Gloria Estefan’s ‘On Your Feet’ exudes sizzle
On the surface, the story of pop star Gloria Estefan and her producer husband, Emilio Estefan, was as celebratory and colorful as the Latin pop fusion that took them to the top of the American pop charts in the 1980’s. The Estefans and Miami Sound Machine cranked out hits including “Conga,” “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” “Get On Your Feet” and “1-2-3.”
But was the Estefans’ personal story, of middle-class, Cuban-American strivers, dramatic enough for a Broadway jukebox musical without New Jersey gangsters or drug problems?
Thanks to Fidel Castro and an over-protective mother, yes.
“It’s been quite a ride,” said Gloria Estefan, now 60, by phone from her sunny retreat in Miami. “Alex (Dinelaris), the writer, said, ‘You guys are a nightmare to write for because you have no conflict.’ I said, ‘Let me introduce you to my mother.’ ”
Estefan laughs, but she was close to her mother — also named Gloria — at the time of her 2017 death. It was, however, a fraught mother-daughter relationship for years, and a two-year estrangement is part of the drama in “On Your Feet: The Story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan,” which runs May 1-13 at the Fisher Theater in Detroit.
The show, which opened on Broadway in 2015, is directed by Jerry Mitchell (“Kinky Boots”) with a book by Dinelaris (he won an Academy Award for the film “Birdland”) and choreography by Sergio Trujillo (“Jersey Boys”).
For the touring company, Gloria is played by Christie Prades, and Emilio Estefan is enacted by Mauricio Martinez. Both actors are Cuban-American, and both were understudies during the Broadway run.
“Christie got to do at least 70 performances on Broadway, and Mauricio closed it, he performed the last two months of the show,” Estefan said. “A lot of people in the traveling company were also on Broadway. This show honestly has nothing to envy the Broadway show.”
Prades has to sing and dance as Gloria did, but was Emilio really a dancer, as Martinez is in the show? “He wishes!” Estefan said with a laugh. “Two things about Emilio that are kind of not real (in the musical), A. the dancing part, and B. the six pack abs. I saw those and, ‘Hey my God!” I think Emilio’s a hunk, but the six pack, uh-uh, that’s pushing it.”
With so much media attention over the decades, and honors — including 2017 Kennedy Center Honors for Gloria (she was the first Cuban-American to receive it), and a Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to both Estefans in 2015, it would seem that their story was fairly well known.
But it isn’t, necessarily. There is considerable drama in the facts of the Estefans and their families fleeing the Castro revolution in Cuba, and Gloria’s father, Jose, being caught up in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and later, the Vietnam War.
Gloria was just 2 when she came to the United States with her mother, Gloria Fajardo, in 1959, when their life started to become untenable. Her father, who had been a motorcycle policeman for the previous regime, was often out of the picture — first, imprisoned by the Castro government, and then ill from exposure to the chemical Agent Orange, after his service in Vietnam — and her mother was extremely protective.
Young Gloria did well in school and then college, but she joined Miami Sound Machine and then married her bandmate, Emilio, when she was just 21, infuriating her mother. A complete break happened when the singer brought her troubled younger sister on the road, to stabilize her life, against her mother’s wishes. Gloria would call, but her mother wouldn’t speak to her for two years.
“Emilio and her finally worked it out when she realized he really did love me, and he wasn’t going to leave me,” Estefan said.
It took the singer’s near-fatal bus accident in 1990 to bring mother and daughter back together.
Fajardo heard a media report that her daughter had perished in the bus accident in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t true, but she reached out to Gloria and Emilio, and the family was reunited.
Estefan is proud that the one new song in “Get On Your Feet,” “If I Never Got to Tell You,” was written by daughter Emily, with lyrics by Gloria (Emily also had a debut album released in 2017). The song is sung by Prades, as Gloria, in a scene about the conflict with her mother.
Audiences are surprised to be emotionally moved by the show, Estefan discovered.
“If you’re from the ’80s, you had a certain image of us,” Estefan said. “They expect music and fun, but they don’t expect the emotional journey they’re taken on. Even the people who knew us, my fans, were surprised because there were things we shared that had never been spoken about. We would sit in the back row (of the musical) in New York, and I would love to see the men crying, tears running down their cheeks. I think maybe because if they have daughters, the story with my dad moves them.”
It also helped Estefan remember details of her life, to go through a huge cache of fan letters she has stashed in a warehouse in Miami.
That’s right, she has all of her fan letters.
“Every single one,” Estefan said. “Anything that people have sent me with their good vibes and good wishes, there’s no way I’m going to get rid of, because that’s beautiful energy. I go back and read them. It’s a beautiful example that you’ve moved people, you’ve changed them in small ways. So yeah, I want to keep that around me.”
Also, seven members of Miami Sound Machine are in the 13-piece traveling orchestra for “Get On Your Feet” — pickup musicians couldn’t do justice to the Estefans’ music.
Susan Whitall is a longtime contributor to the Detroit News. You can reach her at susanwhitall.com
‘On Your Feet: The Story of
Gloria and Emilio Estefan’
3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit.
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday evenings; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees
Tickets: Go to broadwayindetroit.com