The story could belong to thousands of families who left Cuba for Miami. Or anywhere for anywhere, hoping for a life of freedom and opportunity.
Striving and struggle, painful separations from family and homeland, the roller coaster of love and loss — those are the plot points in a simple, familiar story. Except this story happens to belong to Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and it’s being played out at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre eight times a week in the new musical On Your Feet!.
The newest creative venture in the Miami superstar couple’s multifaceted body of work will get a thumbs up or down (or sideways) from the New York critics after its official opening night on Thursday. But as far as preview audiences are concerned, the biographical jukebox musical — part Broadway, part sizzling concert — is already a hit.
For the week ending Oct. 25, On Your Feet! sold 11,825 tickets, breaking the $1 million mark at $1,096,202. It’s the first big musical since the red-hot Hamilton to show that level of box-office muscle. These days, thanks to a show that has stylistic roots in both Fiddler on the Roof and Jersey Boys, Times Square at 46th Street is looking and sounding a lot like the 305.
And for the artists involved who hail from or who have lived in South Florida — including the Estefans; book writer Alexander Dinelaris; stars Ana Villafañe and Andréa Burns; actors Henry Gainza, Nina Lafarga, Natalie Caruncho, Eric Ulloa, Lee Zarrett and Omar Lopez-Cepero; associate director Andy Señor Jr. and six members of the Miami Sound Machine — there is immense pride in bringing a show that celebrates their cultural and musical heritage to Broadway.
I never dreamed we’d have our story be a Broadway play. But I never dreamed I’d be doing what I’ve done in pop music.
“I never dreamed we’d have our story be a Broadway play,” Gloria Estefan says by phone from the Marquis, where she has spent days at rehearsals and nights watching that story play out on stage. “But I never dreamed I’d be doing what I’ve done in pop music.”
That would be since Conga became the breakthrough hit for Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine 30 years ago, becoming the most successful Latin crossover artist ever.
Her husband and partner in all of that Grammy Award-winning success was first approached by producer James L. Nederlander about doing a Broadway show 25 years ago, still the relatively early years of their worldwide prominence. Emilio Estefan didn’t think the timing was right then. Now, with Estefan Enterprises as one of the show’s three lead producers (Nederlander and Bernie Yuman are the others), the man whose life journey took him from Cuba to Spain to Miami as a kid hopes that the uplifting story told in On Your Feet! reflects gratitude and makes a difference.
“I hope we can inspire a different generation, to make them think about how lucky we are to live in the United States and to be able to achieve the American Dream,” Estefan says. “We want to give so much back to this country.”
To tell the story of a journey that took the Estefans from Fidel Castro’s Cuba to freedom and music industry prominence, the producers drafted a creative dream team.
Director Jerry Mitchell, a Tony Award winner for his choreography of Kinky Boots and La Cage aux Folles; choreographer Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, Memphis); Tony-nominated set designer David Rockwell, and Tony-winning lighting designer Kenneth Posner all signed on. To write the show’s book, they turned to playwright Dinelaris, who lived in Miami for two years while attending Barry University — and who won an Oscar earlier this year as one of the Birdman screenwriters.
Mitchell, described as a master showman by his On Your Feet! colleagues, let Dinelaris know the themes and truths he was looking for in the script — though he adds, “There will always be augmentation for story; no one’s life is that exciting.”
Nonetheless, Mitchell says, “I wanted three things from Alex: the idea of them both being immigrants from Cuba; celebrating what they built here because they had freedom; and the theme of love and family. And, of course, the accident.”
That 1990 accident, when the Estefans’ tour bus was hit by a semi truck on a snowy Pennsylvania highway, fractured Gloria’s spine. A pair of eight-inch titanium rods stabilized her spine, and after a year of painful rehabilitation, she gave a triumphant comeback performance at the American Music Awards. That’s all in the show, and so is the depiction of the Estefans’ unwilling estrangement from her mother, Gloria Fajardo — a conflict that ended with the accident.
“We toned my mom down,” says Estefan. “She’s the diva of the family. My dad died at 47, and she had two girls to raise. She couldn’t trust this musician dude would do right by me … When Dad died, I knew we had to take my sister [Rebecca] with us [on tour]. But Mom’s point was that I could not make a decision that would go over her head.”
First reports of the accident said Estefan had died. Her mother got on a plane and arrived at her daughter’s bedside at 3 a.m., only to find a devastated, worried Emilio crying in a closet.
“She saw how ridiculous this had been,” Gloria says.
My mother-in-law put me through hell at the beginning … It took me almost 12 years. But now she’s become my mom.
“My mother-in-law put me through hell at the beginning. She had lost her husband, and Gloria was her baby. She didn’t want her to get into the world of music,” Emilio says. “It took me almost 12 years. But now she’s become my mom. She’s an incredible woman.”
Burns plays Fajardo, a woman whose youthful showbiz aspirations were quashed by her disapproving father. The actress, who went to New World School of the Arts and created the role of Daniela in Broadway’s In the Heights, hasn’t met Estefan’s mother, but the couple answered her questions and shared memories. And Burns watched videos, finding Fajardo “hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. She’s quite a powerful and charismatic figure.”
Having listened to the hits by Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine on her way home from New World rehearsals, Burns has found the couple inspiring: “Emilio makes you want to stand up and do something. Gloria is so down to earth, so loving, such a genuine musical talent.”
Dinelaris, telling the story of a couple happily wed since 1978, found plenty of drama, laughs and stirring moments to marry to the Estefans’ vast catalog of hits. The songs aren’t used chronologically but instead are placed to advance the story, and a new one — If I Never Got To Tell You, by Estefan and her daughter Emily, a Berklee College of Music student who wasn’t born until after the time period depicted in the show — was written at Dinelaris’ request.
“What you have is a story about tradition, heritage, love and family,” he says. “I fit every song into the piece and then wrote around them so they’d sound organic. But I didn’t have anything that would work for that emotional moment in the hospital. I was in Puerto Rico working on the script and called and asked for a new song. Three days later, she called back and sang it into my cel phone. I saved it.”
Señor, who directed a historic December production of Rent in Havana, has been the Miami expert — “the authenticity police,” Mitchell calls him — throughout the rehearsal process, last summer’s tryout run in Chicago and the Broadway previews. Working on this show with the Estefans, whom he has known all his life, was the culmination of a longtime dream for the Florida International University grad and artistic director of Miami’s still-gestating District Stage Company.
“My dad was Gloria’s parents’ neighbor in Cuba. When her mom was pregnant with Gloria and her water broke, my dad drove Gloria’s mom to the hospital. When they started Miami Sound Machine, my dad’s band would open for them. Since I was a kid, my dream was to work with them. I just never thought it would be through theater,” Señor says.
Señor made sure the names and logos of radio stations (like Super Q and Y100) and South Florida clubs from the days when the Miami Sound Machine was breaking through were right. He checked details large and small — “it is literally my neighborhood on stage,” he says — to be sure that On Your Feet! would be as “honest, culturally rich and authentic as possible.”
“Gloria and Emilio are megastars, but when you’re with them, you feel like you’re in their living room,” Señor says. “They are so available.”
Villafañe, who grew up in Miami and went to Gloria Estefan’s alma mater (Our Lady of Lourdes Academy), and Orlando native Josh Segarra are starring as Gloria and Emilio. Both actors agree that the Estefans have been open and generous throughout the show’s journey to Broadway.
Gloria and Emilio are symbols for any marginalized group that has had to struggle to overcome obstacles and boundaries.
Ana Villafañe, who plays Gloria Estefan in ‘On Your Feet!’
“Gloria’s music has been part of my life for as long as I remember,” says Villafañe, who is making her Broadway debut in On Your Feet! “Gloria and Emilio are symbols for any marginalized group that has had to struggle to overcome obstacles and boundaries. They have succeeded because they love each other and what they do. They have stayed true to themselves, always celebrating and elevating the culture. And they weren’t afraid to work hard.”
The actress, who has a strong resemblance to the younger Gloria, is taller and has a higher singing voice. The two worked on the songs together and, Villafañe says, “I’ve had to ask her so many deep personal questions.”
“I wish I could take credit for how good she is,” Estefan says. “She watches me like a hawk. Sometimes I go, ‘Put down the magnifying glass, woman.’ She really does her homework. But she needs to interpret my life and make choices for herself.”
Segarra, whose family is Puerto Rican, has no accent off stage but has been careful to replicate Emilio Estefan’s Cuban-accented English. That and Estefan’s youthful penchant for wearing very short shorts are among the lighter moments in the show. But the driven Estefan’s memories of fleeing Cuba, his encounters with prejudice, his confrontations with record executives who wouldn’t buy into his crossover vision — those feed the drama.
“Emilio reminds me so much of my dad and my uncle. He’s so giving, such an open book. He cares so much more about the people around him than about himself,” Segarra says. “He speaks with his actions instead of his words. I watched how he carries himself, what it was like to be the man behind the woman. I listened to his accent. I had to make it Cuban to make sure the 305 is happy … I’m just out there trying to put on his Superman cape.”
Gainza, a University of Miami grad who has worked Off-Broadway and in regional theaters including Actors’ Playhouse, has been Señor’s friend since childhood and says, “Sometimes we turn to each other and it seems like we’re in high school again, sitting next to each other in choir. Who would have thought we’d do something like this that speaks of our hometown and our heritage?”
Making his Broadway debut, Gainza marvels at “the attention to excellence and detail. You’re getting the best of the best.”
Gloria Estefan has been similarly impressed.
“We have creative control, but we would never pull that card. My respect and admiration for Broadway performers has grown exponentially. I love sitting in the back, watching them every night,” she says.
Like her On Your Feet! cast mates, all but one Latino, Villafañe takes enormous pride in playing out a real-life, inspiring story. And there’s one particular moment that the actress, of Cuban and Salvadoran heritage, especially savors.
“I get to say ‘¡Cuba Libre!’ on stage on Broadway. And I get to say it into a microphone, every night,” she says, adding, “Gloria and Emilio are the pioneers. They gave us the opportunity to have these lives in entertainment. We get to perpetuate that tradition.”
If you go
What: ‘On Your Feet!’ by Alexander Dinelaris, Gloria Estefan and Emilio Estefan.
Where: Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, New York.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.