On Your Feet: Gloria Estefan on bringing her musical to the West End

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Gloria Estefan joined Christie Prades, who portrays her, on stage at the show’s opening night

Appropriately, Gloria Estefan spends very little time sitting down at the West End premiere of On Your Feet.

For the opening night of the musical based on her life, the singer can be seen mingling with the crowd in the stalls, signing autographs and dancing with children in the audience.

And later in the night, as the show reaches its climax, she takes to the stage for a duet with Christie Prades, the actress who is portraying her on stage.

The warm and friendly atmosphere at the London Coliseum reflects the upbeat tone of the show, which first opened on Broadway in 2015.

But bringing On Your Feet to London isn’t without risk.

Estefan may have sold more than 120 million records worldwide across her 40-year career, but in the UK she doesn’t have quite as many huge hits to her name as Queen, Abba or Michael Jackson – all of whom have had musicals staged in the West End.

“Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine may be massive stars in much of the Spanish-speaking world and in the US, but their UK appeal is rather more niche,” wrote John Lewis in The Guardian.

But, he added: “Fortunately, the show is carried by a superb performance from the Miami-born Cuban-American Christie Prades as Gloria… For all the show’s flaws, the rhythm really does get you.”

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Estefan confirms the musical about her life is also being adapted for the big screen

On Your Feet’s theatrical run has been so successful elsewhere that Estefan confirms a big-screen adaptation is already in the works.

It will follow recent music-based biopics like Bohemain Rhapsody and Rocketman (about Queen and Elton John respectively).

“I think that right now music is in a moment where it’s really difficult to build a career of that length, to be able to have decades in the business, so Broadway and the West End and everyone else is focusing on the careers of big acts,” Estefan tells BBC News.

“Queen had a show here in the West End, We Will Rock You, before anything ever happened [in film], so it makes for a great story because it’s things that have actually happened, they’re actual people. And I think it’s expanded into film because people are interested in seeing how these careers happened.”

Despite its unpopularity with critics, Bohemian Rhapsody won four Oscars earlier this year, including best actor for its star Rami Malek.

When it came to scripting On Your Feet, Estefan enlisted another Oscar winner – Birdman writer Alexander Dinelaris (although he began work on the musical before his recognition from the Academy).

“The trick is getting it right, because to me this isn’t a jukebox musical,” Estefan says. “Alex Dinelaris, our book writer, did a fantastic job of telling our story, so for us it’s just an expanded way to do what we did through music but also now through dancing and a theatrical production.”

It’s certainly fair to say Estefan has had a long and distinguished career. Her family escaped from Cuba to Miami after the revolution. Her father joined the US military and fought in the Vietnam War, but was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – all of which is reflected in the stage retelling of Estefan’s life.

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Emilio and Gloria Estefan received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama

In 1975, Gloria met Emilio Estefan, and she began singing with his band, Miami Sound Machine. Her vocals helped propel the group to global success, and she became a star in her own right.

But her tour bus was involved in a crash which almost killed her in 1990, severely injuring her spine and requiring her to take a year out for intensive physical therapy. She made a full recovery and continued to have chart success, and in 2014, she was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

Much of this makes it into On Your Feet, although Sarah Carson of the i paper. said that having such a rich story to tell poses challenges.

“There is almost so much to pack in that the storytelling has no choice but to rush,” she wrote.

The show received just two stars from Dominic Maxwell in The Times. “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You? Not everyone, it’s not. The megamix finale got the crowd on its feet, but I remained in my seat,” he said.

“While On Your Feet is not without its pleasures for fans of Estefan’s music, it’s more like an all-singing, all-dancing Wikipedia entry than something to stir the Este-neutral.”

The production’s debut in London is the start of its UK tour, which continues into April 2020. As a result, Estefan says a couple of minor tweaks were made to the script to ensure British audiences could understand it.

“Q-tips changed to cotton buds, because a British audience wouldn’t know what Q-tips are,” she explains. “And the Ford Cortina was a station wagon before, they wouldn’t know what this was, so it was just things so they would get the joke. I just wanted to make sure they understood what they were trying to say.”

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Estefan’s biggest UK hits include Dr Beat and Anything For You

The last few years have seen Latin American-inspired music go through something of a chart revival.

Some of the biggest hits of the last couple of years have had a distinctly Latin flavour, such as Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Despacito, J Balvin’s Mi Gente and Havana by Camila Cabello.

Added to the artists like Jennifer Lopez and Shakira who have had sustained success in recent years, singing in both Spanish and English, it’s clear audience appetite for the genre is high.

Asked what’s behind the continued appeal, Estefan says: “It’s rich, it’s rhythmic, it’s fun.

“When I wrote Rhythm Is Gonna Get You, the idea came from the fact that our first communication – I studied psychology and communications in college, by the way – the first communication in the world was drums, this is how we talked across distance, so to me, percussion and rhythm has always been what unified our audiences worldwide. It didn’t matter where you were from, they understood it, so I think that is always going to reach people. You don’t have to understand it, you feel it.”

On Your Feet is currently playing at London’s Coliseum for 12 weeks before touring the UK until April 2020.

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Gloria Estefan with Miami Sound Machine at the BBC in 1981