Tito Nieves likes it like that…
The 58-year-old Puerto Rican salsa singer is starring in the new off-Broadway musical I Like It Like That.
“We didn’t have politicians or other idols to look up to [in those days],” explains David Maldonado, producer and co-writer of the new musical. “There were not many Latino athletes around. The idols became Eddie Palmieri and Hector Lavoe…. Music artists were the most important figures. Music became like the religion of the masses.”
The show, now playing at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater in New York, includes songs from the repertoire of Palmieri and Lavoe, Ruben Blades, Willie Colon, Joe Cuba, Tito Puente, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, La Lupe and more.
I Like It Like That takes its title from the song that was a Billboard chart hit for Pete Rodriguez in 1967. Thirty years later, the bugalú cornerstone was revived in a hit cover by Nieves, who stars as family patriarch Roberto Rodriguez in the new musical.
Featuring a seven-piece band, the theater production is a “historical musical journey” that Maldonado describes as a social chronicle of New York in the ’70s, as well as a sing-and-dance-along showcase for the great music of the period that came out of the city’s Latino neighborhoods. The play chronicles life in the barrio in those decadent days in New York.
“We were going bankrupt,” says Maldonado, who grew up in Brooklyn. “Garbage all over the place, potholes, civil unrest…”
Maldonado describes I Like It Like That as being “about social conscience. Some people want to escape, and others want to fight for the hood, which most people called ‘the ghetto.’”
He notes that in addition to the music, the language used in the play accurately reflects the period.
“It is in Spanglish,” he says. “Mostly English. I wasn’t doing that because I was trying to get a wider audience, although I do appreciate that. It was because at that time, there was salsa, but everyone was speaking English. The music was in Spanish, but if you look at those albums, the liner notes were in English.”
Maldonado and co-writer Waddys Jáquez (who also directs the play) tell the story of the Rodriguez family in East Harlem, using salsa, bugalú and bolero classics to advance the story.
Characters were created from those described in songs like Blades’ “Paula C,” and song lyrics were used to set the action and inspire the dialog, says Maldonado. The musical also includes original songs.
I Like It Like That promises to appeal to fans of the Celia Cruz musical Celia, and Quien Mató a Hector Lavoe; both shows also produced by Maldonado, which combined social chronicle with musical tribute.