Latin pop icon Gloria Estefan tells Matthew Hemley about having a musical, On Your Feet!, written about her life and her close involvement in the process, telling an immigrant story and acting alongside Meryl Streep…
It was only a matter of time before Gloria Estefan’s life story found its way to the stage. With a pop career spanning five decades and struggles that saw her flee her native Cuba as a child, a bus crash that threatened to leave her paralysed and executives who feared her music was “too Latin”, her story is perfect for the age of jukebox musicals.
On Your Feet! centres on her relationship with husband and producer Emilio Estefan through the hits of her career, including Get On Your Feet and Here We Are, all woven together by a script from Oscar-winning film Birdman’s Alex Dinelaris.
When the show opened in New York in 2015, it had – Estefan says – “the quickest path to Broadway” taking three years to open on the Great White Way, including a tryout in Chicago. “That is unheard of but the universe conspired to help us,” she says, taking a break during rehearsals for the UK show.
Talk of an Estefan musical was first mooted in 2010. At that time, the owner of a Las Vegas hotel was looking for a show to open a theatre on site. “So we worked on a script and made it the story we wanted, but things kept getting in the way,” Estefan says.
“The universe was throwing monkey wrenches. I told Emilio: ‘I like to listen to what the cosmos is telling me and I don’t think we should do this. It’s heading down the wrong path’.”
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
How fast everything passes and to be in each moment every step of the way.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My grandmother. She was the most positive, spiritual, humble, wise and instinctive soul I’ve ever met.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Imagine you’re performing for a huge audience.
If you hadn’t been a singer, what would you have been?
I probably would have gone to the Sorbonne in Paris where I had been accepted and studied international law and diplomacy. Or I may have gone back to get my doctorate in psychology.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I take 10 very slow, deep breaths and imagine my chakras opening so I can exchange energy with the people in the audience. I used to pray to my grandmother to help calm me and help me be my best, but now my mum is also in my pre-show prayer.
While that project came to nothing, the fuse had been lit. And a couple of years later, the idea for an Estefan musical was brought to US producer the Nederlander Organization, which started work on making the show a reality. They brought Dinelaris to the Estefans and he immediately understood how their story needed to be told.
“He came to us with a pitch and he had researched everything. He said: ‘What strikes me about your story is you are constantly having to get back on your feet, starting with leaving Cuba, to trying to convince people about your music to – ultimately – the bus crash in 1990.’”
Estefan continues: “He wanted to tell a human story. Regardless of how many things get thrown in your path, how you cope depends on how you deal with it. I told the Nederlander group that if Alex was interested, I didn’t need to see anyone else.” Next, director Jerry Mitchell was brought on board, and then choreographer Sergio Trujillo.
Throughout, the Estefans retained control of the project. “Although we gave the team freedom to do what they wanted, there had to be a point where, if we knew something was going to happen we didn’t like, we could step in,” Estefan says. “They gave us that or else we would not have done it at all.”
An example of this power came during the tryouts in Chicago. The Estefans went away and returned to find Mitchell had taken the bus crash out of the production. “We came back and said: ‘What?’ You need it there – it’s the most dramatic thing.’” Mitchell had been concerned about how the accident would be portrayed, but together they found a way to do it.
“It’s important to try things and know when to fix things. That part was very exciting,” Estefan says. As well as the accident, the show portrays the couple’s struggle as immigrants. Estefan says she wanted to portray the positive contributions of immigrants in the US and to “shine a light on the fact that immigrants contribute a lot in the US and every country”.
She says: “It’s always whoever came in last who pays the price for what is wrong with a country, which is absurd. Especially the US, which was built on a tapestry of different cultures. Unless you have Native American heritage, you are an immigrant.”
Being hands-on with the musical meant Estefan has shared inside information with cast members. “Having done some acting, I know you want to put in a backstory and to have in your brain the person you are playing,” she says. “It was important for me to be in this process and to tell the cast who my mother was, who my grandmother was. They have no way of knowing – there is no material about them, yet they are central to the story. It’s been a beautiful process.”
Estefan’s acting work includes the film Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep. Estefan played a teacher at a school facing cuts to its cherished violin class, run by Streep’s character, all based on a true story. “My first shot was a scene with Meryl and I was beside myself,” Estefan recalls. “She was a masterclass and the most generous actor.”
She adds: “I said: ‘Ms Streep, it’s such an honour and if you have any suggestions or notes, please pass them on.’ And she says to me: ‘Yes, you too.’” Estefan laughs: “Like I am going to say: ‘Meryl, you know I am not really feeling that one.’”
Estefan also reveals she was offered the lead role in the film Mystic Pizza in the 1980s. “I turned that down as there is no way in hell I would have been ready,” she says – the part went to Julia Roberts. When the acting offers did start coming in, she started working with an acting coach in Miami where she has lived since fleeing Cuba with her mother at the age of two.
But she made sure her music career was in a good place before she diverged into acting. “I did not want to take a chance on a role when I was still creating my career in music,” she says. “I said: ‘Let’s focus on the music and one day it will happen.’”
As well as the music and acting, Estefan and her husband run hotels and restaurants, and she has written two children’s books, with a third in the works. There’s also a new album coming – which reworks some of her biggest hits with a Brazilian flavour.
On her long and varied career, she says: “Everybody told us: ‘No’ and if we had listened to people and given up when things weren’t moving our way it would have been very different. You make your own luck and you have to continue your dream. It was never about fame or money. We did it because we loved music and wanted to get it out there and to share our culture and our sound.”
Born: Havana, Cuba, 1957
Career: More than 100 million albums sold, three Grammy awards, Presidential Medal of Freedom (2015)
On Your Feet! is at the London Coliseum until August 31. For more go to: onyourfeetmusical.co.uk