On Your Feet! treats Broadway audiences to 26 songs made famous by Gloria Estefan, salsa-flavored choreography by 2016 Tony Award nominee Sergio Trujillo, and a heartwarming book by Oscar winner Alexander Dinelaris. It’s a splashy Broadway musical hit, and yet the secret of the show’s success lies in its touching depiction of the enduring love story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, brought to vivid life by Ana Villafañe and Broadway newcomer Ektor Rivera.
Since joining On Your Feet! in mid-July, the Puerto Rican–born Rivera has quickly established an exciting stage chemistry with Villafañe, who won raves as Gloria when the show opened last November. During a preperformance chat in Villafañe’s Marquis Theatre dressing room, the pair spoke about their desire to honor a couple they deeply admire.
“Emilio believed in Gloria so much,” Villafañe says of the superstar singer’s producer husband, “and he loved her so much that they were able to overcome the discrimination and the cutthroat nature of the entertainment business. Together, they could conquer anything. The show hinges around their love story, and Ektor brings an openness and humanity that are so refreshing. It almost feels like we got to open on Broadway again, which is amazing because you can’t fake that energy.”
Playing a Cuban immigrant who succeeded on his own terms in America is a dream come true for the charismatic Rivera. “I am from the Caribbean,” he says. “I have an accent, and I wake up every day with the motivation of making art. I want to live what we are transmitting in this musical: the American dream. It’s a blessing to tell a story of inspiration and love every night — and to work on the music with actual members of the Miami Sound Machine!”
After nine months on Broadway, Villafañe has perfected a performance that manages to capture the essence of Gloria Estefan’s multigenerational appeal. She wears the demands of her enormous role lightly, saying: “I feel like I’m getting a graduate degree in drama and singing and dance. I had to figure out how to become this woman who has influenced my own life, and to make sure that translates to the audience in order for the show to influence their lives.” For a Miami girl who attended the same Catholic high school as Gloria, singing 17 of her idol’s songs on Broadway eight times a week is a special thrill. “We text-message now, which is so crazy,” Villafañe says with a laugh. “It’s a very cool torch to carry.”
Rivera recalls looking to Emilio as a role model when he began dating TV journalist Yara Lasanta, who became his wife four years ago. “We talked about the Estefans and how it is not an easy thing to maintain a relationship and work in the music business for more than 30 years,” he says. When Rivera, who began acting in musicals as a teenager, decided to try his luck in America, Lasanta followed him from Puerto Rico to Los Angeles. She landed a job there as a meteorologist on the Telemundo network just before he was cast in On Your Feet! “The distance is not easy,” Rivera says, “but it is temporary, and she understands that this is a big step in my career.” A talented painter, Rivera hopes to show his art in America and is determined to improve his English, which he speaks fluently with a charming accent.
Villafañe and Rivera kicked off their stage partnership on this year’s Capitol Fourth PBS-TV special, filmed just before he joined the Broadway company. “Only 11 million people saw it,” he jokes, adding that he immediately felt at ease with his new costar. “She’s a beauty, and she has so much heart. The first night I stepped into [the show] I expected to feel a bit nervous, but I felt calm and good and present because I have this wonderful person beside me. It feels like home.”
For her part, the vivacious Villafañe insisted on rehearsing with Rivera, remembering the excitement and uncertainty of her own Broadway debut last fall. “I didn’t want Ektor to feel that he was just being dropped into this ocean and had to swim,” she explains. “I said, ‘Let’s walk in together and start with a clean slate.’ People’s chemistry is like a thumbprint: You can’t re-create it, but if it’s there, you can build something new.”
To prepare for the role, Rivera peppered Emilio Estefan with questions about his management style, “how he inspires people and how he has achieved so much. I see in his eyes the sparkle of inspiration always. And he’s like a kid — he wants to try new things, and that’s how I am. I feel very, very identified with him as a person, very connected with him.”
Director Jerry Mitchell weaves the Estefans’ “everlasting love” storyline into a show that includes electrifying concert segments and even an audience-participation conga line. “It’s very balanced,” Villafañe says of On Your Feet! “The concerts balance with the family aspects. And the audience reaction is so fueling — that’s the best way to describe actually doing the show. You’re pouring all of your energy and focus into it, but the audience is filling you up at the same time, so your cup is never empty. I knew that there were a lot of Gloria fans, but I never expected the love we get at the end of the show from people of all ages, even kids who have never heard her music.
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy