On Your Feet (the Gloria Estefan musical) – Palace Theatre, Manchester

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This was wonderful.  It was mostly music from 1988 to 1991, which is just my era, so it was a brilliant nostalgia-fest!  But it was more than that.  It was the story of two immigrants who overcame adversity to live the American Dream.  It was their love story.  It was the story of how a  courageous woman fought back from terrible injuries.  It was full of emotion, like a 1980s musical, but also full of dance and colour, like a 1950s musical.  And how come I can remember all the words to all those songs from thirty years ago, yet I can never remember where I put my keys five minutes ago?!

Gloria Estefan (and the Miami Sound Machine – she didn’t use her name alone until 1989) didn’t become popular in the UK until 1988, when I was thirteen.  We’d just got our first CD player.  Cutting edge technology!   But we were taping music off the radio as well.  I quite liked the upbeat songs, like 1-2-3, Get On Your Feet, Oye Me Canto and Rhythm’s Gonna Get You, but, being hopeless at dancing, not to mention going through an extremely soppy phase starting in mid-1989, I preferred the ballads.  They were all in there!   Can’t Stay Away From You, Don’t Wanna Lose You Now, Cuts Both Ways, Anything For You, Here We Are …  and I still know all the words to them all.  And there was quite a bit of her earlier music too.  All those Cuban rhythms and dancing, all those colourful clothes!

It finished with Coming Out Of The Dark, her comeback song.  That didn’t do very well here.  I don’t know why not.  We were all so upset about the accident, which happened in March 1990.  She’d had one hit after the other, and she was so popular.  Such a lovely person.  I remember reading an interview with her, in Smash Hits or Just Seventeen or something like that, and thinking how terribly romantic it was that she’d married her first boyfriend.  It was such a positive time, as well.  That brief interlude.  The Berlin Wall was down, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, everything seemed possible.  It only lasted until the summer, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, but that short period was a really special time.  I’ve got completely off the point now, haven’t I?  She had to learn to walk again.  The musical showed some of what she went through, the rehab, how difficult it was.  To come back from that, to get back to performing at the highest level … incredible.

To get back to 1988, Gloria was in her thirties, with an eight-year-old son.  She and the band had had success in the US earlier, but only a few years earlier.  The likes of Tiffany, Debbie Gibson and Kylie Minogue were having hits in their teens, and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston were only in their mid-twenties.  Madonna was about the same age as Gloria, but she’d already been around for years.  The Miami Sound Machine (to add to the confusion, originally it was the band’s name alone, without the then Gloria Fajardo’s!) had released its first album in 1977.  So what on earth took so long?

Well, OK, sometimes it does take a while.  But what this musical showed was the specific issues faced by a Cuban-American group, performing Cuban-influenced music, trying to break into the English language mainstream market.  It wasn’t that the English-speaking public didn’t like their music.  It was that producers wouldn’t take a chance on it.  They’d been touring Latin America, but producers in the US were urging them to stick to the Latin market, and not even to sing in English.  I don’t know how accurate the musical was, but the way it showed it was that they were handing out copies of their singles in the street, offering to perform at clubs for free, and even playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Partly a marketing thing, but partly also general prejudice.  There were some fairly hard-hitting scenes with Emilio Estefan saying “This is what an American looks like” and talking about how, in his early days in Miami, he’d been faced with signs on apartments saying “No pets, no Cubans”.  It’s not an uncommon story.  “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish.”  No-one bleating about “wokeness”, or claiming that singing Cuban-influenced music in English was “cultural appropriation” or saying that someone should lose their job because of a comment they made twenty years ago.  Just someone talking about the difficulties which they personally had had to overcome.  And being proud to be an American, a Cuban-American.

And the musical showed how they went from being faced with signs like those to playing in Washington DC, with the Stars and Stripes as the backdrop to Gloria’s performance, to meeting President George Bush at the White House.  It was so positive.  People don’t talk much about “the American Dream” any more.  Is that due to modern negativity, or is just seen as an old-fashioned term?  Anyway.  They made it!  And how ironic it was that it was whilst returning from the White House that their bus was involved in that horrific accident.

I was going to say “two Latinos” or “two Hispanic people”, but I think that that’d perhaps mask the fact that the Cuban-American experience has been very different from, say, the Mexican-American experience or the Puerto Rican American experience.  It happens here too: the term “British Asian” perhaps masks the fact that the British Indian experience has been very different from the British Pakistani experience and British Bangladeshi experience.

Emilio Estefan left Cuba with his dad, initially for Madrid and then for Miami, as a teenager in 1967.  His mum remained behind to care for her elderly parents, and they were separated for four years.  Gloria’s family, the Fajardos left Cuba, where her dad had been a soldier with close ties to the Batistas, in 1959, when Gloria was only two.

Gloria’s mum had been a singer in Cuba, and had an offer from Hollywood but was stopped from going by her father.  The musical showed how she initially wasn’t happy about Gloria going into the music business, and being on tour when she had a young child, and how they became estranged for a time.  She’d later got a PhD in education, but, because the Cuban authorities destroyed all her certificates, she had to retrain from scratch when she got to Miami – where she was the family breadwinner, because Gloria’s dad became severely disabled.

It wasn’t mentioned in the musical, but he took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and was captured by his own cousin and imprisoned.  He was eventually released, but then served in Vietnam.  The musical showed him in Vietnam, but, presumably to avoid controversy, didn’t spell out the fact that his medical condition was probably caused by Agent Orange poisoning.  Gloria cared for her father and her younger sister, aided by her beloved maternal grandma whilst her mum was retraining and then working, but still got a university degree.

Gloria Fajardo and Emilio Estefan – they had it tough, they struggled to get their music into the mainstream market, and then, at the peak of Gloria’s success, she suffered that horrific accident.  And they overcame it all.  What an inspirational story.  This is a wonderful nostalgia fest for those of us whose music collections have never really got past 1988 to 1991, but it’s so much more than that.  Great story.  Great music. Very, very impressed.

 

5 thoughts on “On Your Feet (the Gloria Estefan musical) – Palace Theatre, Manchester

  1. Me too! I didn’t know all the background – I knew they’d both come from Cuba, but not about her dad’s illness or all the hassle they’d had getting their music released. I don’t think singers in the ’80s went on about their “journeys” all the time, the way singers today do!

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