This story – like all good stories – begins with a Christmas pudding. For that was the gift I decided to give my idol Gloria Estefan when I met her for the first time 13 years ago.
I was in my late twenties then (I’m 40 now) but have been a fan since the age of 11, when my dad asked me to buy him Gloria Estefan’s song “Go Away” on cassette as a gift. I duly obliged, but found I liked it more than him and ended up stealing it for myself.
I then bought everything of hers I could find. I was immediately captured by her upbeat and catchy style, and the Latin rhythms that are at the heart of all her songs. Her music was like nothing I had heard before.
My passion for Gloria and her music has continued for the best part of 30 years, during which time I have amassed enough items to fill a small storage unit
On Your Feet!
And as time went by, and I got to know the woman behind the music, I was equally as taken by her personality – her determination, her warmth, her generosity and just how down to earth she is for someone with a worldwide following.
My passion for Gloria and her music has continued for the best part of 30 years, during which time I have amassed enough items to fill a small storage unit – records, posters, CDs, DVDs, you name it, it’s in there. At one time, there was even a life-sized cut-out.
I’ve also met Gloria more than 10 times – the first in 2006, when I gave her the aforementioned Christmas pudding. Why? Well, given she’s originally from Cuba, I thought it would be something of a new experience for her. And I was right.
Last year, because of my job as a theatre journalist, I was invited to an intimate dinner with Gloria when she came to London to launch her latest project: On Your Feet!, a musical based on her life. During that meal, she told everyone about the first time we’d met, and what I’d given her as a gift (which she said she’d eaten and enjoyed very much – result!). Sadly, the Christmas pudding episode doesn’t figure in her musical.
Catchy Latin tunes
On Your Feet! is a two-hour romp through the singing sensation’s life – from her early days in Miami (where her family moved in 1959 after fleeing Cuba under Fidel Castro’s regime), to falling in love with Emilio Estefan and joining his band, the Miami Latin Boys, later renamed Miami Sound Machine.
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The London Coliseum is a venue more traditionally associated with opera: On Your Feet! will undoubtedly be the first time the space has seen a conga line. The show features all the hits – “1-2-3”, “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” and, of course, “Get On Your Feet”, as well as ballads such as “Anything For You” and “Here We Are”.
To tell their story, the Estefans enlisted Alex Dinelaris, who wrote Birdman, and Jerry Mitchell – of musicals such as Kinky Boots and Legally Blonde in the UK –as director. The triumvirate is completed by the choreographer Sergio Trujillo, the man behind the moves in hit shows such as Jersey Boys.
Estefan never planned to do a musical. The idea came in 2010, when the owner of a Vegas hotel was looking for a show to open a new theatre on his premises. He approached the Estefans, and though the show never made it off the ground, by then the seed was sown: a few years later, the idea was picked up by the Nederlander Organisation in New York.
In 2015, it opened on Broadway. Theatre was a new game for Estefan, but, in her words, “If we were going to be paralysed by the fear of failure or critique, we would never have done anything in our lives.”
‘The original script started with my bus crash – it had much more magical realism in it, which I loved and adored. But we decided to change it up’
Central to On Your Feet! is the bus crash that almost ended the singer’s career in 1990, when it was at its peak. “That accident is probably the most public thing most people might know about me. I still get asked about it.
“The original script started with the crash – (it) had much more magical realism in it, which I loved and adored,” she says. “But Jerry brought his two cents to it and we decided to change it up. He didn’t want to give the accident away so early on.”
The show only takes the audience as far as 1991, to her recovery, which means one event didn’t make it in – the birth of her “miracle” baby, Emily, in 2004. “I kept trying to get my baby girl in there,” she laughs. “I said, ‘Can we do an epilogue?’ They said no. ‘Can we do a slide show at the end?’ It was a no. ‘Can we have a baby that the character of Gloria carries on at the end?’ Still no.”
In the end, Emily was involved “in the best way possible”. Her daughter has written the only original song in the production, a number called “If I Never Got to Tell You”, which is sung as Gloria is recovering in hospital.
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For Mitchell, it’s the music – especially the hits – that make the show special. “Their songs broke the mould for crossover Latin American pop,” he says. “There is a lot of Gloria in the music. Her soul and spirit is in the vocals and the sound and that is what makes it so timeless to people.”
He also thinks audiences will relate to the themes of the show. One is about immigrants, and how the Estefans made the US their home after leaving Cuba.
At one point in the production, a music executive tells the Estefans they should change their name if they want to enjoy global success. An angry Emilio responds by telling him this will never happen and that he should look closely at his face, because “this is what an American looks like”. In the US, it drew huge applause. Mitchell says audiences here will relate, too.
“Pride of country, and being proud of who you are, and doing your very best in whatever country you call home, is a universal idea.” He says that there will always be those who are snobby about musicals – particularly the jukebox ones. “You can be a snotty as you want – the people will decide if it’s going to be a hit.”
‘You can be a snotty as you want – the people will decide if it’s going to be a hit’
I predict On Your Feet! will be: I’ve already seen it on Broadway and caught it when it ran in Holland, too. I was a little worried about how the show would portray a woman I have idolised for so long, and whether it could possibly live up to the expectations of a hardcore fan. But it captures Gloria’s energy, her determination and the passion that she brings to everything she does. It’s a fitting tribute to an iconic woman. So go – and let the rhythm get you.
‘On Your Feet!’ is at the London Coliseum to 31 August (020 7845 9300), then touring
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