Celia, a new TV series based on the life of legendary Cuban singer Celia Cruz, opens with a vivid re-creation of 1950s Cuba: fiery music and dance scenes, steamy sex and racially charged statements, including the young mixed-race singer being told, “You know, mulattas aren’t allowed in these [singing] competitions.”
While the series takes some liberties with history, it’s the kind of drama the Telemundo network believes will keep viewers engaged through a whopping 80 weeknight episodes, the first of which premieres Oct. 13.
“Her life wasn’t scandalous,” says Cuban singer Aymee Nuviola, 43, who plays the older Cruz in the series. “But as an artist she had an unsettling life. She had to leave her country [after the 1959 revolution], she went through great hardship in her career, she never saw her mother again because she couldn’t go back to Cuba.” And while Cruz, who died in 2003, was famously down-to-earth and married to trumpeter Pedro Knight for more than 40 years, she endured many ups and downs in her career and faced rampant racism and sexism, which the series portrays unsparingly.
Produced in Colombia by Fox Telecolombia and RCN, Celia, which will run through February 2016, is the latest of Telemundo’s extended, action-packed dramas and the first of three that will focus on music (Mexican singer Juan Gabriel is next). “Telemundo has taken a big risk with super series in the past 18 months, and it has paid off,” says network president Luis Silberwasser, citing the success of Señor de los Cielos (about a drug dealer) and Bajo el Mismo Cielo (about an undocumented immigrant in Los Angeles); Señor’s Sept. 21 season finale drew more than 2.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen, beating out ABC, CBS and Latin-market leader Univision. “We said, ‘What can we do that doesn’t have narcos or crime?’ If you look at Empire, that combination of soap opera and music is working.”
In Colombia, RCN notched a major coup with 2012’s El Joe, La Leyenda, based on the life of the late Joe Arroyo. Currently, its series Diomedes, El Cacique de la Junta, based on the life of late vallenato star Diomedes Días, is the most-watched show in the country.
With Celia, a major challenge was the singer’s signature, low-range voice.
Because licensing Cruz’s recordings was prohibitively expensive, RCN held a sound-alike audition and hired singer Patricia Padilla to record the series’ repertoire, spanning Cruz’s lifetime.
The two actresses that play Cruz, however, are recording artists in their own right. Jeimy Osorio, who plays the young Celia, recently signed a recording deal with Sony and is working on an album of Cruz covers. Nuviola was nominated for a Latin Grammy last year.
To support Celia, Sony, which owns a large chunk of her catalog, is planning an 18-month marketing campaign that will include re-recording some of Cruz’s signature songs — including “La Negra Tumbao,” which is the series’ theme song — featuring Cruz’s vocals together with those of guest artists.
Likewise, here in the U.S., where an entire generation has grown up since Cruz’s death in 2003, Telemundo had no interest in marketing her as a nostalgia act. Instead, they’ve aggressively gone after audiences young and old, including releasing the initial first episodes On Demand, making the first episode available on Facebook and YouTube in advance, and promoting Celia in a “college tour” that includes screenings at 20 campuses around the country.
“I really admire that a Spanish-language network has taken a shot at doing something with an iconic artist like Celia,” says Sony A&R exec Anthony Gonzalez. “And I hope there’s more to come.”
Celia will air Monday-Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on the Telemundo network.