07 Aug They’re Gloria and Emilio Estefan, 8 shows a week: How the stars of ‘On Your Feet!’ channel pop heroes
Christie Prades and Mauricio Martínez have been on the road for eight months, starring as Gloria Estefan, the queen of Latin pop, and her impresario husband, Emilio, in the national tour of the bio-musical “On Your Feet!”
When it opens at the Hollywood Pantages on Tuesday, the cast will keep on with the routine: eight shows a week, with future days off often spent traveling to the next city. The schedule is thematically appropriate for a musical celebrating the long hours, drive and tenacity the Estefans put into their careers when they were starting out.
“I’ve literally visited so many states and cities that I didn’t even know existed,” said Martínez, who was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico. “I was familiar with L.A., New York, Boston, Miami and Texas. Now I’ve been to Madison and Rochester and Durham.”
Prades added that life on the road is difficult on bodies and voices. “We’re athletes,” she said.
One of many songs she performs in this jukebox musical is “Conga,” the crossover hit that made the Estefans’ band, Miami Sound Machine, a worldwide sensation in 1985. To master just this one number, the cast went through “Conga boot camp.”
Prades, a second-generation Cuban American, grew up in Miami, saturated in its bilingual culture. But she admitted that when she started learning “Conga,” she couldn’t make out the words.
“I had no idea what she was saying. It’s like a rap song. It’s so fast, and it has that syncopation. We had to break down the syllables,” she said. “And the dancing is like being shot out of a canon. We’ve actually slowed it down a little bit for the show because otherwise it would be crazy.”
Added Gloria Estefan dryly: “I wouldn’t want that job.”
Gloria, Emilio, Martínez and Prades spoke by phone from various cities during the 10-day break before they reconvened in Los Angeles. Emilio was in Miami composing music for upcoming film projects. Gloria was there too, preparing for an appearance on “The Talk.” Martínez and Prades were in New York, where he was getting ready for his debut at the Feinstein’s/54 Below supper club and she was speaking from an Uber on the way home from the airport.
“Christie’s in every scene but two,” Gloria Estefan said, elaborating on not only the rigors of a national tour but also of this show specifically. “And in two of her scenes, she’s having a fight.”
No stranger to life on the road herself, Gloria maintained that Prades works harder than the pop star ever did, even during her peak years. “Sometimes I had to do four shows in a row, but I wasn’t acting and fighting with people too!
“I used to tell Emilio, ‘I wish I could clone myself.’ Well, now I’ve figured out a way.” she added with a laugh.
What helps with the grueling schedule, Gloria said, is that the performers feel a personal connection to the show. Nearly all of the cast is Latino, just as it was on Broadway — making musical theater history — and many of the actors’ stories echo the Estefans’ path to success. Both fled Cuba when Fidel Castro took over with the thought that the move would be temporary. Gloria emigrated to Miami with her family when she was 2; Emilio arrived on his own at 16 with the help of an aunt and uncle.
One of the first things he did was to replace the accordion he’d left in Cuba so he could perform in an Italian restaurant for tips.
“I love that people get to know that part,” Emilio said of the story in “On Your Feet!”
“People only see sometimes your success, but they don’t know what you have to do to get to that point. The American dream doesn’t come to you. You have to go to the American dream, and work hard.”
In a pivotal scene in the show, a music executive tells Emilio that he’ll have to change his name if he wants to make it in the U.S.
“I said, ‘I will never do that,’ ” Emilio remembered. “Out of respect for my family and my grandfather and my heritage. And they told me we would have to change our sound, and I said, ‘I will not change the sound,’ and they told me I was crazy, and I said, ‘No, absolutely I’m not crazy because this is who I am.’ ”
Sony sent him packing, but “Conga” made it to the top of the charts anyway. Eight years later Estefan became the president of Sony Music.
Martínez can relate.
“I remember having the exact same conversation,” he said, recalling how almost 20 years ago, an agent suggested that he change his name to Maury Martin. (Ricky Martin had recently scored with “Livin’ La Vida Loca.”)
“I was like, ‘What?’” Martínez recalled. “I vividly remember telling the person that I would never do that.”
Martínez sees Emilio as a mentor and a father figure, referring to him always as “my dear Emilio.”
“His story relates to mine in so many ways,” Martínez said. “It’s so necessary to remind people out there that the American dream is possible. I’m living it. I’m an immigrant, I’m a Latino, I’m a Mexican. I came here on a work visa, and I’m in the process of getting my green card right now.”
Martínez was well known in Mexico when he was chosen to take over the role of Emilio on Broadway in 2016. He got his first break years ago as third runner-up in the TV show “Operación Triunfo,” a Mexican “American Idol.” Since then he’s starred in many musicals as well as in films and telenovelas, and he’s got two albums out and a third on the way. He’s worked in the U.S. before but never in English until now.
“This is my crossover role,” he said.
Martínez grew up speaking English and Spanish, he said, but playing Emilio is still a linguistic challenge. Not only does Estefan have a strong Cuban accent, but he speaks with torrential speed.
“He reminds me of my dad,” Prades said. ”That old-school Cuban lingo. But when Emilio talks Spanish, I still don’t understand what he’s saying. He’s so fast, he’s like the Energizer Bunny. When you meet him, within two minutes you’ll get a paragraph-long essay. You won’t understand it, but you’ll get it.”
Emilio good-naturedly acknowledges the challenge he poses to would-be impersonators.
“Mauricio had to spend probably like a week just with me, one on one,” he said. “He used to look at me, everything I did, and I said, ‘Don’t look at me that much because I’m getting embarrassed now.’”
Gloria said both Prades and Ana Villafañe, who originated the role on Broadway, applied the same scrutiny to her: “I was like, ‘Damn, put down the binoculars.’ ”
She didn’t want either actress to be a clone.
“I would never say to them, ‘Do this, do that,’ ” she said about the development of the show. “I just gave them a lot of information, and I was accessible to them whenever they had a question.”
Once the initial butterflies were gone, Prades said, she found that she had all the tools she needed to play this icon.
“I grew up in the same neighborhood and the same culture with the same way of living,” Prades said. “I’ve been very lucky to just be myself, and by being myself I’m able to interpret her.”
Prades played the role dozens of times on Broadway as the understudy. After a promotional performance for the show in Miami, Gloria Estefan got onstage and invited Prades to lead the national tour. A recording of the moment shows a stunned Prades asking, “Wait, is this serious?”
“It came as a shock to everyone,” Prades recalled. “Particularly myself.”
As newcomers to life on the road, Prades and Martínez said they get a lot of support from each other. It might be harder if they didn’t like each other, as they play a couple who have been married and in love for nearly 40 years.
The Estefans’ marriage has been so harmonious that at one point, book writer Alex Dinelaris, the Oscar-winning co-writer of “Birdman,” said they were “a nightmare to write for.”
“I go, ‘Why?’ ” Gloria said. “He goes, ‘No conflict.’ I go, ‘Let me introduce you to my mother.’ ”
Gloria’s mother initially was not a fan of Emilio — or of Gloria’s choice to pursue music instead of psychology or international diplomacy. But after many years, he won her over.
Fate presented the next obstacle In 1990, when Gloria’s tour bus was hit by a semi truck. Her back was broken, and she was told that she would never walk again, much less perform in high heels. A year later, after a grueling rehabilitation, she was back on the road.
Emilio, who helped nurse his wife back to health, recalls it as the hardest year ever.
“It is the first time in my whole life that I spend four months without leaving my house,” he said. “I used to wake her up every 45 minutes because she needed to walk, because being in one place sleeping was really bad for her back. I knew that she was in pain, but she never complained.
“If it were me,” he added, “I would be yelling from the morning to nighttime, ‘Ay, yi, yi’!”
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‘On Your Feet’
Where: Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, through July 29.
Tickets: $39 and up
Information: (800) 982-2787, hollywoodpantages.com
Also: Aug. 21 to Sept. 2 at Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts in Costa Mesa.