Throughout a career that lasted over 50 years, and during which she recorded more than 70 albums, Cruz overcame sexism, racism, and found true love in her fellow Sonora Matancera orchestra member-turned-manager Pedro Knight, with whom she settled in New Jersey after leaving her beloved homeland in 1960. Knight died in 2007 at age 85, four years after Cruz.
“Most of us, at least those of a certain generation, know a lot about Celia's later years, but we spend a big portion of the series delving into a side of the young Celia that most people probably aren’t aware of,” Glenda Pacanins, SVP, Telemundo Programming Strategy Integration, tells Billboard exclusively. “Yes, she was incredibly talented and driven, but she also didn’t know what she was getting herself into. The Cuban music scene was male-dominated [in the ‘40s and ‘50s], and Celia’s own father was adamantly opposed to her becoming a singer. There was a stigma at that time of women participating in the entertainment industry -- they were perceived as easy or as someone who would walk down a bad path in life, so it’s interesting because it sets the stage for the woman that Celia would eventually become. When you see that aspiration, coupled with that incredible talent, you know she's going to get somewhere.”
The cast of Celia, a Fox TeleColombia production consisting of 80 one-hour episodes, is an international affair. Puerto Rican actors Jeimy Osorio and Modesto Lacén give life to Cruz and Knight during their younger years, while Aymeé Nuviola and Willie Denton, of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, respectively, play the couple in their later years.
Osorio has worked extensively in telenovelas, including Una Maid in Manhattan and Santa Diabla, while Lacén has played Knight before, in the off-Broadway play The Life and Music of Celia Cruz. Miami-based Nuviola is a classically trained musician who left Cuba as a young girl in pursuit of a singing career. She was nominated for a 2014 Latin Grammy for her salsa album, First Class to Havana. Denton, for his part, is a renowned theater actor who has played Cuban music icon Benny Moré in the past.
As for the music, Fox TeleColombia worked closely with Omer Pardillo Cid, sole executor of Cruz’s estate, to secure the necessary rights, lending the story authenticity. Fans can expect to hear classics like “Quimbara,” “La Vida es un Carnaval,” “Bemba Colora,” “Burundanga,” “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” as well as songs from Cruz’s Sonora Matancera days, before she conquered the world as a solo artist, collaborating with Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, and other tropical music giants along the way.
Watch Celia Cruz Sing 'Jingle Bells' to a Pre-Revolution Cuban Beat
Pacanins notes that the series doesn’t get into Cruz’s declining health or eventual death. “We look at it as a celebration of Celia the woman, the figure, the musical icon, somebody whose music touched our lives in many different ways,” she says, “so it definitely has that uplifting, aspirational message throughout.”
Celia is directed by Victor Mallarino alongside Liliana Bocanegra from a script based on a screenplay by Andrés Salgado and Paul Rodríguez. Nelson Martinez serves as executive producer.