Local Arts

‘On Your Feet’ is more than a greatest hits musical – it’s a timely and relevant immigrant tale

“On Your Feet!” takes you behind the music and inside the real story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, who came to Miami from Cuba and became a crossover sensation in the American pop music world.
“On Your Feet!” takes you behind the music and inside the real story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, who came to Miami from Cuba and became a crossover sensation in the American pop music world.

When Alex Dinelaris began writing a musical about the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, no one knew how culturally relevant a so-called jukebox musical full of Miami Sound Machine’s hit singles would become.

But since the show debuted on Broadway two years ago, issues of race, ethnicity and immigration have risen to the forefront of American politics .

“Everyone calls it a feel-good show, a jukebox musical, a crowd-pleaser – and I get all those labels, and it’s fun to think of it that way,” says longtime Miami Sound Machine member Clay Ostwald, who performs in the tour’s orchestra and serves as the show’s music director. “But underneath that is a meaningful story that I think is very valid. The words you hear spoken from the actors are very (relevant) in society in this political climate, and he wrote them four or five years ago.”

Ostwald began working with the Estefans in 1986 and co-wrote and arranged some of the band’s biggest hits, so the couple entrusted him with overseeing the production’s music.

“I have a lot of investment in the music and I share a lot of the same priorities and passion for how the music is used and represented,” shares Ostwald, calling during opening week of the tour in Miami. It sets down in Charlotte’s Ovens Auditorium on Tuesday for a six-day run.

Ostwald watched the musical come together as parts of his own past took shape on stage.

“Alex did a lot of research and preparation to use the music to tell the story,” he says. That doesn’t mean the songs unfold like a chronological best of album. “He used the existing music to help him paint the picture, which is one of the coolest things about the show.”

Some songs seem like they were written specifically for the show, even though they were radio staples years ago.

“When we were doing the music – because he selected it that way – we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Some songs seem written for the scene. What we had to do was make sure the setting of the music was representative of what Gloria and our music is all about, and that it makes sense in the story.”

For Ostwald and the rest of the band, it’s rewarding to see how songs like “Conga,” “1-2-3” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” have not only stood the test of time, but work outside of a pop-radio context.

“To have the music still be used and be meaningful and effective validates what we thought when we wrote it, what we’ve done in our careers,” he adds. “It validates our relationships with each other and with Gloria and Emilio. There’s real fulfillment in doing the musical and seeing what the audiences get out of it.”

To tell the wide-spanning immigrant story – as well as the Estefans’ personal tale of triumph – the creators paid close attention to the cultural details and preserve and celebrate them.

“There’s so much sincere cultural investment. Even as a middle-class, white American (Ostwald grew up in Colorado), I really do understand a lot about this culture because of my wife’s family and my experiences in Miami as a multicultural city,” says Ostwald, whose wife is Cuban. “I can see the pleasure and the fulfillment that the people involved in the show have gotten from performing the show and taking the message to the public. I can understand what it means to them.”

“It’s obvious to me, Alex’s intention was clear. He wanted that immigrant story and that story of cultural valuation – for us to treasure our culture,” he says. “And understand everyone has their culture and we are all immigrants of other cultures, without a doubt. It’s meaningful and it matters.”

‘On Your Feet!’

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through next Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Nov. 4, and 1:30 and 7 p.m. Nov. 5.

Where: Ovens Auditorium, 2700 E. Independence Blvd.

Tickets: $25-$94.50.

Details: 704-372-1000; www.ovensauditorium.com.