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An Eternal Star Shines 'Forever'

Five years after her death, tejano singer Selena is still highly revered by her fans. Now, a musical about her life opens.


SAN ANTONIO — It has been five years, almost to the day, since 23-year-old singer Selena Quintanilla Perez was shot dead by the president of her fan club. Seven posthumous albums, one feature film, at least two documentaries and a dozen books later, some say maybe it's time the entertainment world let her spirit go.

Not likely.

In fact, Selena is more popular now than ever. She's one of the top-selling Latin artists of the decade. Her "Todos Mis Exitos" was the No. 1 Mexican regional album of 1999 and is currently No. 23 on the Billboard Latin chart; the sequel, "Todos Mis Exitos Vol. 2," released three weeks ago, stands at No. 3 on the Latin album chart.

To top it off, an ambitious new stage musical, "Selena Forever," opened Thursday at the Municipal Auditorium here to a nearly sold-out, enthusiastic crowd of about 3,000. Preview shows Tuesday and Wednesday were equally full. The premiere was attended by Selena's parents and sister, and Jose Behar, president of EMI Latin, her label. Bobby Pulido and Jennifer Pena, the king and queen of tejano music, also were present.

With a $2-million budget, the show has the backing of several Broadway producers, including Tony Award-winning producer Jerry Frankel of "Death of a Salesman" and "Jekyll and Hyde" and theatrical booking agent Michel Vega.

"Selena Forever's" cast of 35 will tour 30 cities, including a stop at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles May 9-14. The producers are hoping for an eventual Broadway run.

To cynics--and there are many--who ask, "Why don't they let her go already?," there appears to be a simple answer: Millions of people still love Selena.

And it's not the first time a stage musical has been made to honor a music star killed in the prime of life and career. Such shows grew out of the deaths of Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin and Patsy Cline. To Selena fans, it all makes sense.

"I don't see why we should let it rest," says producer Tom Quinn, who came up with the idea for the Selena musical after being moved by the film. "Why not expand the horizons of what she set out to achieve? The story is amazing, her talent was amazing. She was an American icon."

Although Selena's parents have been accused by some of exploiting their daughter's memory, the singer's father says he is motivated by the fans, who still send box loads of mail each week.

"In a way it's hard," Abraham Quintanilla said. "It brings back memories, you know, it kind of puts a little salt in the wounds. But at the same time, I like it because it keeps her memory alive. Ever since Selena died, I've been doing everything I can to keep her memory alive through her music. It brings a satisfaction to me. I can't describe it in words. I'd say it's like a bittersweet experience."

"Selena Forever" is the first professional stage musical about a Latina musical star, written by Latinos and featuring a 95% Latino cast. That's what attracted director William Alejandro Virchis to the project. "It's the story of a woman, a heroine in our macho world, and I love that," says Virchis, director of the theater department at Southwestern College in San Diego and co-founder of the Teatro Meta at the Old Globe Theatre.

Quinn hired Cuban-born composer, arranger and producer Fernando M. Rivas, who created 27 new songs for the production and new arrangements for nine of Selena's songs.

Edward Gallardo, winner of the Joseph Papp's Festival Latino First National Contest for Latino Plays, created the lyrics and script. The Bronx-born writer says he focused on deeper cultural issues than the film allowed for and emphasized the singer as a role model.

The cast was found through a national talent search in cities not generally associated with Broadway--San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Dallas. Casting calls were broadcast on the popular Univision network daytime talk show "Christina."

New York-based R&B recording artist Veronica Vazquez, 24, plays the adult Selena; her alternate is San Antonio-born Rebecca Valadez, 21, who toured as a singer and dancer with Janet Jackson. The young Selena lead is played by Hemet, Calif.-born Denise Stefanie Gonzalez, 11; her alternate is Lorissa Chapa, 10, of Corpus Christi.

The women say they hope the musical will help further their careers, in the same way the film made a superstar of Jennifer Lopez.

Robert Trevino, director of marketing for the musical, says the show will obviously resonate with many Latinos but is not aimed at any particular ethnic group.

Still, Trevino says he hopes to lure Latinos to the theater by concentrating marketing efforts on heavily Latino areas of the nation. "As a general rule, Hispanics are not really savvy on what's going on in theater," Trevino says. "But that's had more to do with the fact that there's not been much in the theater to attract them."


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