BY LINDA MARX
The grand opening of On Your Feet! next month at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami will be an exciting yet emotional moment for Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and a thrilling one for the audiences who love them.
This is your life, Gloria and Emilio Estefan. After two record-breaking years on Broadway, the dynamic duo’s smash musical On Your Feet!, which originally opened November 5, 2015, at the Marquis Theatre in Manhattan, will debut in Miami to kick off its first national tour. Produced by James L. Nederlander, Estefan Enterprises, Inc. and Bernie Yuman, the life story of seven-time Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Gloria and her husband, 19-time Grammy-winning producer, musician and entrepreneur Emilio, will play at the Adrienne Arsht Center Oct. 5 through Oct. 15. From Miami, On Your Feet! will continue on a two-year, 31-city tour, with stops in Orlando, Tampa, Houston, Dallas, Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Providence, San Antonio and San Diego, among others. Emilio and his staff will hire 11 casts and musicians to make sure the musical version of their life story will captivate audiences around the country. In addition, the production will feature its international premiere, with a production kicking off Oct. 18 at the Beatrix Theatre in Utrecht, Netherlands.
“This is our life story, and I am so excited for Miami to be able to debut the musical,” says Emilio. “But it is also emotional for Gloria and me, because we started here in Miami trying to do weddings and bar mitzvahs. We wanted to stay true to who we are, so we would not change our names. Others will be affected by this show because it is also a Miami story.”
The musical does indeed recall memories of when the couple started out in Miami several decades back. Having the production delight Broadway audiences for two years, receive rave reviews, plus Tony, Drama League and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, has touched the couple deeply. “We are all going to cry on opening night in Miami,” anticipates Emilio. “This show has been a great moment for us. It was time to showcase Gloria and my story and what we have done. We brought our minority dreams to life, which will give hope to other immigrants.” With about 30 songs and several dance numbers in the two-act show, Miami audiences will relive the 1980s when Gloria and the Miami Sound Machine livened up radio and MTV productions. Also, the tension between Gloria and her mother, Gloria Fajardo (who passed away this summer with Gloria by her side), over the elder’s resentment toward Emilio and her jealousy of Gloria’s success, is brought to life. Audiences learn that Fajardo once wanted to be a singer and was offered a contract with 20th Century Fox to be the Spanish-speaking voice of Shirley Temple, but Gloria’s father wouldn’t hear of it.
The rest of the show features the triumphs and tragedies of the couple’s adventures in America: Gloria’s exhausting tour schedule, her continued estrangement from her mother, and her accident during a snowstorm when her tour bus collided with a semi, breaking her back and sending her into emergency surgery in New York and later, rehab, where she was determined to recover despite a dim prognosis.
Toward the end of Act II, Gloria’s 1991 return to the stage at the American Music Awards following the horrific accident is a showstopper. (She also reconciles with her mother.) Her performance of “Coming Out of the Dark” is brought to life in an unforgettable scene.
“Charting the rise to international stardom of Gloria Estefan and her triumphant re-emergence after near tragedy struck, On Your Feet! is an infectious account of the lives and careers of the Latin music crossover sensations,” wrote David Rooney in his review of the Broadway production for The Hollywood Reporter. “It is impossible to deny the production’s generosity of spirit…the story is packed with heart, above all in its tender depiction of the couple’s sustaining love.”
Indeed, the quality of the Estefan touch, with the dedication and talent of Gloria, reflects greatly on Emilio, who wakes up each morning ready to create, produce and excite. His attitude of “being happy about who I am” dictates his successful career and the supersonic rise of Gloria’s. His love for work is infectious and spills over to those around him. “One can say with certainty that the question is not what Gloria and Emilio Estefan have done for Miami, but it’s what haven’t they done,” says Shareef Malnik, president and CEO of The Forge Miami Beach and Chairman of the Board of Make-a-Wish Southern Florida. “They are probably the only people that truly exemplify what makes Miami great. Culture, they bring our greatest and most exotic asset: Cuba. Music, they create, play and produce a sound that put Miami on the map musically—a sound that the world recognizes as being ‘Miami.’ Food, they have taken the culinary arts by storm with such standouts as Larios and Estefan Kitchen, just to name a couple.” Malnik adds, “They lead by example with civic and philanthropic contributions. Gloria and Emilio are the face of Miami. Gloria and Emilio are Miami.”
Despite their busy schedules, Emilio continues to mix and match Latin, pop and world beats, which have resulted in a signature style all their own. The success of his work and of the early Miami Sound Machine, plus the decades-long success of Gloria’s career have transcended boundaries and genres. In addition to Gloria, Emilio has been a guiding force in the career of their daughter Emily Estefan, 22. She began performing on the stage at age 8 with Gloria during a word tour, and recently created her debut album, “Take Whatever You Want,” 14 jazz-influenced songs. “Emily wrote the music and songs, produced and performed, doing everything herself,” admires proud Emilio, also father to their son Nayib, 37. “She is scoring movies, and wonderful!”
Emilio, who is currently developing concerts, albums, music for Rita Moreno and movies, soap operas and shows for Netflix, has helped launch the careers of superstars like Shakira, Jon Secada, Marc Anthony, Thalia, Carlos Vives, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Alejandro Fernandez. He’s one of the few producers with success in both the mainstream and Hispanic markets, having done the Latin Grammys on CBS, the Hispanic Heritage Awards on NBC and Nuestra Navidad on Univision, as well as musical productions on HBO and Showtime.
The couple’s Estefan Enterprises empire has also expanded its hospitality holdings. In addition to the remodeled, higher-end Cardozo, they have opened restaurants like the aforementioned Estefan Kitchen at Miami International Airport, at Disney in Orlando and also in the Miami Design District—think decadent, authentic Cuban dishes, lively music and high-end design—Larios on the Beach, Bongos Cuban Cafe and The Wave Kitchen & Bar at their Vero Beach boutique hotel, Costa d’Este, a fusion of foods from local farmers, fishermen and artisanal suppliers.“I make time for everything,” says Emilio of his hectic schedule. “I don’t hate anyone. I help everyone who needs it, yet I mind my own business. I love life.”
His story begins with anecdotes about his humble roots as a Cuban refugee born in Santiago de Cuba, in the same year that marked the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. At age 11, his childhood ended when he heard his parents talking about the Castro revolution and the unpleasant direction it was taking. He knew his only hope for freedom was to leave Cuba and reunite later with his family in the US. Since he wasn’t able to leave on his own, and his mother, Carmen, wasn’t willing to abandon her parents, he had to do some quick thinking. Emilio and his dad, Emilio, Sr., knew they had to get moving—they needed to leave Cuba. “I had to convince my mother to let us leave, to make her see that we’d have to separate in order to have a future where we could all live together in freedom,” he wrote in his 2010 autobiography, The Rhythm of Success. “In the wake of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the terrible state of US Cuban relations, we had to find a third country to live in the meantime, and we settled on Spain.”
But Spain was rough on Emilio, and even on his dad, a lover of the streets and a professional card player in Cuba. They were close to being homeless, getting their meals at a church soup kitchen most days, and they weren’t allowed to work, so there was no money for support. It was the most difficult year and a half of the young boy’s life.
Yet through persistence, energy, and optimism, Emilio finally made it to Miami, where he began to rebuild his life, one segment at a time. “I don’t want my kids to do what I did,” he says. “But thanks to my dad never allowing things in Spain to look grim, we moved ahead. He and I are a lot alike. I love my family. I worked very hard over the years to get them all here to America.”
Emilio’s first job in Miami was with Bacardi Limited, where he did “everything, including marketing,” for many years. While employed, he learned to speak English and finished high school. But all along he knew his love and talent for music would soon manifest. At age 17, he spotted an accordion in a Miami music store and with a little help from his family, managed to buy it. During the day, he would work at the rum company; nights, he would make music with the accordion. One night, he played at a Bacardi party. Not only did the hard-working boy earn tips, but he got great exposure through people who loved his Cuban sound. “We had found our audience and they found us,” he wrote. “From that night, things snowballed. Our same group of guys started to play every weekend, and the Miami Latin Boys were born.”
Around 1974, Emilio heard a young, Cuban-born University of Miami college student named Gloria Fajardo sing at a wedding. He thought she was poised on stage, yet shy personally. He invited her to sing with the Miami Latin Boys and was so impressed with her talent that he hired her and her cousin Merci Murciano to join the group. He soon changed the name to the Miami Sound Machine, which played music that combined Cuban and American sounds in rousing renditions.
Although Gloria had charisma, Emilio worked hard to help her overcome her shyness and become a masterful performer. Within two years they were dating, and just before Valentine’s Day 1978 (he couldn’t wait), he proposed. They married seven months later, one day after Gloria’s 21st birthday and after she had graduated from college with honors.
After years of hard work in the music business, and a break when his pal Tommy Mottola—then the president of Sony—took an interest in Gloria’s career, she changed her look and image, becoming sleeker and sexier, more chic bombshell than Cuban boom-boom room. She also launched her first solo album, Cuts Both Ways, and wrote songs that she sang to the sound of her guitar. In 1989, Gloria and the Miami Sound machine were named Favorite Pop Rock Band Duo Group at the American Music Awards, and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) named her the Pop Songwriter of the Year. She was the first woman and first Latin to win the award. In the 1990s, under Emilio’s magical direction, Gloria, who has sold more than 100 million records in her career, became stronger, more successful and more popular with mixed audiences. In 2012, her hit “Hotel Nacional” landed at number-one on the Billboard Hot Latin Songs Chart, the first time in history that a female artist debuted a song atop this revered music tally. “Hotel Nacional”, produced by Emilio, is the second single and follow-up to her chart-stopping hit “WEPA”. Both tracks are part of her studio album called Miss Little Havana, created with Pharrell Williams. The Estefans have enjoyed their success yet made philanthropy a big part of their lives, relishing the opportunity to give back. Gloria is on the Board of Trustees for the University of Miami, has received a humanitarian award from St. Jude Children’s Hospital and started foundations to help disadvantaged children, empower young people through education and opportunity, and support spinal cord research through the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. In 2015, President Obama honored the couple with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the first time the award was ever given to a couple.
Every day offers new challenges to their lives which include work, travel, being minority owners of the Miami Dolphins and trying to sneak away to their home in Vero Beach, a nine-bedroom, three-kitchen beach house situated on seven acres near a 45-acre park.
Their happiness and gratitude shine like a diamond, which Miami audiences will share when they see the show. “I hate complaining and whining,” says Emilio. “I love to wake up, eager to work. I want us to always be happy and share our passions with others.”