From Cuban immigrant to international superstar, from Latin music sensation to mainstream pop diva, Gloria Estefan is a crossover queen. The seven-time Grammy-winning recording artist now makes the leap to Broadway with On Your Feet!, an inspirational musical about her and her husband, producer Emilio Estefan. Following its world-premiere engagement in Chicago, the bio-tuner has toes tapping at the Marquis Theatre with Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra playing the power couple. The Estefans explain how they came out of the dark and into the spotlight.
What sets On Your Feet! apart from other biographical jukebox musicals?
Emilio Estefan: For starters, our dream team.
Gloria Estefan: Our choreographer, Sergio Trujillo, brings the legitimacy of the Latin moves, and our director, Jerry Mitchell, keeps it all moving. Alexander Dinelaris, who won an Oscar for the "Birdman" screenplay, wrote the book and created such a human story, and he also chose the songs. If you didn't know our music, you'd think the songs were written for the scenes. But the show is really about family and about two people with separate lives who came together. We've been together since I was 17 and joined Miami Sound Machine. He's my first and only, we're still together, and you don't see that story very often.
You're both very private people. Were you hesitant to put so much of your lives on display?
GE: We wanted to tell the truth. Because if there's anything we've tried to do with our music, it's to inspire as well as entertain, to make people think and look at life a different way.
EE: I remember coming to see Ricky Martin in Evita on Broadway and wondering if our story would ever be told one day. Being alive to see it happen is good, because we've really been able to tell the truth about our lives and careers.
What will audiences be most surprised to learn about you?
GE: Some imagine us as these pop superstars with crazy lives, but our lives are amazingly the same as theirs. We have the same fears, same hopes, same losses, same joys.
EE: People may be surprised by how hard we had to fight to keep our names, to keep our sound. There was a lot of rejection when we started out. We had to push people, tell them that this is who we are, this is the new sound, and we were told it would never work. So this musical is really about the American dream. It's about doing what you feel is important and not letting anyone stand in your way.
GE: It's also about the fans. When I had my bus accident in 1990, I was at the peak of my career, and boom, in a split second everything changed. Fans from all over the world were a big part of my recuperation. I felt their prayers around me like a physical energy. The musical actually ends when I make my comeback at the American Music Awards in 1991.
It sounds like people who just come to hear your songs might be taking away something unexpected.
GE: That's exactly what we want, and that's what we've done with our music through the years. I have a deep respect for music because it got me through some tough times as a kid — Stevie Wonder, Elton John, the Beatles. I wore out Carole King's "Tapestry" because she just got me as a woman. So when I'm making music, it feels like a responsibility and a privilege. Take "Conga," which some people may see as just a simple, fun pop tune: "Come on, shake your body, baby." But for me it was about presenting one of the most culturally significant rhythms of my homeland.
EE: In Chicago we'd see people come to the show four, five times, and they'd say, "We came for the music, for the dancing, but we were so moved."
GE: "We had to bring our parents, our families."
EE: It's a rollercoaster of emotions. When people leave the show, they want to go home, kiss everyone in their house and be grateful for what they have. They may also reflect on how we've turned negatives into positives.
What was it like the first time you watched your own lives play out on stage?
GE: Surreal. He and I are very stoic, and we're not criers. But we're sitting there during one of the first readings, and at one point I thought, "Oh, my God, no. I'm going to break down. How embarrassing." I look to Emilio for some strength, and he's about to lose it! So we both lost it. And we probably lost it every day after that.
EE: When we sit in the back of the theatre during performances, I'll sometimes say, "I don't want to cry today." But we'll be sitting behind a couple, and they'll start crying, and then that's it for us too.
GE: Even after all this time, it still affects us.