Almost 80 years separate George Balanchine's On Your Toes from Sergio Trujillo's On Your Feet!—but high-octane choreography never goes out of style when it comes to animating the music it serves. Trujillo's contribution bowed Nov. 5 at the Marquis and kept the music of Emilio and Gloria Estefan in a manic state of perpetual motion.
This is Trujillo's ninth time at bat as a Broadway choreographer—and the first time he seems to be working from home base. "It has always been a dream of mine to choreograph a Latin show on Broadway," he admitted, "so this show has been a real treat for me to work on because it's a true expression of who I am. Just to bring the essence of my Latin-ness out onto that stage has been an incredible thrill for me."
On Your Feet!, Gloria Estefan Bio Musical, Opens on Broadway; Red Carpet Arrivals, Curtain Call and Party!
A Colombian dancer-choreographer (from Canada, of all unexpected places), Trujillo got the go-ahead and blessing from director Jerry Mitchell, who is usually a director-choreographer, but this time saw fit not to hyphenate himself because Trujillo was more qualified for the assignment. "I'm not Latin, but he's the real deal–authentic. I first hired Sergio to dance in Jerome Robbins' Broadway 26 years ago when I was Jerry's assistant. Over the years, Sergio worked for me many times and became my assistant and then my associate. The day after I won the Tony for choreographing La Cage aux Folles, I flew to San Francisco to see his work in a show that didn't make it in, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. That authentic choreography he did there was the best choreography I'd seen in a long time, and I wanted it in this show."
The Estefans gave Trujillo and Mitchell much to keep their motors running, drawing 26 numbers generously from their songbook, orchestrating the living daylights out of each, sprinkling them along the way to tell their classic crossover success story.
Showbiz-bios, where the leader of the band is searching for His Sound—from "The Glenn Miller Story" on—seem to make the same plot stops. In the '70s, Emilio founded The Miami Latin Boys, and that morphed into the Miami Sound Machine (five members of the original group are playing onstage in the Broadway band). After much shouting and head-butting, their hybrid sound enters the mainstream.
Alexander Dinelaris, one of the Oscar-winning writers who made Michael Keaton's "Birdman" fly all around the St. James Theatre down the street and eventually into last year's Academy Award winner circle, takes the sole book credit for On Your Feet! and, although it seems to be hitting all the familiar rungs in the climb to record success, it does so with snap and sass and a cluster of real-seeming characters.
In that respect, he is building on the shoulders of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's 2005 book for Jersey Boys and Douglas McGrath's 2014 book for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Both eschewed clichés with unapologetic reality and honesty.
Frankie Valli was around on opening night to applaud this trend, with a bow back to Jersey Boys, of course. "I like a real story. I feel as though we were innovators with Jersey Boys and showed a way to go without being afraid. There are things people want to know about artists. They want to know the private things, little things behind the scenes, and that's a lot more interesting than creating make-believe."
Dinelaris admitted he knew, going into the project, what he could and couldn't do. "The greatest part of the whole process, I can say unequivocally, was Gloria and Emilio saying, 'You do what you want. You pick the songs you want. Do what you do best, and then we'll talk from there.' They were wonderfully liberating. They knew I had to choose hits, but they trusted me. I said, 'I just need to have songs that push the narrative forward and not just stop for a song. So they let me use songs like 'Famous' or 'Wrapped' or 'When Someone Comes Into Your Life,' and those songs on their own truthfully push the narrative forward instead of just stopping."
There is one new song in the mix. The Estefans wrote it for a hospital scene that followed Gloria's spinal injury in a bus crash. "It's called 'If I Never Got to Tell You,' the book writer said, "and it gets the audiences teary every single night."
He readily admitted book-writing is the first Broadway job he's had since "I was 17 and had a job in Shubert Alley selling T-shirts, right across the way from this theatre. I couldn't afford a peak ticket for the Long Island Railroad—they didn't pay me that much, God bless 'em—so I used to come in before peak into the Marquis and go up on the floors and use a room service card and just sorta nap behind it.
"This whole year–from 'Birdman' to this, my very first Broadway show—is a dream. I'm just keeping my head down, hoping nobody wakes me up and says it's not real."
Playing living music legends where they're in the same room with you is not the most comfortable feeling in the world, but the Estefans made it easy for Ana Villafañe (who, in her Broadway debut, plays Gloria) and Josh Segarra (as Emilio).
"She's been incredibly helpful," said Villafañe. "The fact that she validates my every action is huge to me because I am portraying her life. And she's been very helpful with the music itself. To watch her tenacity with the musicians, keeping the authenticity of the music and the show—that has been very, very impactful for me as an actress because that's what I want to show. I want to show her as a woman who knows exactly what she wants and how to achieve it and knows who she is."
Segarra felt the same about his counterpart. "Emilio was the best. It was like being with your best buddy. We'd just chit-chat about nothing, like chicken wings."
No, Estefan didn't offer any hints on how he should be played. "He's not that type of guy. He's not the type to come in and mess with my process. He was supportive, constantly reminding me to enjoy it all—to 'go kill 'em, papi. Do your thing.'"
Andrea Burns as Gloria's mother is a flinty tower of strength and a source of some inner-family conflict. "I love this part," she confessed. "I am a mother. I have a Latin mother. Culturally, I think I was just able to tap into what this role was about."
Same with the always reliable Alma Cuervo as the grandmother who's more in tune with the young lovers. Not to tell tales out of school, but "the Estefans - they have done some things that have been so generous that I can't say because it would probably embarrass them. But they are the salt of the earth."
Gloria Estefan was, clearly, having the night of her life. "I'm a blithering mess," she announced. "It's been a while since I sat this close to the show. I always sit in the last row, and they elevated it to another level tonight. They just took this out of the park." Commended for not putting restrictions on the script, she said, "It was the only way to go. You've got to be honest. That's the only thing that's of value in music and art. You've got to tell the truth. People can always tell when you're B.S.-ing."
The after-party was held five stories above the theatre in the Marriott Hotel's Broadway Ballroom, which was accessible by elevators and escalators for some and by euphoria for others. Cuban cuisine and rum-based libations were served. Latin music, loud and constant, lured dancers on to the dance floor all evening.
Interviews were conducted at the ballroom's entranceway—endlessly–and the press corps did a collective wilt as the night dragged on. (Talk about On Your Feet!)