Both Ana Villafañe and Gloria Estefan went to the same Miami high school, Our Lady of Lourdes Academy, so it seems fitting that Villafañe portrays Estefan on Broadway. She did, however, almost miss her chance.
"One of my friends was covering the open [casting] call in Miami, and she was like, 'Why aren't you here?' I live in L.A., so I was just sitting there watching the news, and I was dying to go, [so] I spoke to my management team," she explains. "It runs through my veins, so we sent in a video, [and the] next thing I knew… I was on a plane to New York."
When she got the call saying she had booked the job, "I was sitting on a cinderblock — I have no idea where I was," she says. "I just sat down and started crying. Luckily, my best friend was with me, so I didn't have an anxiety attack. That was the best night. I didn't know what to do. I could barely breathe. I was just ready to get into rehearsal."
But, Estefan knew it was Villafañe all along. "There were four girls," she says, "but there was just that magical thing when [Ana] walked in. When she left, and we'd seen the four, everybody turned to each other, and we all said, 'Ana.'"
It must have been the "Miami-isms" (as Villafañe says) that helped her book the job, and she was more than ready to bring the heat with her to Broadway — well, after she met with the Estefans at their ocean-themed Cuban restaurant in Miami Beach for dinner.
See the Very First Pics From Gloria Estefan Musical On Your Feet!
"I wanted to speak to her before she came up for the [initial] readings," explains Estefan, who took Villafañe to Larios on the Beach. "I had made her a care package… of videos and all kinds of things that she could look at." Looking over to Villafañe, she adds, "You can say what you remember. I remember what I told you from that conversation…"
Villafañe jumps in. "Well, the thing that struck me the most… I was sitting at one of their restaurants on South Beach, and the doors opened, and I could have sworn that time had slowed down and the heavens opened up, and there were angels singing. She just walked into the room, and I was like, 'Wow!' They just gave me, both Gloria and Emilio, these big hugs as if I'd been part of the family for years, and that was just very impressive to me… Impresionante.
"From that point forward, it was just an overflowing well of information…"
"Probably too much!" Estefan adds, laughing. "And, I remember telling her. I said, 'I don't want you to be me. I want you to interpret what you get from me' because you can't have somebody up there just trying to copy. People need to fall in love with her."
Josh Segarra must also fall in love with Villafañe nightly at the Marquis Theatre, where the show officially opens Nov. 5. Segarra returns to Broadway after playing Mick in Lysistrata Jones and starring as a marine in the Off-Broadway musical Dogfight. But, this role is especially important to him, after years of struggling with his ethnicity and genetic makeup to book a Broadway gig.
"At one point, I bought brown contacts because people told me I wasn't Latin enough to play Latin, and I'm Puerto Rican," Seagarra says. "I went and bought brown contacts just so I could go in and look more Latino… but that was something that I've dealt with in this business. So now that I get to be myself and [as Emilio]… It's great. It's just the best."
But, it was all about his eyes for Emilio Estefan. "You know something," Estefan explains, "I saw his eyes and knew he wanted this part for the right reason — to be able to inspire all the people, all generations. [The character is] a guy who's going to thank this country and in a way, like the play represents, without being tacky — just to be honest about how we feel and how appreciative we are about our lives in this incredible United States. So I knew that he has that passion for the Latino part; it was passion for the American side, and he wanted the part.
"He really did his homework. He studied me to the max with my accent and my personality. I'm a guy who wakes up every morning, thanks God, and I'm ready to start working, and I say, 'I'm so lucky to be able to work after this,' especially after Gloria's accident. She spent six months having such a tough time to brush her teeth. I had to help her. The first time that she brushed her teeth and put [on] her clothes was a miracle. She was crying over the joy. I think people are going to realize a lot of things when that happens [on stage]."
Gloria adds, "When you're a writer, and you write your own music, you're kind of baring your soul already. I think my fans probably know me better than a lot of my family because they pour over every lyric, and anything that comes from you, you can't divorce yourself out of it, and it has to be honest. They may not know what a particular inspiration was for a song, but they can certainly tell if it's real or not. We have not put out anything that we didn't believe in, and that really spoke to our emotional connection to that music at that moment, and I think people are going to learn a lot of things they didn't know.
"I think the way that [book writer] Alex [Dinelaris] used the music, and the choices he made of what songs and where he put them, is mind-blowing because it's almost as if these songs were written for that play at that moment and for that scene. My friends say, 'Of course! You wrote them. It's your life.' I go, 'No, but it really is magical what he has done, and I was blown away.' He's done a phenomenal job."
Villafañe says, "Dream come true sells it short! This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime roles. It's very surreal."
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)