For this month's On That Note! playwright Norman Allen visits with writer/director Moisés Kaufman to explore the creative collaborations that brought the world premiere Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical to Olney Theatre Center, Febuary 10 through March 6.
In the latest step of a creative process that includes dance workshops, improvisational rehearsals, collaborative writing, and workshop presentations, Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical makes its theatrical premiere on February 10 at the Olney Theatre Center in a co-production with the renowned Tectonic Theater Project. Driving that process is Tectonic's Artistic Director Moisés Kaufman, who serves as the show's director, co-lyricist, and co-book writer. For inspiration, he looked to Carmen herself.
“She is so raw,” he said during a recent interview. “She is unadulterated.” He also sees the characters as a critical challenge to our own complacency, and unspoken fears. “The more we establish rules to survive each other the more we look to Carmen and her impulses,” Kaufman explains. He adds quickly that she's a character to learn from, not emulate. “Carmen is not so well suited for life, but she is very well suited to fiction. In life, it’s better to have some way of controlling your impulses.”
The creation of French novelist Prosper Mérimée, the character gained world renown in Georges Bizet’s opera. That work inspired groundbreaking achievements in other genres, including Carlos Saura’s dance film, and Broadway’s Carmen Jones, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II set to Robert Russell Bennett's adaptation of Bizet’s score. For Kaufman, too, Bizet was a central influence.
“I had been talking about working on something with the legendary jazz musician Arturo O’Farrill,” Kaufman explains. “We realized that Bizet was very influenced by Spanish music and by African music, and that these are also the two major components of classical jazz.” Setting the story in Cuba in 1958 seemed a logical next step. “I wanted a place where the music could really resonate,” Kaufman says. The result is a score that reinterprets Bizet’s familiar melodies to reflect the tensions of the Cuban revolution.
The methods employed by the Tectonic Theater Project differ significantly from the standard musical theatre development process, which usually centers on the authors in its initial stages. At Tectonic, actors and dancers are early collaborators. “We start the writing in the rehearsal room,” Kaufman says. “I come in with some ideas for scenes and for characters but we always end up doing improvisations that create the first draft of the text.”
He chose Cuban playwright Eduardo Machado as his writing partner. “He’s a perfect fit,” Kaufman says. “He understands that world so well, and I had been a fan of his work for such a long time.” They started by studying the opera. “It’s four hours long,” Kaufman points out. “We want a performance that is an hour and forty-five minutes or maybe two hours. It was a matter of both reducing a lot of stuff that goes on in the opera and also seeing what else is available to us.”
The collaborators took turns revising drafts, often returning to the rehearsal room to work with the actors. “The key part of the process was when Arturo O’Farril joined us,” Kaufman says. “Once the music started making it into the piece we had a plethora of influences to study: the vocabulary of Afro-Cuban music, the vocabulary of Latin Dance. Our questions were always, ‘What is the song?’ and ‘What does it do in the story?’”
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo comes to the project with credits that include Broadway's Jersey Boys and Memphis. “Again, we talk a lot about story,” Kaufman says of his work with Trujillo. “We also talk a lot about ritual. And we ask, ‘How do we tell this story with this group of actors?’ Sergio goes away and choreographs and then he shows it to me and we talk about story again.”
Kaufman has a deep regard for his collaborators. “At the core of this piece there are two things I love profoundly,” he says. “One is this amazing genius Arturo O’Farrill. The music he has adapted and composed is astonishing. The second thing is the brilliant mind of Sergio. He has been doing important things for a long time but the stuff he’s doing now is amazing.”
Kaufman's final words of praise are reserved for Carmen herself. “This is a character that we must keep revisiting, because we need her,” he says. “I think there’s always a balance between how we live in society and the compromises we make in order to survive. What’s fascinating about Carmen is, whether you agree or disagree with her choices, she is always profoundly free.”