Among the star presenters at Sunday’s 68th annual Tony Awards — an eclectic bunch that includes Bradley Cooper, Carole King, Clint Eastwood, Kenneth Branagh, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Will Ferrell and Liev Schreiber — is a Miami superstar couple whose long list of achievements in music, show business and the arts doesn’t include Broadway.
Not yet. But for Gloria and Emilio Estefan, that’s about to change.
Certainly, the team putting the show together has major theater cred, including Broadway and London.
The Broadway powerhouse Nederlander Organization is partnering with Estefan Enterprises and Bernie Yuman to produce On Your Feet! Tony-winning director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell ( Kinky Boots, Hairspray and Legally Blonde) will stage it, and Sergio Trujillo ( Jersey Boys, Memphis) will choreograph it. Playwright Alexander Dinelaris ( Zanna, Don’t! and The Bodyguard) is crafting the book, incorporating songs from the vast Gloria Estefan-Miami Sound Machine catalog.
The Cuba-born Estefans have enjoyed growing fame and worldwide success since the mid-1970s, when a student named Gloria Fajardo started singing with the band that became Miami Sound Machine while working on her degree in psychology from the University of Miami.
Married since 1978, the couple built a music empire, as seven-time Grammy Award winner Gloria became the most successful Latin crossover artist of all time, and Emilio worked his producer’s magic with such stars as Shakira, Celia Cruz, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony, winning 19 Grammys in the process. The two have become authors, entrepreneurs who own a pair of hotels and a number of restaurants, minority owners of the Miami Dolphins, and multifaceted forces in showbiz (she acts, he produces and directs).
So why Broadway, and why now?
“The Nederlanders came to me over 20 years ago, wanting to do something with a Latino feel. I felt it wasn’t the right timing; I was 40 then,” Emilio Estefan says. “But I think this show can have a great message for minorities about dreams. It can be our way of saying thank you to a country we love.”
If timing is everything, Estefan may have been wise to wait. The Latino population in the United States has soared over the past two decades. Two Latino playwrights, Miami’s Nilo Cruz and Quiara Alegría Hudes, have won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and the Tony-winning musical In the Heights (by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hudes) has enjoyed mainstream success on Broadway and on tour. And as playwright Dinelaris points out, “They now have perspective on their lives looking backwards, something you don’t have when you’re in the middle of it.”
“Their library of music is something I’ve listened to my whole life; many of their tunes came at landmark moments in my life. Their music has incredible melodies and rhythms,” Mitchell says. “And if we need a new lyric, Gloria’s around to write it. That’s an ace in the hole for us. She wants to write new stuff and re-tailor things for the story.”
Dinelaris, a New Yorker who attended Barry University, has already written the first version of his script after working with a researcher, reading books, watching DVDs and making “four or five” trips to Miami to meet with the Estefans.
He jokes that he told them, “You’ve been happily married for 35 years. You have two healthy kids. You’re a writer’s nightmare.”
In fact, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to take on the project at first — “it’s risky to write about someone’s life when they’re alive and working on it with you,” he says — he found the Estefans’ story compelling and dramatically rich.
“I wasn’t interested in doing a Behind the Music story. I wanted some songs to be in Spanish, some songs to be famous, others not. Everyone was open to that. Enough things fell into place that I thought I could be proud of it,” he says.
The story that drives On Your Feet! is about a boy born in Santiago de Cuba in 1953 and a girl born in Havana in 1957. Fidel Castro’s takeover led their families to flee their homeland. Gloria’s father joined the U.S. Army, fought at the Bay of Pigs and in Vietnam, later developing multiple sclerosis after exposure to Agent Orange. At 11, Emilio went with his father to Spain, leaving his mother and brother behind in Cuba, then moving to Miami at 14.
Hardship and struggle were followed by musical success and a real, lasting love. The Estefans’ son Nayib was born in 1980, and their careers took off, producing such hits as Conga, Words Get in the Way, 1-2-3, Rhythm Is Gonna Get You and Get On Your Feet. In 1990, on a snowy Pennsylvania highway during the Get On Your Feet world tour, a semi slammed into the tour bus, fracturing Gloria’s spine, leading to fears she might be paralyzed for life. But after doctors implanted a pair of titanium rods to stabilize her spine, and after a year of painful rehabilitation, the singer resumed her globetrotting career. She even became a mom again when daughter Emily was born in 1994.
All those facts — the highs and lows, the losses, the love, the triumphs, the tenacity — intrigued Dinelaris.
“Emilio would say the show is about the American dream. He went through hell to get produced. He faced prejudice. He was told he was too American for the Latin market and too Latin for the American market,” the playwright says. “It’s a good story, an inspiring story. It’s about family, death, perseverance. It spans different countries and different times.”
A couple of weeks ago, the creative team sat around a table with actors and the Estefans to read through the script. The two people closest to the story reacted strongly.
“About 15 minutes in, Gloria started to cry,” Dinelaris says. “You hope the show will transcend the jukebox label, like Jersey Boys. You hope that it resonates somehow; I want to preserve the response we had at that table. And the music is so infectious, so beautiful and rich. We’re hoping for goosebumps, a few laughs, tears and a lot of dancing.”
Emilio Estefan concurs: That reading was powerful.
“I cried from beginning to end. Our childhood was sad. I had to separate from my homeland. My mom was stuck in Cuba, but she said, ‘I want you to live in a free country,’ ” he says. “And we had problems at first, because there wasn’t a window for the kind of music we were making.”
Still, Estefan sees On Your Feet! as affirmative and inspiring.
“We are excited and humble about coming to Broadway. Being a producer, seeing what I saw in that room, I think we have something,” he says.
Then the man who has met popes and presidents and all manner of celebrities mentions how jazzed he is about being at this year’s Tony Awards.
“This is our first time presenting at the Tonys. It’s a highlight — I can’t even believe it. It’s fantastic to meet so many people [in the theater world],” he says. “And it means I can buy a new suit.”
Gloria Estefan, whose schedule precluded an interview for this story, conveyed her excitement in an emailed statement.
“Being a huge fan of the theater, it’s a special joy and a privilege to be able to bring our story to Broadway,” she notes. “Never could we have imagined when we started writing and recording our music in the late ‘70s that we would one day be able to share it in such an iconic way. And we hope that our fans and the theater-going public will be able to laugh, cry and dance at On Your Feet!.”
Given the Estefans’ deep roots in South Florida, the choice of Chicago (vs. Miami) as the tryout city for On Your Feet! might seem a little puzzling. The Nederlander Organization owns theaters in the Windy City, but the decision to start the musical’s journey to Broadway there goes beyond real estate.
“With any musical, you have to go out of town,” Mitchell says. “The audience in Chicago is similar to the audience in New York. And [Chicago Tribune theater critic] Chris Jones has incredible street cred in New York. Reviews can be very helpful in working on a show out of town.”
Dinelaris agrees, adding that as nice as the hometown love for the Estefans might be, it wouldn’t help the creative team tweak the show.
“Chicago is a good demographic for New York. You can’t try it out in Miami, because you wouldn’t learn anything,” he says. “Miami’s real home cooking for On Your Feet!”