The rhythm has gotten Ana Villafañe! The Cuban-American Miami native is the hot newcomer on Broadway right now, taking on the role of Gloria Estefan in the musical On Your Feet!, which opened officially last week. In the musical, which follows the love story of the Latin singer and her husband Emilio, she helps tell the story of how Estefan went from Cuban immigrant to international superstar through a compilation of Estefan’s greatest hits, including “Conga” and “Turn the Beat Around.” Villafañe’s voice carries through the Marquis Theatre and at times, it feels like you’re in the middle of a Miami Sound Machine concert instead of sitting in midtown Manhattan.
We caught up with Villafañe in the weeks leading up to the opening to learn more about how she transforms into Gloria Estefan for eight shows a week. “Gloria has been around us every step of the way and she has been so open about her life,” said the actress. “She hangs out with me outside of work and rehearsal and has welcomed me into her family. I have been able to feed off her energy for the role.” And what she’s trying to show through her interpretation is the softer side of the icon. “People want to see the superstar, but what I am trying to do is show the woman behind the name,” said Villafañe. “That’s the beauty of Gloria, she’s real and so grounded.”
Scroll down to read more about becoming Gloria Estefan from the newest Broadway It Girl.
1. What do you find most inspiring about the Estefans?
Their love is like a modern-day fairytale. They left their country, they came to a new place, they had no resources, and yet, they found each other and empowered each other to become mega successful pioneers for an entire group of people. They have let their love transcend from a personal thing to a worldwide thing. I want to be a part of that. The love that we’re showing is scary because it exposes vulnerabilities. So to do that on stage eight times a week, it’s intense.
2. What impresses you most about her story?
I love how she never did the stereotypical Latin thing. She originated a style all her own, like when she wore leather chaps and bustier instead of a Chiquita banana hat. What’s amazing to me is when everyone was trying to make her into something else, she knew what she wanted and she wasn’t going to compromise that for the sake of success. In the long run, that’s what made her and Emilio successful. It all stemmed from this one badass woman who said, ‘I’m going to take the risk.’
3. Does Gloria’s music empower you?
There is something magical about the music. There is something that takes you somewhere else. The history of Latin America has been so tumultuous, so I think there’s a reason why the music is such a celebration. Gloria says all the time that music was her escape as a kid. I hear it because I feel so free in her music. The audience can sense that, too.
4. What is the most memorable moment in the show for you?
Toward the end, when she comes back from having surgery after her car accident to perform at the American Music Awards. She proved to everybody that she was back and that she wanted to perform for her fans. I’ve talked to her a lot about that moment and she says that her knees were knocking. She was scared of not being able to walk, let alone losing her voice and the ability to perform. When it comes to that moment in the show, it strikes a place in me. I hope anybody who’s watching feels that optimism, hopefulness, and strength that she had that day.
5. What can people relate to most with this musical?
The themes are pretty universal. I think that anybody can relate to being told that you can’t do something, overcoming those obstacles, believing in what you’re doing and not losing yourself in the process. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from this story and what I still learn from Gloria and Emilio.
6. This is the first time a mostly-Latin cast is on Broadway. Do you feel a big responsibility to represent Latin Americans?
I feel a huge responsibility! With the musical, we’re furthering the legacy of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. What they’ve done is so monumental and now it’s in our hands to bring that to a new audience, to inspire a new generation and to inspire a new group of people. The musical teaches the world, specifically the Latin people, just how far you can go when you don’t give up, when you don’t compromise yourself, and what happens when you stay true to your traditions. Gloria and Estefan helped raise Latin culture out of obscurity into the entertainment world and into pop culture. It’s because of them that I can sit here and have this job.
7. Cuba is an important part of their story because they both left. With your heritage, have you ever been there?
I haven’t. My mom is Cuban and I grew up in Miami, so obviously there’s a lot of Cuban influence because the community there built Miami into what it is today. There is a sense of pride about Cuba in that way, but going back to the country is a touchy subject. In my family history, our relationship with Cuba was not pretty, so I have to wait and bide my time because going can mean you’re condoning or consenting the regime there. That would break my grandparents’ hearts.
8. Do you think you’ll eventually go?
For now, it’s that intangible place that only exists in the stories that I’ve heard growing up. It exists in my imagination only. I can’t wait until going can actually be a reality for me. But there are certain things I would like to see happen in the country before I go and condone it.
9. What would you tell young girls who have dreams of making it on Broadway?
There’s truly nothing stopping you. It is possible to make it. It is possible to do what you love. It is possible to remain a normal person in the midst of it all. I think this show is exemplary of that.
Find tickets for On Your Feet! at onyourfeetmusical.com.