'Revolution Rent' Shows How The Smash Musical Is Still Changing Lives 25 Years Later

The HBO documentary follows Broadway's Andy Señor Jr. on an emotional journey to Cuba as he prepares to stage "Rent" with local actors.
HBO's "Revolution Rent" debuted June 15.
HBO's "Revolution Rent" debuted June 15.

Much like Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp, Andy Señor Jr. can speak to the power of “Rent” firsthand.

The Miami-born actor and filmmaker joined the Broadway cast of the rock musical in 1997 as drag queen percussionist Angel, replacing Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who originated the role. Seventeen years later, he directed the show in Cuba, marking the first production of a Broadway musical by an American company in the communist island nation in 50 years.

Señor chronicles the latter experience for a new HBO documentary, “Revolution Rent.” The film, which debuted Wednesday and is co-directed by Victor Patrick Alvarez, goes behind the scenes with Señor as he travels to Havana to stage the show with a cast of local actors. It’s also a personal milestone, allowing Señor ― who is the son of Cuban exiles ― to explore his own complex relationship with his heritage.

“I wanted to share my experience with my family, and my experience in going to Cuba, in hopes it may create some clarity or inspire other Cuban Americans to find out more about where they’re from,” he told HuffPost in an interview.

Catch the “Revolution Rent” trailer below. 

When “Rent” premiered on Broadway in 1996, it obliterated the status quo for musical theater. Composer Jonathan Larson gave Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” a provocative update by transplanting the action to New York City and setting it against the backdrop of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Longtime “Rent” fans will appreciate much of the archival footage seen in “Revolution Rent,” showing actors Menzel and Rapp at work on what would become their star-making performances. As for the Cuban cast in Señor’s production, several actors have personal experiences that influence their interpretation of the characters onstage. For example, one actor learns he has tested positive for HIV during the early days of the rehearsal process. Another bristles at the idea of embracing another woman onstage after she’s cast in one of the musical’s LGBTQ roles.

Despite encountering financial and logistical challenges, Señor remained steadfast about getting his “Rent” cast to opening night successfully. His tenacity, he said, is simply a testament to the enduring strength of Larson’s words and music 25 years later.

Actor and filmmaker Andy Señor Jr. (right) with his mother, Gloria, in Cuba in 2014.
Actor and filmmaker Andy Señor Jr. (right) with his mother, Gloria, in Cuba in 2014.

“It doesn’t matter where I am, it doesn’t matter the language, when I hear the first chords of ‘Seasons of Love’ or ‘Halloween’ … it goes directly into my heart and soul,” he said. “Jonathan put so much of his love and his pain inside those melodies and lyrics. For me, they’re timeless. It really never gets old.”

Though Alvarez and Señor didn’t intend to release “Revolution Rent” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the pair hopes the film’s core themes will land with viewers of all ages who have been unable to attend a Broadway show for 13 months and counting.

And seven years after his “Rent” experience, Señor said he’s eager to return to Cuba to direct another musical ― only this time, he has a very different type of production in mind.

“Ideally, I’d love to create a show that has a Cuban story with Cuban music, versus bringing in an American import,” he said. “I’d love to use my experience on Broadway musicals to create our own story in Havana.”

“Revolution Rent” is now streaming on HBO and HBO Max.

Señor (right) directs Luis Alberto as Angel in "Rent." 
Señor (right) directs Luis Alberto as Angel in "Rent."