One night Yassmin Alers was on the phone with her younger sister Karmine when they realized they had both just straightened their hair. This isn't overly significant for two sisters with natural curls, except that at the time Yassmin was a swing in the Broadway production of Rent while Karmine was in Nebraska swinging for the musical's national tour. As it turns out, they had the same hairdo on the same night because they were both going on for the role of Mrs. Cohen. "One of the best things about us both being in Rent was knowing that at eight o'clock we were going to be doing and saying the same things in two different states, on two different stages," says Karmine.
Now, 13 years later, the singing and dancing sisters have been cast in the Broadway-bound production of Gloria and Emilio Estefan's new musical On Your Feet! which marks the first time the Alers will be in the same show in the same state. And although Yassmin is in the ensemble and Karmine is a swing, they are determined to share the Marquis stage, at least one time. "It will happen even if we have to take somebody out!" jokes Yassmin.
Despite this united front, it's hard to imagine that situations like the time they both auditioned for the original cast of Rent and only Yassmin got the part, haven't resulted in a serious case of sibling rivalry, but the Alers, who grew up in a tenement apartment in Spanish Harlem, actually credit the entertainment business for the "incredibly close" relationship they have now. In their 20s they started a band, aptly called Sista, which catapulted them into the recording industry, where Karmine ended up landing a gig as part of the '90s dance-pop girl group 3rd Party, while Yassmin got a head start working in the theatre.
"When we started to work we had so much more in common than just our childhood," says Karmine. "We had desires, we had dreams, we had feelings and we delved into that. Some people don't ever evolve as siblings, but I felt like we evolved the relationship outside of growing up together. It's the reason why the two of us can work together and play together and be supportive." The sisters' close bond has helped them through more than just botched auditions and failed pop groups. Last June, Karmine underwent brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. Yassmin, and their other sister Joanne who lives in Florida, were there to help Karmine get through the daunting recovery period. "They just took care of me and they kept me laughing," says Karmine, who ended up having to audition for last year's On Your Feet! workshop with double vision, a temporary effect of the surgery.
"I don't know how she got out of bed," says Yassmin, "I would have crawled under a blanket and stayed there if I'd had to experience that." Karmine still managed to land the role and says that talking to Gloria Estefan during the process helped her stay hopeful. Part of On Your Feet!, which is about the life of the Latin pop star and her producer husband, covers the 1990 tour bus accident that left Gloria with a broken back and an uncertain future in the entertainment business. "I feel like it was one of those things that was meant to be," says Karmine. "I was meant to talk to Gloria. I was struggling and she inspired me so much. That's what got me through a big portion of it. I started to listen to those songs that she wrote after her surgery. I had 'Reach' and 'Coming out of the Dark' on a loop. They became my mantra."
As if seeing each other for On Your Feet! rehearsal everyday wasn't enough, the Alers sisters have also been getting together a few times a week to work on a film based on the story of "A Christmas Carol" they are making for their family. "Everyone in our family has been cast, but none of them are actors outside of me and Karmine," says Yassmin, "so we have a gazillion tasks each. We are the writers, directors, editors, costume [designers], makeup [artists], caterers…."
Yassmin has been working on making this film since the sisters were kids. "When we first started I was Tiny Tina," says Karmine. "That just goes to show you how long ago we started this project. We had to recast everything." They're planning to screen the film for their family around Thanksgiving, when, hopefully, they'll also be toasting the success of On Your Feet! which opens on Broadway Nov. 5 after an out-of-town tryout in Chicago this summer. "I keep telling Karmine that I'm so excited about this whole rehearsal period and going into On Your Feet! together," says Yassmin. "She really has no idea what a force the Alers sisters are going to be." We certainly do.