Take a gander at the plot for the new musical "On Your Feet," and you might think the tale's too fantastical to be true: two immigrant kids with no money but lots of pluck fall in love, defy their parents' wishes and scrap together a band. After years of hard work, they defy overwhelming odds and become international superstars. At the apex of their success, tragedy: A stormy night, a horrible bus crash and the leading lady is left paralyzed. Can she come back from an accident that by all rights should have killed her? Or will she triumph over adversity and become icons of the American Dream?
It's no spoiler to note that Cuban-American singer/songwriter Gloria Estefan's story is one of triumph. And while the bullet points of her life might sound like a telenovela, they are actually the stuff of harrowing truth. With the Broadway-bound "On Your Feet," Gloria and her husband Emilio mine the drama of their lives and their formidable song catalogue to craft a tri-part love story and an ode to the American Dream.
"This is a love story of family, country and music," Gloria Estefan, 57, said during a recent rehearsal break for the show opening June 2 at the Oriental Theatre.
It is also a story boasting an orchestra that includes half a dozen members of Estefan's hit-making band Miami Sound Machine, a catalogue of greatest hits ("On Your Feet," "Conga," "Out of the Dark") and a soaring new ballad penned just for the show. The musical's pedigree is impressive: Two-time Tony winner Jerry Mitchell directs and Oscar winner Alexander Dinelaris ("Birdman") is writing the book, starting with Gloria's childhood as the daughter of refugees from Fidel Castro's Cuba and charting her meteoric rise to global superstar.
Dinelaris does not have an easy job, Estefan said. "You know, Emilio and I have been married for 37 years. He was my first and only boyfriend. We've always been on the same page. At one point, Alex came to me and said ‘It's a nightmare, writing about you guys. Where's the conflict? I need a conflict!' "
"Then," she continues, "he met my mother."
Estefan's school-teacher mother wasn't initially keen on her daughter taking up with the band leader of Miami Sound Machine. "She didn't want me A) in the music business and B) married to a guy who wasn't a doctor or a lawyer," Estefan said.
Presumably her mother's fears have been assuaged. For one thing, Gloria Estefan now has "doctor" and "lawyer" on her own resume: The University of Miami awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1993. Miami's Barry University gave her an honorary law degree in 2002. As for those musical aspirations, they paid off. With Emilio at her side, Gloria has sold upward of 100 million records, earned seven Grammys, four Latin Grammys and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2011, People En Espanol estimated the Estefans' worth at $700 million.
But Gloria Estefan's array of humanitarian awards (Ellis Island's Congressional Medal of Honor, the Hispanic Heritage Award) reflect the ideals of an artist who was never focused on acquiring fame or fortune.
"We were never like ‘we want to be famous," Estefan said, who graduated from the University of Miami in 1979 with a degree in psychology and a minor in French. "We just want to share our songs. Music has always been my catharsis, my escape. As a child, I would lock myself in my room as a child and just sing. My father was ill, and I didn't want my mother to see me cry," she said. Her father fled Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power, bringing his young family to Florida and enlisting in the U.S. armed forces. He served in both Vietnam and during the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The family settled in Florida, and later Houston.
Gloria and Emilio married in 1978 - ("Our house is like ‘I Love Lucy,' " Emilio said, "only I'm Lucy.") and Miami Sound Machine, anchored by Gloria's powerhouse vocals, became a crossover force in the music industry. She's sold out arena tours, but Gloria says it was years before she was as comfortable in front of an audience as she was belting out tunes alone in her room.
"Being on stage - it doesn't come naturally to me. Honestly, I don't like being the center of attention," she said. "My happy place is the studio, recording or creating and writing. At this point, I feel as good on stage as I do in my own bedroom, but it took me a long time to get here."
It was a journey she took twice. In 1990 when the Estefans were touring, a semi smashed into their bus during a snow storm near Scranton, Pennsylvania. The impact snapped Gloria's spine, leaving her paralyzed.
"We were at our peak," she said. "We had just met the President - for an immigrant, there's no bigger success than that. Our concerts were selling out. One moment, I'm performing in front of thousands of people and talking to the President, the next I'm laying on the floor of this bus and I can't stand up.
"I was paralyzed both literally and figuratively. It didn't matter who I was or what I'd accomplished - I had to start all over again, beginning with learning to walk.
"But you know what?" she said. "There were so many people praying for me. I felt that energy, I truly did. And I started thinking, ‘Maybe this is why I got famous. Maybe if I can get through this, I'll have the opportunity to affect people in a broader way, in a way even stronger than with music."
Gloria believes the accident grounded her and made her "more human."
"I had been a superstar. But after the crash, I was just a person, struggling to survive."
That struggle was the inspiration for "Out of the Dark," arguably Estefan's most emotionally raw and unabashedly inspirational song. "I know for a fact because people tell me - and also because of Twitter - that my music can help people get through difficult times," she said. "I'll never forget this one person, he told me he had been going to kill himself. And then he heard ‘Out of the Dark' on the radio. He decided to put if off."
For Estefan, the realization of dreams also involves an intense loyalty to her past and the Cuban culture she grew up with. "I love my countries, plural," she said. She regularly meets up with high school friends ("We call ourselves the Dirty Dozen"), a group of Miami's Our Lady of Lourdes Academy alum that includes Marianne Murciano, half of the popular WGN duo with Bob Sirott.
Last Thursday, Gloria and Emilio took over the Sirott/Murciano broadcast for an afternoon. Plugging the show was a priority, but their banter was worthy of a comedy show. Beyond the PR blitz for "On Your Feet," Estefan said she's been enthusiastically "eating my way through Chicago." She's a fan of Avec and Blackbird, and deems Chicago "one of the top three food cities in the country."
At this point in her career, Gloria and Emilio could retire to a beach if they were so inclined. Their bootstrap empire includes restaurants and hotels and a stake in the Miami Dolphins in addition to their music catalogue. She's authored bestselling children's books and cookbooks in addition to songs. They've got six beloved dogs, and a Miami mansion big enough to welcome their son, daughter and grandchild.
"Well why do we do anything?" she says of her decision to undertake the often brutal process of crafting an autobiographical musical. "We want to touch people. We want to share our stories."
"For me, I hope people leave this show empowered, that's the bottom line. I hope they leave maybe thinking about taking whatever they've put on the back burner, and putting it in front. If there's something you've longed to do, or someone you need to talk to - now's the time to do it. Age doesn't matter. You follow your dreams."
"On Your Feet" runs June 2 through July 5 at the Oriental Theatre, Ford Center for the Performing Arts, 24 W. Randolph. Tickets start at $30. To purchase tickets and for more information, go to www.BroadwayinChicago.com