Gloria Estefan interview: "I’ve cried more times in the last five years than I have in my entire life"
Grammy Award-winning superstar Gloria Estefan may have shed tears by the bucketload witnessing the emotional rollercoaster that is her lifestory being played out on the Broadway stage and on stages across the United States since 2015, but her British fans were surely crying tears of joy, when it was announced that her bio-musical On Your Feet! would finally be celebrating its West End premiere. The London Coliseum is gearing itself up for the biggest Conga line in its history as Gloria's musical plays a limited summer engagement from 14th June through to 31st August 2019.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Broadway premiere of On Your Feet! at New York's Marquis Theatre in autumn 2015, where it enjoyed a lengthy run of almost 800 performances before setting off on an 80-week National Tour that is about to conclude in Texas this weekend. And yes, I certainly was up on my feet, joining in the pre-interval Conga line with the cast and I even went back for seconds a year later. The beauty of On Your Feet! is not only getting to hear live renditions of perhaps the greatest Latin pop-infused anthems and ballads in music history, but getting to discover (or re-discover) the story behind an icon and the love of her life, Emilio Estefan. In this case, the musical's title is metaphorically about finding your feet as an immigrant in a divided country and also about literally getting back on your feet, as Gloria defied the odds after the well-documented, tragic bus crash of 1990, where she was told she may never walk again.
As the West End and Broadway continue to usher in bio-musicals based on the lives of famous recording artists, some of them seem to rely predominantly on the hits, whilst others (like London's world premiere of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical) also boast a story brimming with dramatic tension to back them up. In Gloria's case, there is plenty in her biography that deems it worthy of a Broadway musical. Whether we consider her professionally, from her humble beginnings in Cuba to becoming the Queen of Miami (with a recording contract that rivaled Madonna's at the time), or explore her personal trials and tribulations through her fraught relationship with her mother and her infamous comeback out of the wheelchair and onto the stage of the American Music Awards in 1991, On Your Feet! has drama to spare. It also doesn't shy away from celebrating her accomplishments and contributions as a Cuban-American, which could not be more topical under the United States' current president.
With hits such as "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You," "1-2-3," "Dr. Beat," "Everlasting Love," "Conga," and, of course, "Get on Your Feet," at her disposal, Gloria's musical is sure to make for a sizzling summer at the Coliseum, so we sat down with the legendary musician ahead of the West End premiere to talk about her relationship with London, about the under-representation of Latin music and culture in the West End and on Broadway, and about making audience members cry...
Having seen the show on Broadway, I couldn’t help but notice that London itself plays a small part in On Your Feet! during the World Tour sequence. Has London been a significant place for you during your life and career and what’s the first memory of London that springs to mind?
Oh my gosh! There’s so many memories! First of all, it was the first place we came to promote Dr. Beat and I remember it being my first European experience. I mean, my husband and I had been to Spain right after we got married, but we were literally just visiting his family. I was blown away by the city [of London] and we tried to see as much as we could. But funnily enough, the one thing that was tough for me was the press thought I was too nice! (Laughs) They didn’t believe that I was actually like that?
Were they expecting you to be a Latina diva?
Yes! (Laughs) They were expecting some crazy woman! I’m too nice?!! That was a bit of a shocker, but the British fans have always been phenomenal and they’ve followed me all over the world. So many British fans even went to New York and to Holland [to see On Your Feet!] and they’re like family to me. They were very young when they first saw me and I’m still in their lives. Some of them I talk to on Twitter and I know them by name. It’s been fantastic.
Before you began with On Your Feet!, had you ever seen a bio-musical before?
Yes, of course. I’d seen Beautiful [The Carole King Musical] and I’d seen Jersey Boys.
And did you think to yourself at the time that you could imagine your own life being portrayed on stage?
At that point, no. Never would I have imagined at all that our lives would be a musical one day. When they first approached us, we were kinda wary because it was a risk. Every time you do something that is outside of your wheelhouse or your box, you’re taking a risk. But we’ve always done that. We released Mi Tierra [her Spanish-language album from 1993] at the peak of our pop career because it was important to us. People told us that we were crazy, but we knew that was the moment we had to take that chance and do something that we felt strongly about. What we wanted to do is do different things with On Your Feet! as a bio-musical. That’s why we added an original song that, fortunately, was written by my daughter Emily because she’s not in the musical as it ends in 1991 and she hadn’t been born yet! We also wanted to use the music in a different way. I wanted to give Alex Dinelaris, our Oscar-winning book writer, free rein. He spoke to us for a year and a half to two years and then he went away to write. We weren’t looking over his shoulder or telling him what needed to go in or what needed to go out. We also decided we needed to be brave and tell a lot of things that no-one knew about. For example, the issues with my mother, I told her: “Mom, I’m gonna tell the truth or else what’s the point?” People can tell if something is honest. They are smart about that kinda thing.
Isn’t life strange? When your tragic accident happened in 1990 and they told you that you may never walk again, I bet the last thing going through your mind was: “Y’know what, one day this is gonna be the perfect storyline arc for a Broadway musical!”
(Laughs) I know, right! Never in my wildest nightmares! Of course, I never thought that back then, but when we got this opportunity to tell our story, we looked at it as a deeper way to build bridges and connect and to show that we’re all the same. We’re all human.
What’s the most surreal part about seeing your own life portrayed on stage?
Each time I see the show, a different part gets me. I try to sit there stoically and I am quite a stoic person, but, oh my God, I’ve cried more times in the last five years than I have in my entire life.
And you’ve seen quite a few audience members shedding tears over the years as well?
Oh, yes! And I love that! (Laughs) You know what I would always do whenever I wrote a song? I would do the “cry test”. I would call my sister and I would sing the song for her and if she didn’t cry, I knew I would have to go back to the drawing board. I mean the ballads, obviously, not the dance tunes. If you can move someone to tears, then you’ve really gotten in there and made them think, feel or remember something. To me, that’s what music’s about.
Speaking of music, I am a big fan of Latin music and Latin culture, but after seeing On Your Feet! and, before that, In the Heights, I did come away thinking that the music and the culture are so under-represented in the West End and on Broadway. Would you agree?
Well, it’s under-represented in terms of the ratio we are represented in the population. I’m not sure about Great Britain and the Latin population here, but in the United States, by the year 2025 a quarter of the US population will be of Hispanic descent. So yes, we’re under-represented on stage and we’re under-represented in movies and on television. That’s why it’s important to keep telling our stories, especially positive ones about the contributions we make to the United States and to the world. I think that immigrants enrich the fabric of each nation.
I think it’s so interesting how you and Emilio were so successful in breaking through a racially segregated music industry from the Latin charts to the Pop charts and now On Your Feet!, in many ways, is doing the same thing in the theatre industry.
Yes, this is a whole new world. You know what’s interesting too? The theatre world has opened its arms and embraced something that was unheard of before, in terms of pop music in theatre. But when you really think about it and you go way back, the Gershwins created the pop music of the time. There was no real ‘pop music’ back then. They created songs that have stood the test of time and they originally came from Broadway.
And Broadway has now given the West End another hit musical in On Your Feet! What can UK audiences expect from this West End premiere at the London Coliseum?
Well, if you come to the Coliseum and you’re in the aisle seats, bring your dancing shoes! Or, if you’re sat anywhere, quite honestly. The sightlines are amazing and we’re gonna take you on an emotional journey that you won’t expect. Everyone that has seen the musical has been surprised by the end of it. You’ll be surprised and hopefully you’ll be moved. You’ll be entertained, for sure, and you’ll be reminded of music that you’ve heard in years gone by and some of it you’ll have even forgotten that it was ours! That does happen a lot. And you’ll see the outstanding choreography by Olivier and Tony Award-winning choreographer Sergio Trujillo who really worked hard to make sure you’re excited and that you feel your heart in your chest. And you’ll also get a bit of the concert experience with the live band. Oh, and this British cast is phenomenal!
On Your Feet! Tickets are available now for performances from 14th June to 31st August 2019.