The perennially lengthening list of jukebox musicals gained one of its more successful entries in 2015 with “On Your Feet.” This sentiment-and-salsa-fueled story of multi-Grammy Award winner Gloria Estefan and her likewise multi-Grammy-winning husband, the musician and producer Emilio Estefan, resonated with critics and audiences when it opened on Broadway.
The show’s nearly 800 performances there hardly set records — “Jersey Boys,” the uber-jukeboxer in terms of combining bio and songs, chalked up more than 4,600. But “On Your Feet” is still very much on its feet. An 80-city national tour, launched last fall, hits Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre this week. A London production is planned for next year.
Making a sensation in the mid-1980s, the Havana-born, raised-in-Miami Gloria Estefan brought her smooth contralto voice and unaffected phrasing to such hits as the tender “Anything for You” and the infectiously propulsive “Conga,” backed by the Miami Sound Machine.
A severe back injury in 1991, after a truck crashed into her tour bus, sidelined Estefan for a while. But she soared back onto the charts with the rollicking “Mi Tierra” and kept on making music, picking up award after award in a career that’s still very active.
“You sometimes hear oldies from the ’80s and ’90s and think they wouldn’t be popular today,” says Christie Prades, who stars as Estefan in “On Your Feet.” “But Gloria’s music is so lively and colorful that it still gets a response. The style and that whole specific sound of the Miami Sound Machine, from the lyrics to the specific instruments that are played, never gets old.”
The story of Estefan’s career hasn’t lost its appeal, either.
In 1959, when Estefan was 2, she arrived in Miami with her family, refugees from Castro’s Cuba. There were periods of uncertainty and drama, especially involving her father, as the years unfolded. But then Gloria met Emilio.
That encounter in the mid-1970s proved pivotal for the two Cuban-Americans. Gloria had turned to music as her own personal refuge in between stints taking care of her ailing father during her teen years. Emilio’s band, the Miami Latin Boys, needed a lead singer.
In short order, Gloria Fajardo married Emilio Estefan (Gloria’s mother took a dim view); the band became the Miami Sound Machine; and “Conga” turned into a global craze, a crossover success that bridged the previously guarded chasm between Latin- and English-speaking music markets.
“As a Cuban-American growing up in Miami, I listened to Gloria’s music, everyone did,” says Prades, 27. “She was an example to me, and for my parents, an example not just as an artist, but as a woman and a pioneer. That was pretty deep for me.”
So was the experience of auditioning in front of Gloria Estefan and the other producers.
“When Gloria asked me to be in the tour, I was shocked,” Prades says. “Every time I hit the stage, I think how wonderful it was that she gave me two thumbs up.”
“On Your Feet” focuses on when the Estefans began their personal and professional partnership and how they then made it big.
“The show is a prime example to all individuals who have a dream,” Prades says. “Gloria and Emilio were breaking down barriers. It used to be that if you started in the Spanish market, you stayed in the Spanish market; if you were in the American market, you didn’t cross over. They were the ones who created that possibility.”
Behind-the-scenes matters provide additional material for the musical, which has a book by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Alexander Dinelaris.
“He did a brilliant job of showing what we love about Gloria the singer, as well as the deeper side,” Prades says. “The audience learns a lot about her on a personal level, her family, the sacrifices she made, the real life stress and life-threatening moments she experienced. And how she was able to balance everything out after she made it. There’s a lot of juicy substance in the show.”
That view is echoed by someone who witnessed a lot of that history firsthand.
Keyboardist and producer Clay Ostwald has been with Miami Sound Machine since 1986, a few years after graduating from the University of Miami. He’s music director for “On Your Feet” and performs in the onstage orchestra. He also contributed to the orchestrations for the score.
“The story in the musical has a lot of really interesting dynamics,” Ostwald says. “In addition to the family and their struggles, there’s the issue of immigration. That’s an eternal issue, and a very active political and social issue right now. Alex Dinelaris took that as a very central point of the story. I think people will go home thinking this is more than just a jukebox musical.”
Ostwald first heard talk of turning Gloria Estefan’s life and career into a work for the stage almost a decade ago. He didn’t take it too seriously.
But about four years ago, his ears perked up as some big show business names were being dropped in discussions about the project — Dinelaris; director Jerry Mitchell, who directed and choreographed the musical “Kinky Boots”; choreographer Sergio Trujillo, whose credits include “Jersey Boys.”
“That’s when I started to realize it was going to take shape,” Ostwald says. “I went up to New York to work on the development of the show. Gloria asked me to make sure the music was represented well and authentically, true to our history. There was a high priority for the music being the real thing.”
Dinelaris chose songs from the Estefan catalog and wove them into the book.
“A lot of thought process went into that,” Ostwald says. “The songs Alex selected are not necessarily the most popular ones, but they fit into the story of [the Estefans’] lives. Just one song is new. ‘If I Never Get to Tell You’ was written for the show by Gloria and her daughter, Emily.”
For Ostwald, the experience of bringing this music to audiences around the country has been a heartening one.
“We still have a blast when we play this music every night,” he says. “And it is super-gratifying to see the reaction we get.”
If you go
"On Your Feet" opens June 5 and runs through June 10 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $42.50 to $199. Call 800-982-2787, or go to ticketmaster.com.