It might seem like Ana Villafañe was plucked from obscurity on some Miami street corner to maker her Broadway debut as Gloria Estefan in the musical biopic On Your Feet! After all, the real life Estefan and her husband, Emilio, both producers of the show which opens on November 5th at the Marquis Theatre, held two open casting calls and even encouraged aspiring actors to submit their auditions via social media with the hashtag #ReachGloria. But Villafañe is quick to point out that she landed the role after eight years of toiling in the Los Angeles film and television trenches and that in practically every respect it represents an affirmation of her drive.
“I was sick of going on all of these TV auditions in L.A. for, like, the pregnant girl, a teenager—and she’s Latina! Or the maid—and she’s Latina! I was done,” says the 26 year-old. “It’s amazing to be honoring the legacy of someone who reshaped the image of a what a Latina woman is.”
Indeed, the show, with a book penned by the Oscar winner Alexander Dinelaris, chronicles Estefan’s quest to convince producers and the world as a whole that she had more to offer than Latin party tracks. At its heart, On Your Feet! is an American Dream immigrant tale—set, of course, to Estefan’s greatest hits.
It’s easy to see why the iconic songstress hand-picked Villafañe from thousands of young women to embody her on stage. The daughter of a Cuban mother and a Salvadorian father, the actress was raised in Miami on a steady diet of musical theater—she had her first professional gig at 9 in a regional production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat and was discovered by a manager while performing Cats at 17—and Estefan’s music. “Reach was my power song,” she says. She even attended the same high school as the singer, Our Lady of Lourdes Academy Catholic school.
“I didn’t have to research what Cuban food tastes like, what it feels like to have your Cuban grandmother micromanage your life. I know what that is,” says Villafañe, who grilled Estefan on her personal life and meticulously studied her musical style to deliver a performance that is authentic, not a caricature. “There are a lot of people waiting for me to fail. I know that. But not her.”
Still, such deep immersion in Gloria-world does have one tiny drawback—the prospect that it might end. Villafañe recently discovered this while on a break between the show’s summer run in Chicago and rehearsals for the Broadway previews in New York.
“I was back to being normal Ana all the time and I wasn’t being Gloria once a day. And I was like, Oh my god, I have no purpose in life, what is this? I felt so powerless,” she says. “It was like a humility pill, like, alright, that high is not always going to be there.”
Hair by Eloise Cheung at Kate Ryan Inc., makeup by Lindsey Williams at Kate Ryan Inc. Photography assistants: Paolo Testa, Ryan Mikail.