By Sheryl Flatow
In one of the seminal scenes in On Your Feet!, Gloria Fajardo and Emilio Estefan are trying to persuade a record label executive to help them cross over to the English-speaking market. The executive’s response is dismissive, insisting that there’s no audience for the Latin rhythms of Miami Sound Machine in the U.S., and intimating that the couple is not real Americans. But a furious Emilio gets the last word: “Look very closely at my face . . . . this is what an American looks like.”
It’s a show-stopping moment, and it speaks to the power and universality of the exhilarating, moving love story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Of course, the dynamic musical numbers drive the show; yes, rhythm is gonna get you on your feet! But the story of these two determined Cuban Americans, their challenges, and their extraordinary success are transcendent: the musical is a celebration of family and the American Dream.
That was a deliberate choice on the part of the creative team: director Jerry Mitchell, choreographer Sergio Trujillo, and book writer Alexander Dinelaris. “It’s why I’m so proud of this show and so excited to share the national tour with the rest of America,” says Trujillo. “We’re all immigrants and we’re all part of this wonderful country, which is made up of people of all colors and races. That is On Your Feet!”
It’s often said that the more culturally specific a musical is, the more it speaks to all people. You don’t have to be Jewish to understand and identify with the Jews of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof, you don’t have to be a Dominican immigrant living in New York to empathize with the characters in In the Heights, and you don’t have to be a supremely talented Cuban immigrant dreaming of success in Miami to relate to the journey of the Estefans.
If the world onstage rings true, it’s easy for the audience to step inside. The key is “authenticity,” a word used repeatedly by the creative team. And On Your Feet! is as authentic as a Broadway musical can be. The cast is Latino. They speak Spanish as well as English. Original members of Miami Sound Machine are part of the orchestra. The choreography features real Cuban dances, not just the salsa and the conga, but the chancleta and the pañuelo.
Most of all, the show captures the essence of Gloria and Emilio, who shared the details of their lives with Dinelaris. All the major conflicts and incidents in the show reflect actual events. “They were amazingly generous,” says Dinelaris. “We had lots of meetings and talked for hours. I eventually spent time with Gloria’s mother, who recently passed. She was an amazing woman, tough as nails and charismatic, and she became a major character in the show. When I had all this information, I had to figure out which part of their story I would tell to make it the most effective.”
Once he had the structure, Dinelaris listened to the entire Estefan catalog, to determine what music would work best. “I was smart enough to know that we’d use ‘Conga’ and ‘Rhythm is Gonna Get You,’” he says. “But there are also some songs in the show that only hard-core Estefan fans will know, like ‘Famous.’ It’s a challenging puzzle when you’re doing a musical based on an existing catalog because you need to find songs that will move the story forward without changing the lyrics. I did change one word in one song, and that was with Gloria’s permission. There’s a love song called ‘When Someone Comes Into Your Life,’ and I realized that by changing just one word, the song would work as a father giving advice to his daughter.”
In telling the story of two musicians who went on to worldwide fame, the songs and the choreography propel a great deal of the narrative. Even the numbers that are done in concert often move the story along. Act I ends with ‘Conga,’ and the number is given new depth when it incorporates the true backstory – that ‘Conga’ (their first huge commercial hit) was originally written in the Netherlands as an encore piece, and when they came back to the States, they performed it at weddings, at bar mitzvahs, anywhere that they could get a gig. The number now tells the journey of that song from bar mitzvah favorite to a massive radio hit.
The concept was Mitchell’s; the execution was by Trujillo, who received a Tony Award nomination for his choreography. “Having worked on Jersey Boys, I learned a great deal about what to do with the progression of a pop star, and what to do within that kind of story and vernacular,” says Trujillo. “In order to be truthful, I had to create a vocabulary that was unique to our show.” He began by immersing himself in all kinds of Cuban dance, in order to capture the essence of the movement. For instance, he has danced the salsa since he was a boy in Colombia, but the style he learned was different than the Cuban style. “Colombians use really quick feet movement, while the Cuban style is a lot more languid, more sensual,” he says. “With the Cubans, it feels like they’re playing congas with their feet. It’s in their rib cages, it’s in the soul of who they are.”
But the heart of the story is all about family. “This story about immigrants, about perseverance, about family, is about all of us,” he says. “On Broadway, I heard audiences say all the time, ‘That Cuban grandmother is my Jewish grandmother’ or ‘my Irish grandmother.’ It’s a universal story. The comment I heard more than anything else was, ‘It wasn’t what I expected. I expected the Gloria Estefan revue. I didn’t expect to be moved and to cry and to see my family in it. I didn’t expect the goosebumps and the tears. I just expected to have a good time.’ And I think that has to do with how we identify with family and with culture. And I hope people leave the theater, go home, and call their mother.”
ON YOUR FEET! plays the Aronoff Center March 19-24, 2019 as part of the Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati series presented by TriHealth.