job, but there always has to be a first, that one person who breaks through, and it could be him."
Since his production of Rent in Cuba (executive-produced by friend Neil Patrick Harris), Señor worked as associate director of On Your Feet, the Broadway musical based on the life of his compatriot Gloria Estefan. During the show's national tour, he hired another one of his Revolution Rent actors, Claudia Mulet.
Looking ahead after such a positive experience, Señor won't rule out a return to Cuba.
"I'm already talking to them about what's next," he says with a snicker. "But this time, I don't want to bring an American production. My goal is to develop a story with the Cubans. That's what I'm committed to. If I do end up doing another American production, it will be for fun. I want to be there with them creating their own work and celebrating their stories using their music. Then, that's what I would want to put on the global stage. That's where my heart is."