César Abreu’s colleagues at the Metropolitan Opera are known to be surprised when they learn he was a part of Menudo, the most successful boy band in Latin American history. “Some of them even ask me now, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were in Menudo?’” Although the 45-year-old cherishes his experience with the group, which he joined in 1990 at the age of 12, he said that it does not define him.
After his early successes, which also included TV and theater, he left his native Puerto Rico to pursue an education in the arts, attending a performing arts high school in Florida, obtaining an undergraduate degree in dance education at the University of the Arts and moving to Manhattan at the age of 21 to earn an MFA in dance at NYU on full scholarship. And in 2006, he joined the “family” at the Met, and calls working with the “best of the best” there one of the richest experiences of his life.
A Washington Heights resident, he still lives in his first New York City apartment, where documentarians visited to film HBO Max’s “Menudo: Forever Young.” It was for that documentary, which premiered on June 23, that Abreu spoke about his experiences with the group, both positive and negative, for the first time on camera. “Menudo has been a sense of pride for every Latino ... We sold millions of records and we always brought a message of joy, love and unity, and that the youth represented the future,” he said. “That’s not to say that there weren’t circumstances that were very, very difficult to deal with. And I think that the opportunity to finally have a voice where we’re able to share all the experiences in a more transparent way from our perspective is really empowering.”
How did it come about that you joined Menudo?
Prior to the group, I was doing a lot of TV and sitcoms in Puerto Rico, soap operas, theater, musicals, so I already had a prior-established career even before joining the band. And it must have been someone seeing me at one of my performances who suggested that I should audition for the group. And I was recommended and they auditioned me and that’s how I came to be a part of it.
Before the documentary, had you kept in touch with the band members, or did you reconnect with them because of it?
We connected because of the series. After I left Menudo, I kept in touch here and there with two of my former members, Sergio [Blass] at one point, and Ruben [Gomez] at another point. But I left when I was 13 years old, so I was fairly young and then I moved to Florida to attend a performing arts high school. Then I went on to undergraduate school and then grad school brought me to New York, so I didn’t really keep in touch with any of them. And it wasn’t until the documentarians reached out to us, that I’ve been able to reconnect with some of them. We got together recently at the Tribeca Film Festival. And it’s funny because at the festival, none of the members that were there were with me in the band, so it was kind of like, “Hey, we’re really united in this thing and we have this really unique experience that only like 30 of us have been through. We haven’t been in the group together, but yet we feel really intrinsically connected because of it.”
What was it like filming the documentary?
We filmed a lot. I think the crew was at my apartment at about 8 a.m. or so, and they didn’t leave until 9 or 10 p.m. It was a pretty intense session. We weren’t talking for 12 hours, but we would like talk for a couple of hours, and then take a break and then talk a little more and then fix the sound. And it’s funny because my apartment is quite spacious, but the crew came on the hottest day. They were like, “César, for some reason, in all of your shots, you’re not even sweaty.” But if you turned the camera around, all of the crew was drenched.
Tell us a memorable fan story from your time in Menudo.
The first time that I got in one of our buses, the way in which fans would bang onto the glass, it’s a miracle that the glass didn’t break. Cause a bunch of them had on rings and stuff, and it was so loud, so that was a bit scary. Then, the amount of people that would ride behind our bus, in cabs, and stick their heads and bodies outside of their cabs, to experience that, that was something. Also, having fans just somehow magically appear in our hotel rooms. One time, there was a fan that was in the room and she’s like, “I just want to give you a hug.” And I was like, “You shouldn’t be here.” And she’s like, “Please, please, please, don’t tell anybody.” She was escorted out, obviously. I mean, I was 13 years old.
How did Menudo prepare you for the Met?
Throughout my career I’ve been really lucky to have been offered opportunities that teach you about being very disciplined and structured. And I think that that level of involvement and attention to bringing your A-game at all times, whether it’s for school or studying or a job at the Met, it just teaches you about your work ethic and about being present and doing your best. And I think that I’ve been able to prevail because of that, not necessarily because of Menudo. Menudo was just one in a lot of things that I’ve been proud to be a part of that created a fertile ground for me to succeed in life.
What has your experience been like there?
Performing at the Met is one of the most beautiful and I would say, rich experiences of my life. You are working with the best of the best when it comes to musicians, dancers, singers, designers, everyone from front of the house to back of the house, it’s like a family. And we’re all deeply connected in wanting to present quality work to all of our audiences. It’s the largest platform, the biggest stage in the world, is what we say at the Met. And that sense of pride is something that will stay with me forever and it’s a humbling experience at the same time.
What are your future plans?
Producing is something really important to me because after having over 30 years of a career in the arts I feel that the arts have really empowered me to get to where I am. The arts are very healing and I feel that now, more than ever, what the world needs is a lot of healing. And I feel that I want to create opportunities where I bring a lot of colleagues of mine, whether they’re performers, artists, musicians, bring them together in order to give the community some solace and entertain them.
Follow César on Instagram at @CesarNY