American Dream

One of the many dance numbers sprinkled throughout the show. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Music and inspiration come together as the heart of the Broadway smash, On Your Feet!: The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan

At its base, On Your Feet!: The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan is a musical currently playing on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre that tells the tale of the Miami Sound Machine founding duo through song and story. But for those behind the creative scenes and the devoted audience that’s coalesced around this production since its debut on November 5, 2015, the show is far more than that. It represents the culmination of the American dream forged on determination, love and familial ties. That’s certainly how the production’s female namesake feels about it.

“There are a lot of universal things that are part of this story,” Gloria Estefan explains. “There is a love story, a very real one. He was my first and only love. There’s the ‘against all odds’ because we really fought hard for the idea—our musical ideas. It was very easy for people to tell us, ‘No, this will never work.’ They even told him once, ‘Get rid of the girl singer!’ Thank God he didn’t.”

Equally cognizant of that fact is Ana Villafañe, who portrays Estefan from the age of 17 until her early 30s in On Your Feet! since it first opened. A huge fan of both Estefans, the 27-year-old actress grew up in Miami and while she spent most of her 20s in Los Angeles pursuing dramatic roles, she jumped at the chance to audition for this lead role, even changing agents to one more sympathetic to Villafañe’s wish to pursue the part.

Ektor Rivera and Ana Villafañe play Emilio and Gloria Estefan. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Ektor Rivera and Ana Villafañe play Emilio and Gloria Estefan. Photo by Matthew Murphy

“I grew up doing theater and it was always my first love and I do have a degree in music. I was acting, but I know what I’m capable of vocally. It was one of those things where I had to convince the powers-that-be to let me go audition,” Villafañe explains. “As soon as I got the green light, they sent a video over to production and casting here in New York and I had three days. They sent the video on a Friday and I was on a plane on that Sunday and by that Tuesday, I had the job. So it was a total fairy tale.

I’d never lived in New York before and I had about two weeks to pack up my apartment in L.A., switch coasts and be in a completely new environment. I was a fish out of water and in addition to this being my first time on Broadway, it was my first time living in Manhattan—just the whole thing. I’m still learning as I go along, two years in.”

Powered by the music of the Miami Sound Machine as rendered by actual members of the group, the show itself is a whirlwind of anecdotes that deftly hopscotches between the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s thanks to spot-on use of period wardrobe and hairstyles. The audience is introduced to the Fajardos, Gloria’s family, which includes her mother and grandfather. We learn that her father, who served in Vietnam, fell ill and his daughter wound up caring for him much of the time as the family struggled to survive after coming over from Cuba after the revolution.

Eduardo Hernandez (Nayib) threatening to steal the show
Eduardo Hernandez (Nayib) threatening to steal the show

Not only does the audience get to see Gloria and Emilio fall in love, but they see them fight against cultural stereotypes in a music industry that dictated they remain a Spanish-only pop group. Crossover was the one goal the Estefans achieved through relentless touring, tireless self-promotion and refusing to compromise themselves.
Ektor Rivera, who took over the role of Emilio Estefan from Josh Segarra, relates to the struggle, having been born in Puerto Rico before moving to California to pursue his dream to be an actor.

“To me, as Ektor Rivera, the transformation of the real American dream is the fact that this is the first time that I’m living in New York and that I have the opportunity to do what I love as an actor and an artist in a platform as important as Broadway,” Rivera says. “That for me, is the transformation of the American dream and that’s exactly what Emilio [Estefan] did at one time, in even more difficult circumstances coming from Cuba. He broke all the rules and transformed all the ‘no’s’ that he received and decided he could do it. He transformed Latin American music. He’s an icon that I admire.”

Both leads agree that the universal message of achieving your dreams against all odds is the central theme of On Your Feet!

“For anyone that’s ever been marginalized, it speaks volumes how [Gloria and Emilio] went against the current and really stood up for their culture,” Villafañe says. “And I don’t think you have to be Hispanic to really understand that. I think that anyone can understand that because we’re all faced with our things to overcome. I think the story is important because it really helps you figure out your priorities.”

“Everyone wants to give the best to their families and they have to move to other places,” Rivera adds. “They have dreams and they have to struggle. And while this is a story about Gloria, Emilio and Cuba, whether you’re a Boricua [Puerto Rican], a Dominican or anyone who might be coming from another part of the world to America, it’s impossible to not feel like it could be your story.”