Desi Arnaz was the pioneer of many things, both musically and in television, so to have a musical honoring his contributions to music is really long overdue. While many celebrate the life of his first wife, Lucille Ball, it usually stops there. But the business that made her among the most recognizable of television stars was largely orchestrated by Arnaz. Their children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr., have now put together a musical honoring the best of his music, naming it after one of their father’s most famous songs, Babalu.
Arnaz’s family fled from Cuba to Miami, Florida, when he was just a boy, and he turned to show business as a means of supporting himself. He played guitar and appeared in Broadway musicals and movies, meeting Ball shortly after arriving in Hollywood. After serving in the Army, he formed another orchestra. According to daughter Lucie, “He was that first mix of the Latin beat and American swing.” After he and Ball started filming I Love Lucy, he kept the orchestra on his payroll.
In the series, Arnaz played what was really a loose rendition of himself, Cuban orchestra leader Ricky Ricardo. He was playing an orchestra leader who was struggling to get ahead, yet it still enabled he and his orchestra to get his music out there, with songs such as Babalu. Arnaz and his orchestra often played at the Tropicana Club and later he bought the club himself, renaming it Club Babalu.
Nearly twenty-four years after Arnaz’s death, his children are honoring their father via a musical. Created and directed by Lucie Arnaz, Babalu is dedicated to the original arrangements of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, the same music they used to play at the old Tropicana.
Attired in white tuxedos and black ties, the “new” Desi Arnaz Orchestra, a 15-member Latin swing band, took to the stage at New York’s Kaufmann Concert Hall at the 92nd Street Y in January. Broadway veterans Raul Esparza, Valarie Pettiford, and Lucie performed the songs, often emulating Desi Arnaz’s performances. Desi Jr. played percussions for one of the five performances.
Recently, Babalu (appropriately) played in Miami and received a great response. While there, the Arnaz children received the key to the city, in honor of their father. They recreated a photo of their parents that was taken some 56 years ago in front of Miami City Hall.
There’s been some talk of taking the show on the road but no plans have been announced as yet.
Miami native Esparza admitted that, while he couldn’t stand in Arnaz’s shoes, “I am so proud to sing the music he made and the songs from the country I come from.”
What do you think? Would you be interested in seeing a production of Babalu?