Before J.Lo, Shakira or Christina, there was Gloria Estefan. As the first Latina singer to become a crossover sensation with tunes popular in both English and Spanish-speaking markets, Gloria has sold over 100 million albums worldwide during a career spanning three decades, and has earned seven Grammy Awards to boot. Her life and rise to fame with husband and record producer Emilio is the basis of a new musical now on Broadway, a colorful production set to her iconic mega-hits.
“Quite honestly, whenever I’ve done a concert or a show, the whole point is to make a personal connection,” says Estefan. “Hopefully people like the music, recognize it and enjoy it, but what we really want to do is touch on that human aspect.”
Spanning her early days as a Miami Sound Machine frontwoman, the horrific tour-bus accident that left her with a fractured vertebrae in 1990, and her legendary post-recovery performance at the 1991 American Music Awards, On Your Feet! includes famous chart-toppers like “I See Your Smile,” “Conga,” and “1-2-3.” Just don’t make the mistake of calling the show a standard jukebox musical.
“I don’t know if any other jukebox musicals has ever done an original song for the play,” notes Estefan, who as a child would save up her allowance to see shows at Miami’s Coconut Grove theater. “I don’t think Mama Mia has, or the Jersey Boys. But I wanted to create something just for this play.”
Deeply involved in the creative process from the show’s conception to its pre-Broadway run in Chicago, the Cuban-born artist was sorting through old fan letters to use in the show when book writer Alex Dinelaris (Birdman) gave her a call with a specific assignment.
“He said, ‘I have the scene I want you to write the tune for,’ and described a whole hospital scene with my mother on one side of me, and Emilio on the other side with [my son] Navid,’” she recalls. “I had the hook in my head right away.”
Based on a tune that daughter Emily originally composed for a high school music assignment, the emotional ballad “If I Never Got to Tell You” was a way to incorporate her youngest child into the production, whose story ends before her birth. But with her musical aspirations of her own, was the younger Estefan – a college senior – ever a candidate to portray her famous mother on stage?
“Everybody tried to hound her into it, but she said ‘Mom, I’d have to kiss Dad. That’s weird,’” says Gloria, with a laugh. “But she’s not ready for it yet. Broadway is a different animal. It’s a beast. She herself told me, ‘Mom, there’s no way I’d be ready for something like that.’”
Instead, Gloria is played by Ana Villafañe, a 26-year-old Miami native making her Broadway debut. The two share similar coloring, Cuban heritage and even attended the same all-girls high school, though Gloria insists when it came to casting her leading lady, she “didn’t want a clone.”
“There was something about her demeanor,” recalls Estefan of Villafañe’s audition. “I went, ‘Oh my god, this girl could be my daughter. It’s not that she sounded exactly like me, but that’s not what we were going for …I wanted someone who could interpret my life.”
It’s a life that Gloria says hopes will inspire others, with its deeply personal narrative about love, loss, and getting back on one’s feet. Just one warning: make sure you pack tissues for the performance.
“I promise myself every night that I’m not going to cry, but I can’t help myself when I turn around and I see people there crying and being moved,” Gloria admits. “I have cried more in this year than in my entire life.