‘On Your Feet!,’ Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s bio musical, urges Playhouse Square audiences to groove (preview)

December 3, 2017 GMT

‘On Your Feet!,’ Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s bio musical, urges Playhouse Square audiences to groove (preview)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Without Cuban-born crossover pioneers Emilio and Gloria Estefan, there would likely be no Shakira, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Jennifer López and a host of other Latin superstars.

Even with that, their influence is difficult to adequately gauge. Last week, Erika Ender, who co-wrote “Despacito,” the mostly Spanish language smash hit of the summer featuring Justin Bieber, became the first Latina to vie for song of the year in the history of the Grammy Awards.

It was “her youthful obsession with Gloria and Emilio Estefan,” reports LA Weekly, that prompted Ender to leave Panama at 22 to work in Miami, Florida, where the husband-and-wife-team are often referred to as the city’s unofficial king and queen.

Their bootstrap success story is the subject of “On Your Feet!” opening at Playhouse Square’s Connor Palace Tuesday. As recounted in the Broadway musical, Gloria and Emilio Estefan never understood the word “no” – in any language.

Record executives dismissed their new sound – a fusion of quintessentially America styles like Motown and disco with the rhythms of Cuba – calling it “too Cuban for Americans and too American for Cubans.”

“That was like a rallying cry for us,” says Gloria, home with Emilio in Miami after overseeing the premiere of “On Your Feet!” in the Dutch city of Utrecht in late October. (The national tour officially opened in Miami the same month.)

“Emilio and I were our best cheerleaders,” she says.

Not that it was easy. In the early days, the couple hand-delivering singles to clubs, tracks with Gloria singing lead vocals for their band Miami Sound Machine.

At Sony, Emilio cooled his heels in the lobby before winning an audience. After giving the music a listen, “the guy said, ‘Forget about it – you’ll have to change your last name and go back to your country because this will never work in this country.’

“I said, ‘I cannot go back to my country’. . . Eight years later, I became the president of Sony.”

Success, after all is the best revenge: More than 100 million records sold, 26 Grammy wins between them and nearly 40 years of scandal-free marriage. After shepherding his wife’s solo career, Emilio is now one of the most powerful producers in the industry, launching the careers of J. Lo and generations of artists.

But settling scores was never their goal – it was uplift, their songs designed to lighten burdens, heal rifts, provide release. It felt good doing something they loved and they wanted to share their infectious, good-hearted vibe with the world.

Music, says Emilio, was an escape, a way to sooth the pain of separation from family left behind in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and of living, for a short while at 15, as an exile in Spain, where he played the accordion in restaurants for food.

“Music has helped us get back on our feet in a million ways,” says Gloria. (Her hit single “Get on Your Feet,” inspired the show’s title.) It got her though all the tough moments with her Dad, who was so ill when she was girl.

Gloria believes it even helped mend a broken back, her vertebra shattered when a truck collided with her tour bus when she was 32.

Their journey is extraordinary, a Broadway-worthy epic of setbacks and sensational victories with an irresistible beat. At heart, it’s a love story about two kids in search of the American dream who found each other along the way.

And it all started with a pair of tiny shorts.


I think it’s true that we’ve all been through Some nasty weather Let’s understand that we’re here To handle things together . . .

Gloria was 17, a senior in high school went she first laid eyes on Emilio in a friend’s basement. She was there with other teens as part of a makeshift band, rehearsing songs to perform at a party for their parents, returning from a church-sponsored retreat.

Emilio, a few years older and working at Bacardi Imports with her friend’s father, came to give the young performers pointers. He was a musician with his own band – the Miami Latin Boys.

“In walks this dude carrying an accordion, in tiny shorts,” says Gloria. “And the shorts looked really suspect. They looked like they were made out of some couch material.” (They were indeed homemade, fashioned by his mother from a refurbished coat.)

She remembers staring at his hands as he played. “And he had great legs, so that made an impact for sure,” she says.

He was cute, but dating was the last thing on her mind. Gloria had come to Miami with her family at 2, joining the community of refugees fleeing Castro’s revolution. Now, she was helping to care for her father, a Vietnam vet suffering from exposure to Agent Orange. And she had plans. “I wanted to study, I wanted to work,” she says.

After graduation, she held down two jobs while taking classes in psychology and French at the University of Miami, moonlighting as an interpreter for customs and immigration at the airport and teaching guitar two nights a week.

That summer, her mom dragged her to a wedding – Dad was too sick to go. At the reception, a band featured a guy playing “The Hustle” on accordion.

“I’m going, ‘Damn, this guy’s incredibly brave first of all . . .’ and secondly, he was so charismatic. Everybody was having such a great time. I never went to parties – it was magical – twinkle lights and this band playing . . .” She zeroed in on the dude with the squeezebox. “I know this guy,” she thought.

She ran into Emilio on a break. He recognized her as the shy girl he’d met in the basement with a voice as beautiful as she was.

“Come and sing a song with us,” he said. She protested. He persisted. She knew all same old Cuban songs he did. The crowd gave her “an amazing ovation,” she remembers.

At the end of the night, he asked her to join the band. They needed a singer.

“I told him no, I couldn’t because I knew my mom would kill me a., and b. I was too busy.”

Emilio tracked her down two weeks later. “My sister picked up the phone and she goes, Oh it’s that booooooy!”

“I want to create a bilingual group,” Emilio explained, “so we can play for both markets.”

She agreed to attend a rehearsal – her grandmother and mother in tow. She was a good Catholic girl after all. Grandma loved it. Mom? Not so much.

For Gloria Fajardo, a PhD in education from Cuba under her belt, schooling was the key to success in their new country. She didn’t want her hard-working daughter to take up with a musician and gave Emilio a nose full of wood, slamming the door in his face, when he came to call.

But some unions are fated, sweeping even an iron-willed matriarch’s objections aside.

Gloria and Emilio worked together, then fell in love, marrying in September 1978. And Emilio agreed to make one name change: With Gloria up front, the band was no longer Miami Latin Boys, but Miami Sound Machine.


Get on your feet Get up and make it happen Get on your feet Stand up and take some action

As jukebox musicals go, “On Your Feet!” boasts an enviable creative roster, including original band members, who play onstage, and wordsmith Alex Dinelaris.

“Thank God he hadn’t won the Oscar for ‘Birdman’ yet or we couldn’t have afforded him,” Gloria says. (Dinelaris was one of four writers to earn the Academy Award for best original screenplay for the 2014 film.)

She left it up to her book writer to choose the hits to out fill the song list: “Conga,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Turn the Beat Around” – as well as some lesser known ballads, such as “When Someone Comes Into Your Life,” one of the first songs Gloria ever wrote for Miami Sound Machine.

How else to cull work from a songbook spanning more than 30 years? “I couldn’t do it,” says Gloria.

Also in the mix: “If I Never Got to Tell You,” an original song written by Gloria and daughter Emily, a Berklee College of Music graduate, who released her debut album, “Take Whatever You Want,” earlier this year.

That their girl had real talent as a composer was one thing, but that she could sing was a miraculous surprise. Emily kept her secret until her first semester of college. Home on break, she agreed to perform for her mother under two conditions: “She said, ’You can’t cry and you can’t look at me,” says Gloria. “Of course, I did both.”

“I couldn’t believe what came outta that little girl’s mouth. It was mind blowing. She’s a natural.”

Emilio was equally gobsmacked: “She’s an amazing musician,” he says. “They told us we would never have kids again and now we have a beautiful girl that is gonna become more famous than me and Gloria.”

Her very birth was a miracle to her parents.

The Estefans only had one child, 9-year-old son Nayid, when a semi plowed into the band’s bus on a snow-covered highway in the Pocono Mountains in March 1990. Their boy sustained injuries to his neck; Emilio to his head and hands. Early reports suggested Gloria might be paralyzed for life, and would be unlikely to deliver another child.

“I never even thought about getting back onstage after my accident,” she says. “I just wanted to walk.”

With fans from Holland to Hialeah, the outpouring of support, in letter after letter, overwhelmed her. It felt like being plugged into the wall. “I could feel those prayers and energy and I used it. I mediated. I used it in my healing.”

Through painful months of physical therapy, “she was a lady that never complained,” says Emilio.

Gloria kept every piece of mail stored in a warehouse, an archive of love she tapped while making the musical. She sent Dinelaris photos of the pages, some of which are used as scenic elements in the production.

“I had just released the ‘Cuts Both Ways’ album, and ‘Get on Your Feet’ was on it – I got that song thrown back at me in every letter that people sent me. ‘Come on – we need you to get on your feet!’ ”

She did, a little less than a year later. And Gloria didn’t just sing in her comeback show – she insisted on incorporating demanding choreography.

“The real reason that I got back onstage at all was to show all those people who had sent so much love and courage my way that things happen, and it’s up to us how we deal with it and how we get back on our feet. That was my motivation.”

The musical itself is a love letter of sorts to America. “We live in the best country in the whole world,” says Emilio. “And you know something? All the dreams can come true in this country. I don’t care what anybody tells me. If you work hard and you’re persistent and you have pride in who you are and where you come from.

“To me the most beautiful thing that we got in our career is we didn’t have to change our last name.”