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Interview with playwright Nilo Cruz




picture - Nilo Cruzby Cindy Pierre

published May 12, 2010


Cuban playwright Nilo Cruz, known for writing about the constant changes in his native country, has got music on his mind.  Having already accumulated a substantial body of work that consists solely of plays, Cruz is now turning his attention to writing musicals. 


But that's hardly a surprise.  His latest project, The Color of Desire, is an intimate study on human habit and behavior that questions the practice of projecting experiences on others. Designed with many private conversations and scenes, the play not only reflects the influence of his favorite playwright, Anton Chekhov, but creates a mood that recalls chamber music.  Thus, his further experimentation with music seems more like a natural progression than a leap.


The Pulitzer-Prize winner (2001 for Anna in the Tropics) and I sat down at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, where The Color of Desire is currently being developed, to discuss his future endeavors.  Between long rehearsals and meetings, he's been sneaking away to work on Havana (as librettist, not lyricist or composer), his first venture into musicals that he considers a sister piece to The Color of Desire. Normally mild-mannered, Cruz's eyes dance when our conversation leads to his ambitious undertaking. 


Whereas The Color of Desire merely touches upon the corruption in Cuba, according to Cruz, Havana will fully engage it.  Yet, Cruz' passion for musicals, birthed since the day he discovered Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd is one of his favorites), is the real impetus for writing one.


When I asked if the idea for Havana was conceived at the same time as The Color of Desire or if it was an afterthought, Cruz said, “It's interesting because it's a similar premise, except it's a little bit beforehand [1940s-50s].  And it also deals with Americans in Cuba. I think that The Color of Desire helped me to sort of investigate this piece. A musical is a different medium.  So you're constantly writing scenes in order to have a musical moment or to have a's a different way of working and it's been quite a challenge, too.”


A New York Transplant, Cruz is surrounded by the musical scene, counting South Pacific as one of his influences.  In fact, he says that he reviewed the structure of this Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration to formulate his own: “There's a couple of things I looked at.  I studied some of the [musicals] structures.  Also, I was writing another musical before I started writing Havana that sort of didn't happen, it didn't go anywhere...”


But that didn't stop Cruz from trying again.  Rather than give up, he simply took up his pad and pen, sat down in a park near his home, and went to work.  Preferring long-hand writing to typing on a keyboard, Cruz' process and progress on this effort has been gradual, but he considers it time well spent. 


Still, while trying to break new ground in his repertoire and having a musical that never came to fruition, I thought that there must be some degree of trepidation involved.  When I ask if he is concerned about losing some of his audience, he shows no signs of fear: “No, not really because I don't think that this musical is your so-called fluffy kind of musical where it's just for the sake of entertainment.  I think that there's a serious story there, there's a love story, there's politics involved in the piece, except we used music in order to tell the story... so...I would say it's a similar landscape that I've used in the past with my other work.”


Though there are common elements such as the concept of transformation, Cruz considers Havana, set during the Batista era (Fulgencio Batista y Zalvidar, Cuban labor union leader, general and president), to be a very different world from the one in The Color of Desire.  He does, however, concede that the essence of the character Preston, a wealthy American that “navigates two worlds,” emerges in this work.


Like the transitional periods that Cruz frequently explores, does Havana mark the end of his straight plays?  He says no.  But he's not done with music by any means. He will continue to try to bring healing to Cuba by excavating its history, but the next stop on this dig is opera. 


Listing Puccini and Verdi as treasured composers, Cruz embraces the task that he's setting before him, and smiles.  As the themes of his past work have suggested, change is inevitable.  For Cruz, the prolific writer, change, while retaining his depth, sounds pretty good.


cindypierre @


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