Chicago Tribune |
May 29, 2015 at 10:00 AM
NEW YORK — In the New 42nd Street Studios, where many a Broadway musical is optimistically built from sweat, craft and adrenaline, a small boy named Eduardo Hernandez brushes his way past the impresario Emilio Estefan and heads straight for Gloria, if not glory.
He does not look old enough to be in fourth grade and he is from New Jersey, not Miami. But if Eduardo attended the Miami Public Schools, he would be studying the role model Gloria Maria Milagrosa Fajardo Garcia de Estefan in his officially approved, fourth-grade textbook.
Maybe if he’d read about the Cuban-born, Miami-raised, singer-songwriter-entrepreneur-grandmother’s seven Grammy Awards, her Ellis Island Medal of Honor, her formidable collection of global hits, or her 1987, multi-platinum album “Let It Loose,” which sold 3 million copies in the United States alone, he’d have been more deferential. Then, he’d have been more like the other mostly Latino and Latina dancers and singers in the room, who know that they owe her their gig in “On Your Feet!,” which begins performances at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago on June 2 and is set for Broadway this fall. In many cases, they have taken her aside to confess they also owe her the motivation for their entire careers.
Julio Iglesias also lived in Miami and his hit single “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” was released before “Conga” first propelled Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine to fame and considerable fortune in 1985. But aside from that schmaltzy Spanish balladeer, the Estefans inarguably were the first Florida-based Latin artists to really cross over into the English-speaking market for international pop.
And “cross over” does not really cut it. Conquered, more like. Just mention the name Gloria Estefan in Norway.
Maybe if Eduardo had partied like it was 1999 to “Get On Your Feet” or “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” or smooched to “Anything for You” and “Can’t Stay Away From You,” or once wallowed pathetically in the lyrics for “Words Get In the Way,” like the visitor watching him, he’d have been intimidated. But he hadn’t. Heck, the kid had only been hired the day before. He was merely a dancer with a question he needed answered to do his job.
“Are you really Gloria Estefan?” he asks, fully blocking the pop star’s view of the rehearsal room. “Yes,” she says. “You’re playing my real son.”
“Were you really in a bus crash?”
Estefan flinches slightly. Was she ever.
On a snowy day in March 1990 in the Poconos, the Estefans’ tour bus was demolished by a semi that caused a multi-vehicle pile-up, fracturing Gloria’s spine and obliging her to endure many months of painful rehabilitation. Many of her fans feared far worse: Gloria Estefan’s premature death was definitively announced in 1990 on the nascent news crawls of cable news networks relying on bad initial police information from the horrific, multi-vehicle wreck.
When they finally found out the truth, it was seen by some as a miracle. In a side room at the New 42nd Street Studios, Estefan will recount the experience of the crash in striking detail, recalling she had been “awake the whole time,” noting that there were so many vehicles on the highway that it took an hour and a half for the emergency services to arrive at her side, and recounting a wild tale about how the emergency responder who arrived in her crushed tour bus was a little person with a big sense of humor. As Estefan will tell it, he took the time to assure the singer that she had not died and gone to heaven, as she first thought. “I’m down here,” he said, as Estefan tried to figure out her current state of being, even as she stared into space, her whole life flashing before her eyes.
But she holds her gaze on his eyes of the young actor who will play her child Nayib — and, at other moments, the young version of Emilio, her only serious boyfriend, she will later insist, and now her clearly beloved husband of almost 37 years.
“Everything in the show is real,” she tells Eduardo, quietly, as he nods, eyes wide. “But it is done very theatrically and beautifully. You understand?”
The kid smiles and then scurries to the other side of the room, ready to makes his appearance in director Jerry Mitchell’s exuberant rendition of “Conga,” alongside the Miami-raised actress Ana Villafane, a dead ringer for the younger Estefan. Villafane is making her Broadway debut as Gloria (despite being more of a soprano than an alto) and the big-grinning and genial Josh Segarra is playing Emilio.
Eduardo’s little legs move like lightening. He was a children’s division winner of the 2014 World Latin Dance Cup in Miami. You can find him on YouTube and, if you do, you’ll see how he got the gig.
Among writers who make a living penning the real-life stories of celebrities for movies and musicals, the most dangerous clients generally are the ones that are still alive — and right there on set or in the rehearsal room.
Of course, the estates of past musical greats can be equally invested in a certain kind of story — more about burnishing the brand than telling the truth. Exhibit A in that regard would be the Cirque du Soleil’s foray into the world of Elvis Presley for an authorized, and therefore sanitized and failed, attraction in Las Vegas. So a skilled writer like Alexander Dinelaris had reason to be cautious when the Nederlander Organization suggested that he take a trip to Miami and consult with the Estefans about the story they wished to tell. He would later win an Academy Award for co-writing the movie “Birdman.”
For one thing, it was not immediately easy to see where the necessary conflict in such a musical would lie. The Estefans hardly followed the familiar jukebox musical narrative of rise-excess-fall-repentance-redemption. Theirs has been, by all accounts, a contented marriage of epic length, especially by the standards of the music business. They are nice people.
There was no professional fall from grace but a steadily building career of notable depth, built one studio session and touring gig at a time. Gloria even took time off from touring to raise her two kids, Nayib and the self-deprecating Emily, a composer like her mother, who just happens to be sitting in the back of the rehearsal room, having penned one of the show’s few original tunes. She clearly doesn’t want to attract too much attention, but her proud mother pipes up about the quality of her musical chops. Emily just smiles and looks down.
The origins of “On Your Feet!,” Emilio Estefan says over a quick lunch, were in Las Vegas, back around the time Celine Dion was starring at Caesars Palace and back when Vegas was more interested in biographical concerts from superstars The Estefans were approached about putting together some kind of biographical narrative for a show featuring Gloria and the Miami Sound Machine. So they started thinking about how such a show might be structured.
“We were trying to hone in on what story we would tell,” Gloria says, as she eats lunch alongside her husband and their director, Mitchell, who is listening intently, being as a director of such a personal show learns a lot in these sessions, even well into the rehearsal period. “We thought it might be cool, but things weren’t really working out. We didn’t think it was going to be the right thing. So we put the kibosh on that. But we had already done some good work.”
This wasn’t the first time the Estefans had been approached about a theatrical project. “Twenty-five years ago,” Gloria says, “they came to Emilio about doing ‘something Latin’ on Broadway,'” that being about as diverse as any Broadway producer was likely to get 25 years ago. But Gloria remembered that entreaty. “So we asked if anyone in Vegas minded if we pitched the idea to the Nederlanders.”
The Nederlanders, of course, are no fools. Take a long view and you can see the Estefans’ music has global appeal. The style may well have been a fusion of Latin rhythm and American pop — horns and Cuban rhythms laid down on top of Anglo-American guitars and keyboards or, as the irreverent members of the Miami Sound Machine used to call it, “rice and beans and hamburger” — but their first frothing fans were Scandinavian. Estefan’s songs also were huge hits in the United Kingdom. So if the show hit on Broadway, it would be an obvious choice for London. That’s a big bonus.
No one could question the bonafides of the Estefans, both of whom were born in Cuba and worked their way up from nothing, and both of whom arguably did more to popularize and celebrate the music of that country than anyone else. Yet their entire careers have also been about togetherness and fusion. When Gloria Estefan sends a Tweet, she is careful to do so in both English and Spanish, so as not to upset any corner of her massive global fan-base. “My entire career has been bilingual,” she says.
Then, for the Nederlander Organization, there was the tantalizing prospect of reaching the under-served and increasingly affluent Latino audience, both those who live in the United States and the tourists who come to New York from Central America or Brazil, locales where the Miami Sound Machine not only was once popular but remains so.
The Nederlanders know you don’t have to be Latino to love Gloria Estefan. It just as likely that the Miami South Machine would have been the soundtrack of your youth in Melbourne or Manchester as in Madrid. In the language of a Broadway producer, the combination of a specific core niche and broad appeal is as rare as it is golden. And better yet, many fans are now over 40 and at a point in their lives when they likely can afford Broadway tickets. Gloria Estefan is 57.
“I have lifelong fans who have stuck with me,” she says. “Music really has been a healing force for me, it is what got me though the darker times. When I write a song, I really do ask myself how it will make the person listening feel. I tell Ana (Villafane) she has an opportunity every night to move people and to remind people to believe in their dreams again. The bottom line, what this is all about, is our human connection.”
She is not the first artist to make such a statement, but hers is unquestionably sincere and borne out in years of work. Many songwriters write from, and for, themselves. Unapologetically. Quite unusually, Estefan always write her songs with the listener specifically in mind.
The Nederlanders started getting excited. So they talked to Mitchell and Dinelaris, a pair that Gloria Estefan calls “the dream team.” They spent three years working on the show. “Alexander came to Miami several times and we talked for hours,” Gloria says. “He even talked to my mother.” Mitchell, who was last in Chicago working on “Kinky Boots,” says he was enthused by “what the Estefans have achieved together.”
Dinelaris, of course, first had to figure out which of the possible Estefan stories he wanted to tell. There was the universal immigrant story — the familiar tale of working hard, overcoming prejudice, struggling for success and finally achieving the American dream. He could tell that tale and Emilio Estefan was very much on board.
“I think our story is very much about dreams, ” he says. (Emilio has retained a much stronger Cuban accent than his wife.) “People who come from different countries with proud heritages. It was very hard for us to get air play — they wanted us to change our names. They’d tell me the guy in New York would see me at 11 or 12 o’clock and then he would never see me. We struggled and I think we inspired minorities everywhere — not just from Cuba.”
In an interview a few days later, Dinelaris says much the same thing about the Estefans’ early struggles. “When ‘Conga’ was already a hit in Central and South America, the Estefans were still playing weddings in Miami,” he says.
Then there was the more specific story of the Cuban emigre. “Emilio literally left everything behind in Cuba,” Gloria says, “including his mother. He went to Spain with his dad. Just to get them out.” Emilio talks of that plane ride — that sense of complete homelessness.
And then there was the more personal story of the couple and their relationship and life — how they came together in Miami, how Gloria Estefan got back on stage after the accident. As a girl, Gloria had to care for her beloved father who suffered from multiple sclerosis. When Dinelaris asked her for her biggest and most honest fear, Estefan thought for a while and then responded, “that he might not die.”
Immediately, Dinelaris knew he would be able to tell the truth.
The book for “On Your Feet” has elements of all those stories. At this juncture, the arc of the show begins with the Estefans’ exit from Cuba and their early lives, and it ends when Gloria gets back on stage after the accident, allowing for an Estefan megamix as a feel-good coda.
Of course, musicals like “On Your Feet” tend to live and die on how they use the music that people have come to hear. Dinelaris says that he was given free reign to pick anything from the extensive Estefan catalog and has gone with a combination of familiar and obscure songs. “I guarantee that there are several songs in the show that very few people will remember,” he says. “Beautiful songs from the early albums.”
Meanwhile, Mitchell says it is his job to “activate” the music in the best way possible, which obviously will heavily feature choreographer Sergio Trujillo’s Latin dancers.
Dinelaris says he has not put the songs in any kind of chronological order — they are not presented in their original context but used to advance the emotional state of the protagonists, i.e. Emilio and Gloria. Clearly, the story will mostly be serious — this is not “Mamma Mia!” but a biography of a couple.
So what’s the conflict then?
“My mother is the conflict,” Gloria Estefan says, when asked that question directly. “I told her I was going to tell the truth. And I did.”
“Gloria and Emilio were in love,” Mitchell chimes in. “And there was this mother whom they both loved but she did not accept him. Until she saw him break down in the hospital.”
“Twelve years later, by the way,” Gloria says. Her eyes then soften.
“My mom had a lot of losses and I was her rock. She was very afraid of what could happen with me traipsing around town with a band. She became very adversarial and confrontational and you can only do so much of that in a musical. But you get the story. When I had my accident, my mom hadn’t spoken to me in two years, because I had taken my sister on the road with me, which I did to protect my sister. … These were the days before cell phones; it was easier to stay out of touch. So when I had that crash, the first thing my mother, who was teaching, saw go across the ticker on the TV that day was ‘Gloria Estefan dead.’ She fainted.”
In the show, Gloria’s mother, Gloria Fajardo, then goes to the hospital, finds Emilio and young Nayib and sings a song called “If I Never Got to Tell You,” with the new lyrics written by Gloria Estefan, a new tune written by Gloria’s daughter, and the other Gloria’s granddaughter, Emily. All come to see the importance of love.
It will be, everyone involved in “On Your Feet” fervently hopes, the deeply personal emotional climax of the show.
Jones is a Tribune critic.