Listening to Lucrecia run through the indelible songs of Celia Cruz, it’s clear that she shares not only the immortal Cuban singer’s muscular tenor, but also her outlook on life.
“You have to face life with a song,” said Lucrecia with one of her frequent throaty laughs, her message punctuated by the buoyant rhythm of Cruz’s late-career hit “La Vida Es un Carnaval,” which her band was rehearsing while the singer took a break during a run-through of the show Celia: El Musical! in a recording studio in Barcelona late last year.
“Celia conquered the world with her voice and her huge heart,” Lucrecia says. “She was noble, a woman of the old school. She remembered everyone’s name. You’d meet her once and she’d be sending you postcards for the rest of her life.”
The Lehman Center for the Performing Arts has just announced the New York premiere of Celia Cruz: The Musical!, scheduled for Nov. 16. The show, which premiered at the Starlite Festival in Marbella, Spain, and has been performed at Miami’s Adrienne Arscht Center, was written and directed by Gonzalo Rodríguez and Jeffry Batista, with Omer Pardillo-Cid, the executor of the Celia Cruz Estate, as executive producer.
Pardillo has described Cruz as “a black woman, who was poor, who left Cuba and conquered the world,” becoming, he says, “the Lady Gaga of her time.” The musical, which Pardillo ensures tells the true story of the woman known all over the world as the “salsa queen,” re-creates Cruz’s final concert before her death in 2003 at age 77, flashing back to episodes cued by well-known songs, from “Quimbara” to “La Negra Tiene Tumbao.”
During the show, Lucrecia makes 18 costume changes, wearing dresses and wigs that a Miami seamstress painstakingly copied from Cruz’s original show wardrobe. The singer performs monologues that encapsulate different periods of Cruz’s life, setting up songs that took her career from Cuba, where as a young woman she had her big break with La Sonora Matancera, to the heady days of New York salsa with the Fania All Stars, to her later years as an international icon.
“My admiration, respect and love for Celia runs very deep,” Lucrecia says. “I do the show with love, without any sense of rivalry or trying to take her place. I come out on stage to bring her alive.”
Lucrecia, whose given name is Lucrecia Pérez-Saéz, became known in Cuba as a lead vocalist and pianist with the iconic all-women band Anacaona. In 1993, she settled in Barcelona and formed her own group. The Latin Grammy nominee (for 2010’s Álbum de Cuba), frequently recognized on the street by her trademark colored braids, is now a household name in Spain for her role as the singing host of the children's television series “Los Lunnis;” she also appears in movie based on the series that premiered in Spanish theaters early this year. Lucrecia, who is in her fifties, is to receive recognition as the Best Latin American Children’s Movie Actress and Best Children’s Music Singer at the Premios Latino 2019 awards in Marbella in September.
“I met her at the press conference,” she recalls. “I was so nervous.” During that presentation, Cruz called Lucrecia her successor. Lucrecia wrote a song in Cruz’s honor, “Agua con Azucar y Ron.”
Lucrecia recalls Cruz calling her when she was pregnant, and later bringing gifts for her son. “La Vida Es un Carnaval” was the first song that Lucrecia sang to him in the hospital. They remained friends until the end of Cruz’s life.
“Celia’s career was long, and when you have a career like that you can start on one path and then take another,” notes Lucrecia. “Of course, there are evolutions,” she says, pointing to Cruz’s 2001, “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” which has an urban beat and premiered accompanied by a fabulous video by Cuban director Ernesto Fundora. “Reggaeton was just coming out at that time, and there she was, doing reggaeton!
“They called her the queen of salsa,” Lucrecia adds, “but she was always the guarachera de Cuba. It was always about her Cuba, and taking it with her around the world.”
In addition to Celia: The Musical! The Lehman Center’s fall program also includes concerts by Eddie Palmieri together with Michel Camilo, Yolanda Monge, El Canario and La Sonora Ponceña.