(1) Cuban-American writer Oscar Hijuelos, born and raised in Morningside Heights, writes The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, an epic of lyrical nostalgia about Cuban immigrant brothers at the center of the fifties Latin-music scene in New York. Noted for its atmospherics, Hijuelos’s second novel becomes a best seller and wins the 1990 Pulitzer.
(2) PaceWildenstein Gallery owner turned movie producer Arne Glimcher (Legal Eagles, Gorillas in the Mist) buys the movie rights, decides to direct, and writes lyrics to a song, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” For the Cuban brothers, Glimcher casts Italian-Irish-American Armand Assante and Spaniard Antonio Banderas, having noticed the latter in Pedro Almodóvar’s films. Desi Arnaz Jr. plays his own father; Tito Puente plays himself.
(3) In 1996, Glimcher begins working on a Broadway adaptation. He plans to direct, write the lyrics, and collaborate with Hijuelos on the book. Five years pass. Suddenly, Liz Smith mentions it (“What a concept!”), saying that it’ll be up in a year and may star Banderas. In 2002, Hijuelos tells an interviewer, “These things take forever. It’s supposed to come out next spring, but I’ve been saying that for three years!”
(4) In 2003, Banderas makes his Broadway debut—in another show, Nine. But rumors persist. Latin flash-in-the-pan Jon Secada says he’s “in negotiations with a group that wants to bring The Mambo Kings to Broadway … with me and Antonio. I’d love it!” The Daily Star reports that Jennifer Lopez has been asked to co-star. Then, for a year, nothing.
(5) In late 2004, producers Daryl and Jordan Roth announce plans to open in San Francisco in May 2005 and move to the Shubert in July. Seeking Latin cred, they cast NYPD Blue’s Esai Morales, Mexican TV heartthrob Jaime Camil, and the Latin Grammy winner Albita. Billy Dee Williams plays the mustache-twirling villain.
(6) Two weeks before the opening, Williams, 68, hurts his hip; David Alan Grier is trundled in to replace him. The West Coast opening is not well received. The San Francisco Chronicle says it “bogs down in a cut-and-paste book, too many journeyman ballads and, except for the dancing, a puzzling lack of charisma onstage.” The paper recommends a rewrite.
(7) The Roths agree: Within a week, word spreads that Broadway vets Jerry Mitchell, composer Jason Robert Brown, and playwright David Ives have been hired as last-minute fixers. But nothing can restore the show’s rhythm, and on June 27, the Roths announce it won’t go on. In a letter to the cast, Glimcher holds out hope “that many of us will meet again … on a future project, including this one, which I’m giving up on only for the moment.” A source says that the Roths, for their part, have hung up their Cuban heels.