The ultimate American success story is headed to Broadway, and it centers on a charismatic couple born in Cuba: pop superstar Gloria Estefan and her producer husband, Emilio.
The irresistible new musical On Your Feet! traces the professional and personal relationships that fueled sales of more than 100 million records and made Gloria Estefan the most successful English/Spanish crossover artist of all time. Boasting a score packed with three decades of great music, On Your Feet! begins previews October 5 at the Marquis Theatre, directed by two-time Tony winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots).
“The show is a love story,” Gloria says in her familiar smoky voice. “It’s a love story between Emilio and me; a love story to this country, as immigrants; and a love story to music, which has been a saving grace in our lives. I want to inspire people, move them emotionally and, of course, entertain them!”
On Your Feet focuses on Gloria’s life from age 17, when she joined Emilio’s band while studying at the University of Miami, to age 32, when she survived a gruesome tour bus crash that nearly paralyzed her. Book writer Alexander Dinelaris, the Oscar-winning coscreenwriter of Birdman, deftly mines the catalog of Estefan classics in ways that feel “as if the songs have been written for the play,” marvels Gloria. “That was important to me — I wanted the show to include not just the hits, but also more obscure cuts that have special meaning to me as a writer, songs that will surprise people.”
After an international talent search, Broadway newcomer Ana Villafañe won the role of Gloria opposite Josh Segarra as Emilio. Gloria knew it wouldn’t be easy to cast her alter ego, explaining, “You need to be bilingual and able to sing both pop and Latin music, which require totally different timing. Beyond that, you have to be able to act this deep and nuanced play Alex has written.” (Not to mention dancing Cuban-style salsa in electrifying concert sequences choreographed by Sergio Trujillo.)
When Villafañe, a rising film actress whose credits include the forthcoming superhero movie Max Steel, entered the audition room, “it was like one of those Hollywood movies where you go, ‘I must have that face!’” Gloria recalls with a laugh. “She could have been my daughter. My next thought was, Please, Lord, let this girl be able to sing.”
What Gloria didn’t know at the time was that Villafañe had grown up idolizing the singer she calls “the queen of everything.” Both attended high school at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Miami, where Villafañe performed Estefan hits in talent shows. Both grew up bilingual, the daughters of Cuban-born mothers. “I understand Gloria and where she comes from,” the vivacious young actress says. “In a weird way, I know what to do when playing her because I’m a fan — I know the qualities people respond to when they watch her.”
The biggest challenge, explains Villafañe, “is being true to the rhythms that create the iconic ‘Gloria sound.’ You want to be faithful to the songs while injecting new life into them to tell this beautiful story.” For her part, Gloria insists, “I didn’t want a clone. I wanted someone to interpret my life and let people get lost in that interpretation, although at points in the show, it’s scary how much Ana looks and sounds like me.”
While immersing herself in research before the musical’s pre-Broadway engagement in Chicago, Villafañe had the “dream come true” experience of being personally tutored by Gloria, who emphasized the percussive quality of hits such as “1-2-3” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.” “I told Ana to sing ‘Conga’ as if she is a conga drum,” Gloria says of her 1985 breakout hit. “It’s all about the groove and the vibe and the pocket. My music has always been about connecting. That’s what I think about every time I step on a stage.”
Having played venues all over the world, Gloria heaps praise on the talent of stage actors such as Andréa Burns and Alma Cuervo, who portray her strong-willed mother and grandmother, respectively. “I’ve always had great respect for Broadway players because they have to be triple threats,” she says. “These people get up on that stage eight times a week to sing, dance, and act. There is no bigger challenge for any performer.”
While shaping the show with a critical eye, Gloria experienced an unexpected surge of emotion every time she heard her onstage father sing “When Someone Comes Into Your Life,” a song she wrote early in her career with him in mind. Jose Fajardo had been a bodyguard to Cuban president Batista before the Fajardos left the country in 1959, when Gloria was 2. “My dad was ill [with multiple sclerosis] when I was in high school, and I took care of him,” she says now. “I’m very stoic, but even in rehearsal, when we got the spot where my father sang that song to me, I would cry. Then, in Chicago, I looked around and everybody in the audience was crying! There’s this emotional connection that’s very real.”
On a lighter note, On Your Feet! celebrates the enduring bond between Gloria and Emilio, who married on September 2, 1978, the day after her 21st birthday. “Josh and I have to remind each other that we’re telling a real story,” Villafañe says with a chuckle. “Sometimes it feels like a fairy tale, but we know Gloria and Emilio, and they’re just that much in love. It’s a great partnership, and they’re hilarious together.”
Gloria’s “dream team” of writer, director, choreographer, and a history-making “99 percent Latin cast” have come together to create a Broadway musical that lives up to its title. “From the moment the show starts, you’re on this amazing ride,” promises Villafañe. “It’s a celebration of life, love, music, and culture, and of everyone who has ever refused to take no for an answer. This is my Broadway debut, so I have no idea what to expect, but the best word I can use to describe it so far is flying. The show just soars.”
Photo credit: Bruce Glikas