“Oh my God, I was devastated!” Ana Villafañe says about having to call out for the first time after seven months of playing the vocally demanding role of pop star Gloria Estefan in the new musical On Your Feet! Around March, when cast members realized Villafañe, Lee Zarrett, Carlos E. Gonzalez and Henry Gainza had not yet missed a single performance, it became a race to see whom would be the “Last Guajiro Standing.”
Walking into work one day, “there was a poster put up on the callboard with a really funny old-school picture of a guajiro, which is like slang for ‘hillbilly’ in Cuban,” Villafañe explains. “So it was just this hilarious picture of this guy with a donkey clearly walking some beaten path, and it had a list of those of us who were the last guajiro standing. One by one, our name would be crossed out with a red marker.”
Cut to Saturday, June 25, when ensemble member Henry Gainza officially took the title.
“Saturday, everyone was freaking out because Lee Zarrett was going to be taking a personal day,” she says. “It was nice that Henry won because he has the hardest singing track in the entire show besides mine. In terms of notes, this guy is busting out high Cs eight times a week in the female octave, so it’s kind of funny that he’s the one who gets the title now. He’ll be giving everyone sh*t for a while! And, rightfully so, you know…!”
Villafañe is proud for her fellow cast member. After all, they’re good friends—the two met years ago in their hometown of Miami in a regional production of Annie. “He was an adult, and I was a child, and I had a massive crush on him!” she admits. “So now doing On Your Feet! with him, where it’s both of our Broadway debuts, it’s just one of those serendipitous things. I’m proud of him to be honest—like really proud of him—because his voice is indestructible, and he’s there for everybody in the cast.”
Gainza is very competitive—with himself.
“I don’t think I ever planned on doing this many shows,” he says after completing 266 performances following the Sunday matinee (not including the 30 previews before opening and the entirety of the show’s out-of-town run in Chicago). “I start challenges that I don’t even realize I’m starting, and then I do them. I did a Bikram yoga challenge, where I started with 30 days, and when I got to the end of the 30 days, I kept going and I wanted to see how far I could take it, and I did 200 consecutive days of Bikram yoga.” (He only stopped Bikram to visit family in Miami, and it should also be noted that he’s down 100 lbs. since 2000.)
On June 25, Gainza received non-stop congratulations all day from the cast, crew and pit. “We do this circle before the show everyday—kind of like a meditation moment or a sharing moment,” he says, “and it was really cool because Andréa Burns spoke, and she said that it was an honor to be standing with me taking so much pride in what I do. That actually stood out to me like, ‘This is really cool.’ There’s actually an admiration for me wanting to do well and wanting to be at work. As actors, too, we have so much downtime sometimes, where we’re sitting on our couch and not working. I [think], ‘When I’m working, I want to be at work’ because I have plenty of time when the shows close. They all open, and they all close eventually.
“We spend so much time wanting that job, I don’t need to call out unless it’s important. … I like to be at work. I love what I do. I’ve been doing this my whole life.”
Having On Your Feet! be his Broadway debut is especially meaningful for Gainza. For three-and-a-half years he was workshopping In the Heights—a show he connected with personally because of his Latin roots—but the character he played (Nina Rosario’s brother, Lincoln) was cut before it moved forward to a full production. “You make things mean certain things, [and] I made it mean that I sucked at that time, that I was not talented, that if I was talented that wouldn’t have happened,” he says. “But, long story short, you learn about life, and you realize not every role is for you, and not every opportunity is for you.”
This opportunity, however, was better than he could have imagined. Gainza is from Miami, the Estefans’ hometown and the setting of On Your Feet!, and grew up listening to Gloria’s music. He’s also crossing off everything on his bucket list—Gypsy Run, opening night, cast album, Tony Awards, etc. “So to have finally made my Broadway debut with a show that is about my heritage,” he says, has been better than what he hoped for.
After performing on the Tonys, he called his mother. She asked, “How did it feel?” Gainza replied, “I’m not sure yet. I don’t know what just happened!” He says, “It was so fast. The Tonys was fantastic—a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
After winning the title of “Last Guajiro Standing,” he went to the McKittrick Hotel with a few cast members to celebrate at a Pride/Wizard of Oz-themed party. “I was proud of myself,” he says, “which is interesting that this landed on Pride weekend because feeling proud is exactly what I was feeling already for Pride, and then doubly I was proud because I did this thing—260-something performances!
“At this point, I’m just going to see how long I can keep this up!”