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'On Your Feet!' brings Gloria, Emilio Estefan's story to the stage with authenticity

'On Your Feet!' brings Gloria, Emilio Estefan's story to the stage with authenticity


For the next couple of weeks, it’s going to be hard for audience members at the Fox Theatre to stay in their seats.

The national tour of “On Your Feet!” makes its St. Louis debut Tuesday through Nov. 19.

The musical — with music, lyrics and orchestration by Gloria and Emilio Estefan — tells the story of the Estefans, who each came to the U.S. from Cuba in the 1960s. Gloria’s father had worked for Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, and the family fled after Communist dictator Fidel Castro took power.

The couple met in 1975, when Gloria joined Emilio’s band, Miami Latin Boys.

In America, they found success at the top of the music charts with their groundbreaking band Miami Sound Machine. The percussion-fueled band is known for hits such as “Conga,” “1-2-3,” “Anything For You,” “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” “Words Get in the Way,” “Don’t Wanna Lose You” and “Coming Out of the Dark.”

“On Your Feet!,” which opened on Broadway in 2015 and played for nearly 750 performances, is directed by Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell (“Kinky Boots,” “Legally Blonde: The Musical”).

“I’ve always loved the music — I’ve been a fan for a long time,” says Mitchell, an alumnus of Webster University’s Fine Arts College. “I had all their CDs while I was at Webster University, and I used a song of theirs in ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ (the 1999 film he choreographed).”

Mitchell received an honorary diploma from Webster in 2005.

“We all know the Estefans,” he says. “The music is legendary. But we found an opportunity to tell a part of their lives I didn’t know — that a lot of people didn’t know. What I loved about it is that the story was universal.”

Central to that story is family and “how those dynamics affect their journey, whether it’s in a negative way or a positive way or a little bit of both.”

Mitchell says it’s an important story to tell, especially today.

“These are two Cuban immigrants who came to this country, a country that promised them the American dream, and they got it and much more,” he says. “We can’t ever forget this country was built on the backs of people like Gloria and Emilio.”

In one scene in “On Your Feet!,” another character tells Emilio to “go home to Cuba.” Mitchell recounts the response: “I don’t know who you are talking to, but this is my home. This is what an American looks like.’”

Clay Ostwald, the musical director for “On Your Feet!,” also was pianist, producer, composer and assistant musical director for Miami Sound Machine.

“The cast is 95 percent Hispanic so there’s a strong connection with telling the story,” he says.

With the musical, he says, the Estefans felt compelled not only to tell their story but to tell it in a different way.

“She was always motivated by her husband to do something more with the story that would extend her career,” Ostwald says.

Gloria Estefan’s last album was a 2013 collection titled “The Standards,” while her last hit singles were on the Latin and dance charts in 2011. She has won seven Grammy Awards; as a musician and producer, Emilio has 19 Grammys. In 2015, the Estefans won the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their contributions to music and Latin American culture.

“(The musical) was another avenue for them to tell their story,” Ostwald says. “Once we stopped touring around 2007, they started to put together this idea of doing this show.”

Originally, they had expected “On Your Feet!” to be a Las Vegas show. But instead, they worked with the Nederlander Organization in New York City to get the musical on track.

“That was really exciting for us,” Ostwald says. “We weren’t too excited about the Vegas idea. Other people had done that. And we didn’t want it to be a thing where people were imitating rather than telling a story.

“Alex (Alexander Dinelaris, Oscar winner for the ‘Birdman’ screenplay) created a story with real meaning, purpose and depth, not just a greatest-hits show. It’s a story that can draw audiences from all different walks and cultures.”

Mitchell — who’s directing a musical adaptation of “Pretty Woman” that’s bound for Broadway’s 2018-19 season — says the Estefans’ story is told authentically in part because they were on hand during the creation of “On Your Feet!”

“The thing that’s different about this is it’s based on people who are still living,” he says. “It’s real in that aspect.”

Ostwald says viewers will walk away from the musical with a new appreciation, no matter what they already knew about the Estefans or Miami Sound Machine.

“A lot of people go into the show thinking they know and leave with ‘I never knew that, I never knew this,’” he says. “We tell the history, though you can’t tell that many years in two hours. We get to the points where the story changes — where the story moves.”

The popular hits are plentiful and are used in a way that tells the story, so they aren’t necessarily autobiographical. For example, the actress portraying Gloria Estefan as a child sings a song actually recorded by Estefan much later.

The musical’s one original song is “If I Never Got to Tell You,” which Gloria Estefan wrote for the show with her daughter, Emily.

Ostwald says these songs remain true to the original sounds, partially because five members of Miami Sound Machine (including himself) perform in “On Your Feet!”

“The intention of Gloria and Emilio and us was to not water the songs down unless it was intentional to water it down for a reason,” he says. “From the beginning, they wanted to make sure the music was treated properly. I felt very privileged.

“They were there the whole time making sure the band was very authentic and appropriate for what we have done for many years. The music won’t be as long or as impressive as a concert, but it’ll be authentic. This is not a concert.”

Gloria Estefan, 60, is no longer touring full time, so “On Your Feet!” will give fans the next best thing.

“It’s like we’re still touring with our music,” Ostwald says. “We’re having a blast playing what we do. It feels like it’s our thing.”

What “On Your Feet!” • When Tuesday through Nov. 19 • Where Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard • How much $35-$115 • More info

The best of Gloria Estefan

“On Your Feet!” music director and longtime Miami Sound Machine player Clay Ostwald picks his five favorite songs by Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine.

“Get on Your Feet” (1989) • “I’m one of the songwriters (with Jorge Casas). At the time we wrote it, we could have never known it’d become an anthemic song we’d play for so many years and become the title of a musical. It’s a beautiful thing that happened. And it’s a pretty darn good song.”

“Here We Are” (1989) • “That’s another one we did early on for ‘Cuts Both Ways.’ We’re just very proud of that record. When I hear it, I have this really great pride about how the song was treated and how it came about and how Gloria wrote and performed it. I always had a good feeling about it. It’s in the musical.”

“Close My Eyes” (1991) • “No one’s really heard it. It was off the radar for most people and for the record company. It has unique character and flavor. Gloria loved it. She wrote it. It’s an interesting song. We didn’t play it in concert for many years.”

“Anything for You” (1987) • “It’s a favorite because of its success. It was Gloria’s first No. 1 on the singles chart. It’s the first song Jorge Casas and I recorded for Gloria. We were new band members. It came together nicely and kicked off a string of productions for us.”

“Wrapped” (2003) • “It’s a song I had nothing to do with. It was written by Gloria and a songwriter from Peru. They wrote a beautiful song and put it in the musical in a gorgeous way, in dream sequence with gorgeous choreography and production.”

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