“The Art of Seeing” by Michael Milton
I am loath— really, I AM!– to tell you all about what you missed if you weren’t at the Harold Gilman Opera House last Wednesday night. It feels unfair. It feels boastful. So be it. I WAS there (thanks to good friend actress/interior designer Kate Draper) and it was so damn good! Ms. Omara Portuondo and Company, in their one-night-only concert at BAM, was a Cuban musical miracle.
There was something vaguely familiar about the 88-year-old woman who shuffled out onto stage of the opera house in bedroom slippers and a brightly colored mumu she may well have spent the day in. She seemed relieved to plop down atop the stool set in the piano’s crook next to handsome Roberto Fonseca, her extraordinary musical director. At times she was a trifle confused about the occasional lyric or the evening’s song order.
But ahhhhh, the voice; vibrant, beautifully shaded, soulful, a stirring siren summoning up all sorts of island magic. And her musicians! They whipped up a veritable hurricane of Caribbean melodies all driven forward within multi-layered, toe tapping rhythms which were…well…toe-tapping! And when toe-tapping couldn’t contain us, the audience stood and cha-cha’d in the aisles. A special shout out to Anat Cohen on clarinet; the woman is a rock star! She howled on long, screaming notes, soaring over the complex phrases rolling beneath her and then proceeded to bang out her own layer of rhythm on the side of her instrument!
I didn’t go in as one of her dyed-in-the-wool fans but certainly emerged as one. In fact, I entered the hall that evening with the unsettling feeling that I had some personal history with Ms. Portuondo which I couldn’t quite put my finger on… until a couple of days later.
What I finally remembered about my connection to Ms. Portuondo was this: For many years, I worked with the legendary film and theatre producer Marty Richards. He won 38 Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and was the recipient of countless other awards and accolades. He was probably best known, however, for an unconventional marriage to J&J heiress, Mary Lea Johnson, and for winning the 2003 Best Picture Academy Award for his film CHICAGO.
Incredibly, I remembered I first became aware of Omara Portuondo from Marty… and before the release of the movie THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB which gave Ms Portuondo the international celebrity she so deserves.
Shortly after I began to work for Marty Richards, I was searching the shelves of the office for a script and happened upon two Portuondo albums, including her first released and now nearly impossible to find, “Magia Negra.” I asked him about the album with some trepidation; asking Marty about most anything invited an hour’s worth of story. Omara and pre-Castro Cuba tied my day up for two! Like listening to a dotty aunt retelling her past, I had already learned to attend to Marty with only half an ear. This is one case I wish I had been utilizing both.
Marty was a story teller. He had a knack for weaving elaborate tales of passion, betrayal, loyalty and love– favorite themes when discussing incidents from his own life. Though born Morty Klein, his stories had an undeniable Latin flair to them, so perhaps the presence of the Portuondo albums is better explained. Also, as a younger man, Marty had been a singer—a career which occurred so far before my arrival at the office that I gave it no thought as to how the pursuit of his own vocal career might have shaped his musical tastes. I DID know he always loved a Cuban beat and that he had hounded me in the last years of his life to find material for a dance driven stage musical that somehow dealt with the history of Cuba’s Cabaret Tropicana and more specifically, Omara herself, still relatively unknown to me. And Marty had first-hand knowledge about the Tropicana.
Maryanne Dittmann—a longtime associate of Richards who is also currently co-writing his biography and is deep into the process of producing a mini-series based on Marty’s extravagant life—remembers his Cuban stories in far more detail than I.
“He was very pretty when he was younger,” Dittmann explains. “Bedroom eyes and that pouty mouth! He’d go down to Cuba when he was in his early twenties, escorted by either one of his male ‘friends’ or wealthy women acquaintances who needed a dance partner while visiting in Havana. Marty could dance! He loved the decay and the decadence of Havana.
“And of course, whoever he was with footed the bill. Marty bought himself clothes, clothes and more clothes. I’ve seen a photo of him from his Cuba days wearing a beautiful tailored white suit, this worn by a man who didn’t have two nickels to rub together back in those days before he met Mary Lea Johnson.”
I knew of Marty’s predilection for escape; he loved to disappear from his New York debts and misfired relationships; he loved to reinvent himself for a new audience; and at the end of his life, he longed to disappear into the past, back when he was a rich and famous producer instead of a profligate from the Bronx who had blown through his wife’s millions in a single decade.
“Michael,” he’d say to me in his Liberace-like, slightly graveled voice, “…it was so beautiful in Cuba; blue skies, tropical breezes and that architecture! Music was everywhere—coming out of cafes, being played out on street corners.
“And, of course, Omara!”
Years ago, I went to a concert given by the MGM 1950’s musical singing movie star, Kathryn Grayson in San Diego. It was a come-back concert which few people came out for and after hearing the tattered soprano’s voice, few remained beyond intermission. My heart bled for her and I vowed to never ever again go to an older singer’s attempt for new glory.
I am so glad I dissuaded myself from that conviction last week and renewed my once tenuous relationship with Omara Portuondo.
Thank you, Marty, wherever you are.