The rhythm’s gonna get you. Or the love story will.
Either way, it will be hard to resist joining the conga in the aisles when On Your Feet! comes to Broadway. The new musical written by Golden Globe and Academy Award winner Alexander Dinelaris and directed by two-time Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell — which begins performances at the Marquis Theatre this October — is based on the inspiring story of 26-time Grammy Award–winning power couple Emilio and Gloria Estefan, and the chart-topping music they’ve made together.
When writer Dinelaris first met the queen of Latin pop and her producer-entrepreneur husband at their home in Miami, he took to the couple immediately. “They were gripping and honest, good people to be around,” he reports. “I knew the material was inherently musical — their music tells stories. But my joke when I met them was, ‘You’re a writer’s nightmare: There’s no drugs, no affairs!’” recalls the writer, who cowrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for the movie Birdman and penned the book for the West End musical The Bodyguard.
But the writer didn’t need to be concerned. “When Alex presented me with the script, I found that it is ultimately a most amazing love story,” says director Mitchell. “It’s the story about two immigrants from Cuba who met in Miami and built this catalog of music that is known all over the world. Through the good and the bad, they stuck together. They are phenomenal in what they have managed to create and maintain together as a couple.”
Dinelaris found the crucial tensions he needed for a compelling story in the circumstances that surrounded the perfect couple, and in the obstacles they faced. “Her father had a tragic story — he contracted multiple sclerosis after serving in Vietnam,” notes the writer. “Not to mention Gloria’s mother had a very complicated relationship with her daughter, and was very resistant to Emilio.”
And if the story of how Emilio recognized the potential in the young singer Gloria Fajardo in the mid-1970s — and promoted her to the forefront of his band, known originally as the Miami Latin Boys and later as the Miami Sound Machine — may read like a charmed fairy tale, the couple faced a real bias in the pop music industry. “People wanted to keep them in the box of Latin music,” Dinelaris explains. “The way they pioneered the crossover into mainstream pop music was a sort of revolution; it certainly broke down the door. After that, Emilio began producing artists such as Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, and Shakira. That’s the wave that came after.”
But perhaps the greatest obstacle in Gloria Estefan’s story was her near-fatal bus accident in March 1990 on a snow-covered Pennsylvania highway in the Pocono Mountains, when a truck plowed into the tour bus carrying the Estefans to a concert, leaving the singer with a fractured spine. Her prospects look bleak, but Gloria made a remarkable recovery: After months of rehabilitation, she returned to performing less than a year later. “Imagine being at the top of your game, everything is going spectacular in your life, and then you break your back and everything stops,” remarks Mitchell. “You have to choose if you are going to come back, and how. That’s inspiring to a lot of people.”
In the tradition of current Broadway hits like Jersey Boys and Beautiful, On Your Feet! is a bio-musical that draws from an existing catalog of music written by the subject of the show. Audiences can expect to hear such Estefan hits as “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Conga,” “1-2-3,” “Don’t Want to Lose You Now,” “Get on Your Feet,” and “Coming Out of the Dark,” the song she wrote after the accident. But rather than present them chronologically, Dinelaris has expertly woven the songs into the narrative of the musical.
“I picked out the story I was going to tell first,” Dinelaris explains. “I started out with this one idea and I would listen to the songs over and over until I found one that would fit in the narrative. And then, when you are lucky enough to have someone like Jerry and [choreographer] Sergio Trujillo staging the numbers, everything becomes organic, and it becomes this cohesive, thematic whole.”
There was one spot in the narrative, however, where Dinelaris couldn’t find a song to fit, so he reached out to Gloria for help. “There is this scene that takes place in the hospital just after the accident; her mother is there, and Emilio is there,” the writer relates. “I called Gloria and explained the circumstance and the theme, and told her I needed a song there. Amazingly, she and her daughter, Emily, teamed up together and wrote a beautiful new song. Gloria called me two days later — I was in Puerto Rico working on the script — and she sang a rough draft of the new song on my answering machine. I still have that message; I couldn’t erase it. I mean, Gloria Estefan is singing to me on my phone! That song, “If I Never Got to Tell You,” is really affecting, and Jerry staged it beautifully. It is one the most moving moments in the show.”
On Your Feet! arrives in New York after a pre-Broadway run earlier this summer at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. Both Mitchell and Dinelaris were thrilled with the response, even as they worked on fine-tuning the show for Broadway. “There wasn’t a performance where there weren’t folks in tears — literally,” reports Dinelaris. “I wanted to make a meaty story that made sense, and Jerry and Sergio made it into the magical, dancing, breathing thing that it is,” adds the writer.
“It’s not just the music, but Gloria and Emilio’s personalities — how they came together and created the world that has been such a joy for so many people,” offers Mitchell. “They are a very inspiring couple and I love it when audiences leave the show feeling moved in some way. The one thing that never changed from the very first preview in Chicago to the last performance was that at the end of the show, people were genuinely up on their feet and dancing in the aisles. They just didn’t want to leave.”