‘On Your Feet!’ moves to the music (and story) of a powerhouse duo
Being in the right place at the right time can change a life. But then, so can being with the right people.
More than three decades ago, Clay Ostwald was playing in a local band in his native Miami when a young, Cuban-born singer-songwriter came along to recruit him and four other members for a new group she was starting.
That band became Miami Sound Machine, whose subsequent run of massive pop success with Gloria Estefan at the forefront — including such hits as “Conga” and “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” — is now celebrated in the biographical musical “On Your Feet!”
“When I joined, I just expected it to be a fun gig for a while, not a long-term thing,” says Ostwald, who’s now music director and keyboardist for the national touring production of “On Your Feet!” that hits the San Diego Civic Theatre next week.
“But 32 years later, here we are — loving the career she’s had, and the career we’ve had with her.”
Part of what has kept him in the Sound Machine fold for so many years is the sense of family that he says Estefan and her performer-producer-songwriter husband, Emilio — who together have won 26 Grammy Awards — have brought to the enterprise.
“Gloria and Emilio have been probably the exception to the rule of how people are treated in the celebrity world and big-time show biz,” says Ostwald. “They’ve always been extremely welcoming and connected with the crew and cast and band and everybody.”
“On Your Feet!,” directed by Tony Award-winner Jerry Mitchell of “Kinky Boots” and “Hairspray” fame, documents the pair’s partnership through their songs as well as their stories, as told by writer Alexander Dinelaris (an Oscar-winner for “Birdman”).
A key part of the narrative involves how the Estefans found their way to the United States from Cuba and made new lives here.
“It’s a love story, it’s a jukebox musical, it’s an entertaining show,” Ostwald says. “But there’s a real message of the immigrant story and the American dream, and overcoming the obstacles put in the way by people who don’t accept people of other cultures.
“That’s such a crucial, crucial message these days. My wife’s Cuban, and she feels as though every time she sees the show, she’s seeing the story of her own family. It’s powerful.”
Part of the story of “On Your Feet!” — one that, along with Sergio Trujillo’s choreography, goes to a key meaning of the show’s title — also involves the 1990 tour-bus crash that left Gloria badly hurt, and her prospects for returning a normal life (much less to the stage) uncertain.
“We knew that she was critically injured, and that the prognosis of her being physically OK was pretty small,” says Ostwald, who was on a different bus that day.
“But I mean, Gloria has always been such a driven, forward-thinking person. She doesn’t dwell on bad things in the past. And she was very (diligent) in terms of her work ethic. So we knew if someone could do it, she could do it.”
Less than a year later, Gloria returned to performing.
Ostwald admits that back in the early years, Broadway was hardly on the band’s radar.
“We would never have had dreams of doing a musical on Broadway,” he says. “We never thought that was going to be something we’d be into. It was a different generation — in our time, Broadway was kind of frowned upon as being corny.
“But now, Broadway is one of the most profitable, artistically expressive things in the business. It’s a lot more inclusive, and expresses the stories of different cultures in a really positive way.
“And that has changed a lot of things.”
‘On Your Feet!’
When: Performances begin July 31. 7 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday. Through Aug. 5.
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown.
Tickets: About $22.50-$110
Phone: (619/858/760) 570-1100
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