Villafañe is making her Broadway debut as Gloria Estefan “On Your Feet!” which opens Thursday at the Marquis Theatre, and calls it a big responsibility.
“To be chosen to play this part and to step into these shoes is a huge deal,” she said. “It’s more because of the person that she is and what she represents to so many people.”
“On Your Feet!” follows the lives of the Estefans, two Cubans who fled their country, made a new life in Miami and rose to the top of the music world, with Gloria selling over 100 million records and Emilio helping launch the careers of stars such as Shakira, Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez. The couple has 26 Grammys combined.
“On Your Feet!” comes at a time when some U.S. presidential candidates on the campaign trail have demonizing immigrants.
“I think (the show) is important because that curtain opens and you don’t see two Latinos, you don’t see three, you see 25, and there’s an authenticity to that, there’s a truth to that, there’s a love that you can’t teach our cast,” Segarra said.
“This is a reflection of our country now,” added Villafañe. “No one can walk down the streets of New York or anywhere … and say that we all look the same and that diversity is not very much alive and well in this country… And if you look at Broadway, especially this season how colorful it is, you can’t escape it.”
The musical, which moved to Broadway early in October after a stint in Chicago, features hits like “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” ‘‘Conga,” ‘‘Get on Your Feet,” ‘‘Don’t Want to Lose You,” ‘‘1-2-3” and “Coming Out of the Dark.”
For Segarra, who has appeared on Broadway in “Lysistrata Jones” and off-Broadway in “Dogfight,” playing the role of Emilio has been a learning experience.
“When I got asked to do this I’d only known minimal information about both of them. I obviously knew their music, but getting to read about him and getting to know his story, it’s impossible not to have it touch you,” he said.
“To get to play a man that has broken walls, that’s broken barriers, that’s an honor,” Segarra said. “As Latin artists, as Latinos in this business, we’re kind of at a change, we’re watching the business shift a little bit where we are no longer defined by our ethnicity, we now get to play characters that happen to be Latino, they happen to be Cuban, and happen to be El Salvadorian, and happen to be Puerto Rican, and it’s not defining us anymore.”
For her part, Villafañe said it’s an honor to play Gloria not just for what she represents for the Latino community but for women and artists as well.
“She broke a lot of barriers in being herself, and in being herself without being stereotyped or without being clichéd,” she said, recalling the times Gloria was told to wear fruit on her head or red lipstick, “and she said ‘No, I’m going out in leather and I’m going out in chaps.’ She didn’t have to be any certain mold, she created one.”
During an interview conducted in both English and Spanish, Villafañe and Segarra were quick to laugh and complete each other’s sentences, especially when talking in Spanish. They thanked the support and guidance they received from the Estefans from day one.
“At the end of the day they chose us and we’re here to tell this story, to make this show and to celebrate this culture, to celebrate these lives, this music, this very special legacy that are the Estefans,” said Villafañe.
To them, channeling the generosity of the real life characters they portray is a must.
“They have been together for what, 38 years? In this business that’s so rare!” Segarra said. “So I just asked them what is it, what’s the secret? And (Emilio) said, ‘We loved each other throughout.’ That’s it. That’s all he said. He didn’t go into any deep explanation of it and is as simple as that.”
“It’s fantastic to watch,” Villafañe added. “Everything they touch has that little sprinkle of Estefan love, and I think that’s why they’re so successful at the end of the day.”