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Gloria Estefan puts her story onstage in On Your Feet!

Written by
Kris Vire
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Pop star Gloria Estefan, the performer for whom the term "Latin crossover star" might as well have been invented, wants you On Your Feet! That's the title of the new Broadway-bound musical that tells the story of the Miami Sound Machine singer turned solo artist and her husband, Grammy-winning music producer Emilio Estefan, using music from Gloria's catalog of hits like "Conga," "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You," "Don't Wanna Lose You" and, of course, "Get On Your Feet."

The show, with a book by Birdman Oscar winner Alexander Dinelaris and directed by Tony winner Jerry Mitchell, has a five-week tryout at Chicago's Oriental Theatre beginning next week before opening on Broadway in the fall. At a press conference last week, Gloria and Emilio introduced the actors who will be playing them onstage, Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra. Earlier today, I spoke with Gloria about how the show came to life and how, exactly, the rhythm is going to get us.

When you and Emilio started to think about telling your story, what made you think of a stage musical, as opposed to film or another medium?

Well, I think as performers, especially live performers that have spent our lives touring the world, we're great lovers of the musical. They had invited us to do something for Vegas, for a place they were opening, and they wanted a unique and original musical. We kind of got the opportunity to synthesize the story we wanted to tell in that time, but things kept getting in the way, and I am very much a listener of the universe and the cosmos. When things keep getting sidetracked, something is up. So we put the kibosh on it and said, We'll see one day what happens.

[Producer] Bernie Yuman, who had been working with us on that thing, went to [theater operators] the Nederlanders—who had spoken to Emilio 25 years ago, to try and do something Hispanic on Broadway, before In the Heights and all these things, but we weren't talking about autobiography at that point; we hadn't lived enough to do it, it would have been ridiculous for us at that point.

So nothing came of it at that time, but when Bernie went to them they were so incredibly enthusiastic and over the moon about doing something now that I think we have the record for the quickest anything has gotten on the Broadway stage. We started working with Alex Dinelaris, who was the first writer they brought. Alex came in having done his homework and with an incredible idea already that blew our minds; it was just right up our alley. Just like the other project kept getting things in the way, this project was like, blossoming at the speed of light. Jerry Mitchell showed interest, and I was like, Oh my God, I'm such a huge fan, absolutely, he's the man.

The Nederlanders refuse to call it a jukebox musical, because the way that Alex chose the songs he put in—I let him be the one, we have so many songs they would never all get in, nor should they. It's been a dream team working together, and I think it's a very natural way to tell our story.

You said last week that you essentially handed the story to Alex and then stepped away. How involved were you in the crafting of the show?

We did, and he blew us away when he sent that first draft. Of course then, Jerry steps in, producers step in, the Nederlanders—but we've all been so much on the same page about the story we wanted to tell that it's just gotten stronger and better. And the Chicago audience will be telling us as well, what things work, what things they didn't like so much, and we're going to be listening, because they're a very savvy and supportive audience.

When we would be in readings I'd be like, "Look, I don't want to lose the audience. This song is in Spanish and I want it to be authentic, but there's ways to include the audience—let me put a couple of lines here in English, and it will be authentic because I wrote the thing to begin with!"

I want people to feel empowered when they leave that musical, and if there's something in their lives that they want to retake or reclaim, whether there's a communication with their family that maybe they want to renew—we don't want them to just sit there and see something. We want them to feel what my fans tell me they feel with my music, that it's accompanied them through their lives and it's got them through tough times; that they feel they can do anything watching me come back from that accident, and… We'd like to make a difference in some way.

When you introduced Josh and Ana at the press conference last week, you joked that Ana was the height that you wanted people to think you are.

It's the height that they actually think I am! I photograph very tall, apparently? And when I'm up front and the band is behind me it seems like I'm their size. People think I'm super tall. When they meet me, they're like "You're so little!"

Gloria Estefan, Emilio Estefan, Josh Segarra and Ana Villafañe

How much involvement did you have in casting the actors who would be playing you and your husband?

Obviously we had a lot of creative control on that, but we pored through thousands of online entries—I think it's the first time anyone has reached out so far and wide and worldwide. I let Jerry narrow it down—I would say for example, this girl sounds great singing, then they'd send the person sides, and they couldn't cut it acting. There [also] had to be at least a vague resemblance; I don't need her to be a clone, but there has to be some flavor. It's very hard to find women who are altos, too.

So when we came to the final four, I walked in the room and—you know how in the movies they go, "That face!" There was just something that you can't put your finger on that she had just walking in. I later found out she went to my high school in Miami, and all these connections started to flourish after we'd already hired her. But we all turned to each other at the end and said, "Ana." And then the chemistry after she met Josh—the chemistry that these two have is ridiculous. It's palpable from the 5,000th row.

The show is in tech right now, with previews starting Tuesday. Do you feel like it's coming together yet?

You know, I put my tours together, so I have a very good experience base in that kind of thing. You should be able to put on a show that's two hours long that feels like an hour long. And right now that show feels super short. Of course you can also put on a show that's an hour long that feels like a year, so you don't want that! A lot of it has to do with pacing, and Jerry is the king of that. I try to be as helpful as I can and stay out of the way as much as I need to, because I know that right now, in tech, it's like watching paint dry but oh-so important.

I can't wait for people to see this next week. There's gonna be an Estefan invasion on Monday here, everyone's coming from Miami. There's 200 people coming from my high school, they hired vans! And I have 70 of my fans from worldwide coming for the first day, from Nigeria, Germany, India…it's gonna be quite an interesting group here.

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