Denise Baden, an associate professor at Southampton Business School, recently spent time in Cuba, initially talking to small businesses and business schools there. This led to several academic articles on different conceptions of "corporate social responsibility" and how the Cuban pharmaceutical industry – using "health needs" rather than profit as its "metric of success" – is "outperforming us in terms of drug treatments", she said.
Yet Dr Baden also felt that she had grown up with a distorted, even "demonised" picture of Cuba and became fascinated by its "culture of solidarity", "the level of political literacy" and "the heroic stories of the revolution". As for Mr Castro – who stepped down as president in 2008 amid reports of deteriorating health – Dr Baden said she was "struck by how much people loved him…They are happy to take the mick out of his eccentricities, but they never doubt his integrity or intentions."
She therefore began to read widely about Cuba's history since the revolution from as many perspectives as possible, and to speak to people who know the former leader. Inspired by "the mix of idealism and pragmatism that was uniquely his", Dr Baden decided that he was "a big character who deserved a film – and someone said ‘Why not a musical?' We had a laugh, but the idea just stuck."
Dr Baden joined forces with the music department at Southampton and decided: "I'm an educator and I'd like to do it as an educational project, get it out to schools and colleges, so they can write the lyrics and music."
Although she has written screenplays, Dr Baden had never worked on a musical before, so she produced a text as "a placeholder to provide material for 20 songs", including some on such untypical musical themes as "the US embargo", "the ethical dilemmas of leadership" and "the sugar harvest".
She said that the musical's tone is "sympathetic without stretching the truth", although she will certainly include controversial episodes, including one about "a poet who gets arrested for being too critical".
The call has now gone out to universities, colleges and schools in search of those who want to try their hand at writing the lyrics and music for up to three songs. Interest has already been expressed at the London College of Music, University College London and Soas, University of London, as well as the University of Southampton and a range of schools. Some are approaching it as a class project, while others are singling out the most talented pupils or students for their entries.
The closing date for submissions is 6 November, after which Dr Baden and her team will select the best entries. An arranger will then step in to orchestrate the material and forge it into a coherent whole. It will be honed (and most likely drastically cut) through a series of development workshops next year, to be held at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton.
While admitting that the project is "a major tangent to my academic work", Dr Baden believes that those who get involved or attend will be forced to think about the trade-offs all countries face between individualism and solidarity. They will also come to know "a lot more about Cuba than they did beforehand – the musical will make that happen. It does tick the public engagement box."
It would be even nicer, she said, if the musical becomes "the new Evita".
Link to original report on Times Higher Education Supplement here
Full info about the project here