Gloria And Emilio Estefan Celebrate Immigrants In Musical

With some U.S. presidential candidates on the campaign trail demonizing immigrants, a powerhouse husband-and-wife team, who both happen to be immigrants themselves, hope they can offer some balance – and some pop songs.

Gloria Estefan and her husband, Emilio, are shepherding their musical biography “On Your Feet!” to Broadway this fall. It’s a show that celebrates two Cuban-Americans who embraced the American Dream and now own enough Grammy Awards to fill a swimming pool.

Photo: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, file
68th annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

“We’ve been around long enough already to have gone through several election cycles. Every single time, fear gets brought into the equation,” said Gloria Estefan. “This is a great balance because we need to remind people, ‘Hey, we’re just people.’“

The musical uses the Estefan hits “1-2-3,” ‘‘Turn the Beat Around” and “Conga” to tell the story of how the budding singer and producer met, battled for crossover success, handled interfamily squabbles and overcame a bus crash that nearly claimed Gloria’s life.

It’s the specific story of two people who fled the country of their birth, made a new life in Miami and rose to the top of the music world. But the Estefans say it’s a celebration of immigration for a nation of immigrants.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from. Unless you’re a Native American Indian, you’re not from here. Somewhere down the road, you came from somewhere else,” said Gloria Estefan, who has sold over 100 million albums. “It’s always the last person in that gets bashed.”

“On Your Feet!” comes as some Republican candidates for the White House have slammed Mexican and Muslim immigrants. “One thing those people don’t realize is that we don’t take this country for granted. We want to make a contribution,” said Emilio Estefan, who has guided the careers of such luminaries as Shakira, Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez.

While they acknowledge their life story hasn’t included typical dramatic fodder for a musical – a descent into drugs, say, or infidelity or murder – the Estefans think it will connect with audiences.

“We haven’t led controversial lives, but it’s human. Everybody’s going to identify with somebody on that stage,” said Gloria Estefan.

Emilio Estefan hopes some of it can be inspiring. In high school, he asked a teacher if he could learn music but was told he was too old. “I won 19 Grammys. So don’t let anybody change your life. Do what you think is best for you,” he said, laughing.

The team they’ve assembled is impressive, including “Kinky Boots” director Jerry Mitchell, “Memphis” choreographer Sergio Trujillo and book writer Alexander Dinelaris, who wrote the “Birdman” screenplay. (“I’m glad we got him before he won the Oscar or else we wouldn’t have been able to afford him,” jokes Gloria Estefan.)

Finding the actor to play Emilio was easy. Josh Segarra, on Broadway in “Lysistrata Jones,” won the role at the initial readings. (“He’s so good-looking that Emilio didn’t want to look anywhere else,” Gloria Estefan said.)

Landing the right actress to play Gloria was harder and it came down to the wire. The winner was Ana Villafane, who appeared in the film “Magic City Memoirs” and who initially auditioned via video.

“Ultimately, what it came down to was not somebody who was going to be my clone at all. I wanted somebody who could interpret my life,” said Gloria Estefan, who is a seven-time Grammy winner.

“It was one of those moments. She walked in and there was just something. Then she sang. She didn’t particularly sound like me but it didn’t matter because we were drawn in.”

It was only after Villafane got the job that Gloria learned the young woman was half-Cuban, raised in Miami and even attended her high school, Our Lady of Lourdes Academy. “She knew culturally where I come from,” Estefan said,

The musical, which will have seven members of Miami Sound Machine in the orchestra, will also feature an original song with lyrics by Gloria and music by their daughter, Emily.

Emily Estefan, who will be 21 in December, is a dead-ringer for her mom and attends the Berklee College of Music. She recently surprised her parents with news that she had quietly written and recorded an album in her Boston apartment. “I’m in awe of her,” said her proud mother.

If she sings and looks like mom, why not ask Emily to play her mom in the show? Gloria asked her daughter exactly that and got this response: “Are you kidding me? I’d have to kiss my dad. It’s too weird.” That made sense to Gloria: “I thought about it and said, ‘You’re right.’“