‘On Your Feet’ — A musical rooted in a real-life Cuban-American fairy tale

SHARE ‘On Your Feet’ — A musical rooted in a real-life Cuban-American fairy tale

Art and history have a funny way of tripping each other up. Consider the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, the master builders of the Latin pop “crossover” sound that burst onto the scene in the late 1970s.

In the wake of the Cuban Revolution of 1959, both Gloria, now 57, and Emilio, 62, fled their homes. Though their routes out were different, not surprisingly their paths eventually crossed in Miami, where Emilio had founded the Miami Sound Machine band in 1975 and Gloria, just 17, joined forces with that band in 1977. The two fell in love, and married in 1978, and the rest has become a saga that is in equal parts love story (at once wholly romantic and, to watch them even now, charmingly screwball in nature), and classic tale of immigrant struggle and extraordinary success, with one near-death experience more than enough to seal the deal.

And that’s not the end of it. For this past December, at the very moment that “On Your Feet!: The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan”— a Broadway musical that uses their songs to spin part of their life stories — was revving up for its pre-Broadway tryout June 17 at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, and its New York debut Nov. 5, something of a second revolution occurred. President Obama announced that after more than 50 years of enmity, relations between the United States and Cuba would be set on a path to normalization.

strong>’ON YOUR FEET! THE STORY OF EMILIO & GLORIA ESTEFAN’

When: Previews begin June 2; opens June 17 and runs through July 5

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $33 – $100

Info: (800) 775-2000; BroadwayInChicago.com

Watch the Estefans interact as they make the publicity rounds for “On Your Feet!” and you instantly understand what has kept them together for close to four decades as they’ve built intertwined mega-careers, a family, a personal fortune, and multifaceted business ventures that include restaurants, hotels, and an interest in the Miami Dolphins.

She is petite and still beautiful. He is the ebullient gentleman with old school Cuban manners and a mischievous grin – a man who just happens to sit on Obama’s advisory council on immigration. The two can laugh at each other, as well as with each other, in what is clearly a mutual admiration society.

“I was always drawn to the theater, but we didn’t have much money when I was growing up,” Gloria recalled. (Her dad, who participated in the notorious Bay of Pigs invasion, was jailed and later freed from a Cuban prison, and subsequently joined the U.S. military, fought in the Vietnam War, and suffered the effects of Agent Orange. He was cared for by Gloria and her mother, who taught in the Dade County Public School system.)

“But I vividly remember seeing several shows that came to Miami’s Coconut Grove — ‘Equus,’ which was the first time I’d seen a naked man, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ‘Hair.’ And then later, with Emilio, I went to Broadway and saw the original productions of ‘A Chorus Line’ and ‘Cats.’ It was the triple threat of these performers, who could sing, dance and act, that really impressed me. I’ve also always loved ‘Gypsy,’ which has such a great way of telling its story, and has such strong elements of truth.”

“But I never could imagine that our music could be turned into a musical,” Gloria confessed. “For that we must thank Alexander Dinelaris [Academy Award winner for the film “Birdman”]. He has pulled our story back to before our international success, when our sound was new. And he has found ways, not strictly chronological, to use our songs [including “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Conga,” “1-2-3,” “Get On Your Feet,” “Don’t Want To Lose You Now,” “Coming Out Of The Dark” and less familiar ones, too] to advance the story. In fact, the songs are often used in ways that make you hear them totally differently. And there’s even one original song, ‘I Never Got to Tell You,’ written by our daughter.”

Choreographer Sergio Trujillo and Director Jerry Mitchell at a press conference for the Broadway musical “On Your Feet.” | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Choreographer Sergio Trujillo and Director Jerry Mitchell at a press conference for the Broadway musical “On Your Feet.” | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The show chronicles the couple’s lives from their youth, to Gloria’s triumphant comeback just a year after a catastrophic tour bus accident in 1990 left her with a fractured spine that required the implantation of two titanium rods to stabilize her vertebral column. It also makes Gloria’s mother, now in her mid 80s, and still, by all accounts feisty, a crucial touchstone in the story — a woman who was not ecstatic to learn that her daughter, who had earned a BA in psychology, with a minor in French, from the University of Miami, wanted a career in show business and marriage to Emilio.

“Yes, we’ve both worked hard, and maybe we are overachievers, but we love what we do so much,” said Gloria. “You know, when I first joined the band, Emilio would play accordion and I would sing old Cuban congas as the entertainers at weddings and bar mitzvahs in Miami.”

“Life gives you chances,” said Emilio Estefan, who confessed he has always played music by ear, with a feel for percussion and accordion, and is only now seriously learning to read music for the first time. “We have been lucky to be able to inspire a lot of people, and to live in the best country in the world — truly a land of opportunity. If, at 16, when I couldn’t afford private music lessons, someone had told me I would win 14 Grammy Awards and would be given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Songwriters Hall of Fame, I would have laughed.”

Asked about politics, Gloria is frank: “They are not a major part of the show. Music has always been my escape from all that, and from everything my dad went through. I have never gone back to Cuba proper since leaving at the age of two. But in 1995, with the Cuban rafters crisis, I performed at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo and sang ‘Mi Tierra’ (‘My Land’), and it was an incredibly emotional experience. I know my mom has many questions about the changes now. And we are well aware of the human rights situation. We want what is best for the Cuban people. When you have the same leadership for 50 years something is not working. And though we are not sure we can trust the recent changes, it has taken away the excuse for many problems. Plus, having an embassy there is better than not having one. ”

On Your Feet!” is being directed by Jerry Mitchell (whose most recent Tony Award-winning hit is “Kinky Boots”), and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo (the man behind the moves in “Jersey Boys” and “Memphis,” who visited Cuba this past January to research elements of Afro-Cuban dance and music).

“Our cast is almost 100 percent Latino,” said Mitchell. “A few were born in Cuba and came here as kids. As for the balance of Spanish and English in the show, we’re still figuring that out. The first song Gloria sings is in Spanish. Then we flip to English, until we meet Gloria’s mother — a woman with a PhD who, as a child, was offered a contract to serve as a double for Shirley Temple.”

Gloria Estefan performs at Chicago’s United Center in 2004. | SUN-TIMES PHOTO

Gloria Estefan performs at Chicago’s United Center in 2004. | SUN-TIMES PHOTO

Starring as Gloria will be Ana Villafane (the female lead in “Max Steel,” the new live-action feature film franchise based on Mattel’s popular “teen superhero” action figure). The actress, who grew up in Miami and is of Cuban heritage, will be making her Broadway debut.

I came to the audition process late in the game,” said Villafane, who confessed that back when she was a high school student she went to a book signing for Gloria’s children’s book, “Noelle’s Treasure Tale,” just to meet her.

At the audition I sang ‘Anything for You,’ ‘Rhythm Is Gonna Got You’ and ‘1-2-3,’ and I remember asking one crucial question: ‘Which song will be used as part of the story, and which will be performed as if in concert?’ That gave me the context I needed for the style. And for my call back I was advised that ‘1-2-3’ should be about seducing someone, so I wore got rid of my theater ‘character’ shoes and put on Doc Martens with shiny black leggings, and red lipstick.”

Josh Segarra (“Sirens,” “Chicago PD”), who is playing Emilio, and describes himself as “full Puerto Rican,” said the key to the show for him has been “seeing what a team he and Gloria are, how they always have each other’s back, and how they want to put everyone at ease. They are giving, generous, kind people, and Emilio just wants everyone to have fun.”

“I’m pretty stoic,” Gloria Estefan confessed. “But I cry at rehearsals. And there are times when I watch Ana [Villafane] and it’s all surreal. It’s almost as if it’s not me, and I’m just watching it all as anyone in the audience might. There also are moments when things are revealed that have never been revealed before. Life goes so fast. Things can change in an instant, as I learned in my accident. And yes, I’ve invited my surgeon to the show, and as many of the people as I can find who wrote me letters 25 years ago.”

Gloria and Emilio Estefan arrive at the 1999 Billboard Latin Music Awards. Their life story is now the Broadway-bound musical “On Your Feet.” | AP Photo/Amy E. Conn

Gloria and Emilio Estefan arrive at the 1999 Billboard Latin Music Awards. Their life story is now the Broadway-bound musical “On Your Feet.” | AP Photo/Amy E. Conn

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