Currently playing Gloria Estefan, in the musical about her life On Your Feet!, Christie Prades, tells Matthew Hemley about her close relationship with the star and how a push from Lin-Manuel Miranda fast-tracked her musical theatre career
In 2014, Christie Prades set herself a plan: make a successful career in musical theatre within five years, or move on to something else. As it happens, she didn’t even need that long.
Having already appeared in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, Miami-born Prades moved to New York and quickly found herself in West Side Story at the Actors Playhouse.
And for the past three years, her musical career has rocketed thanks to a leading role in On Your Feet!, the musical that charts the life and career of Emilio and Gloria Estefan. Prades first appeared in the show on Broadway in 2016 understudying the role of Gloria, before landing the lead role for the US tour for two years.
Now she’s set to play Estefan on the West End stage as the show transfers. It’s clear there’s no going back. Her self-imposed five-year deadline may be up, but Prades clearly doesn’t need a back-up plan.
“Gloria came on stage to ask me if I would lead the US tour when I was appearing in the show in Miami,” she says. “It was shocking but exciting. And Gloria joked: ‘If you say no, you have to tell me backstage.’ But of course I said yes.”
Prades didn’t initially audition to play Estefan in the musical. In fact, when she was first seen it was for an ensemble role in the Broadway cast. But director Jerry Mitchell was so impressed by her performance that he asked her to go away and learn the lead part.
She did and soon found herself auditioning in front of the Estefans. “When I get nervous, my jaw starts to shiver and when I stop that happening it moves to my knees,” Prades says. “So when I walked in, my knees buckled – back in Miami, Gloria is the Latin Queen. I suddenly had a flashback to listening to her in my mum’s car and dreaming of meeting her.”
She adds: “So when I walked into the audition room, I bowed – and that warmed them up a bit. But I felt this really honest connection with Gloria and I felt she wanted me to succeed. She has this energy – this way of making you feel equal. She makes you feel just as valid, and as important, and that is something I learn from her on a
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t stress so much. Everything works itself out – relax and enjoy the moment.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Gloria is a big influence – how she gives back to the community and how she stays so graceful and poised.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Auditions suck – they are terrible because you just have one shot. Understand your strengths and weaknesses, and work with what you have. Be yourself and don’t sweat it.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Before a show, I have to stand front centre of the stage and do a prayer. I have to feel it and when I finish the prayer I have to hear the people chattering. I want to plug into that energy. I need to do it because if I don’t we can’t start.
Prades was hired as first cover for the role when the show was on Broadway – as well as swing for seven other parts. But, despite being employed as a cover for the main role, her debut in the musical saw her unexpectedly going on as the lead.
She was so impressive that Estefan asked her to lead the tour. “I finished with the Broadway production in June 2017 and began a 20-month tour in August,” she says. “We played 56 cities, 591 shows and I had a three-week break.”
She’s not complaining, but given how familiar she is with the touring schedule and its gruelling nature, she won’t be playing the role when the UK production takes to the road following its 12 weeks at the London Coliseum.
“I said I would love to do London, but I don’t know if I would have enough for the tour,” she says. “To keep the integrity of the show you have to be 100%. I am still 100% now, but I know what touring requires. I feel like I needed a break. I feel it’s healthy to take a step back, even when you don’t know what is coming up next.” It will, she admits, feel strange to pass over the Estefan wig to Philippa Stefani.
For now, she’s embracing the opportunity that has been given to her and relishing working with a cast made up of 13 nationalities. “I love the connection of this cast and how genuine it is and how the other cast members pour everything into it, every single night,” she says. For her own part, Prades has been able to tap the real Estefan for inside information.
“On Broadway she wasn’t as accessible to me because the show had been up and running for some time by then,” she says. “But when we were rehearsing in Leicester [where the show ran for a week before London] she told me a lot about her background with her mum and her inner tribulations. She was very specific about what she was thinking in each scene.”
Prades also says her own family have parallels with the Estefans. Her parents are Cuban and the singer’s mother and Prades’ mother share the same birthday.
While Estefan has been vocal about how she feels about Cuba (Fidel Castro banned her music there) Prades has been less so until now.
“Cuba is beautiful. I have not been there because there is so much complication with it as far as my personal story goes. I will need to go at some point, for my own sake, to see the land. But I know it will be more of a learning experience for me, rather than enjoyable.” She adds: “Nothing hurts more than someone asking me if I have been there.”
It makes her performance as Estefan – who herself has been unable to return to her homeland – that much more relatable. And she shares the musical’s narrative of a Miami girl dreaming of making it big.
Prades started dancing aged three and singing aged five. She focused on these outside of her schooling and at one time set her sights on becoming a journalist – graduating from Miami Dade College with a degree in communications.
But she also had a passion for music and was working on her own material when an audition for the 2013 Miami production of In the Heights came up. Having been cast as Vanessa, she took advice from writer Miranda, who told her she should be focusing on musical theatre.
She listened to him, and it was then she gave herself the five-year plan. “It all came together very quickly after that,” she says. “I was strategic about it and I asked my parents: ‘Please, just give me five years to give this a chance and to try it.’” She adds: “My parents were like ‘Yes, go – school will always be there.’ So I went to New York and was guided in the right way. Now here we are in London and I still can’t believe it.”
Born: Miami, 1990
• In the Heights, Miami (2013)
• On Your Feet!, Broadway (2016), US tour (2017-19)
On Your Feet! is at the London Coliseum until August 31. For more go to: onyourfeetmusical.co.uk