“On Your Feet!” the Broadway hit musical featuring the songs of Gloria and Emilio Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, comes to Sarasota this week, and there’s a lot to like.
The show adapts songs such as “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” and “Conga” into irresistibly energetic set pieces full of dance and drama.
If you don’t know the songs of Miami Sound Machine, there couldn’t be a better introduction.
Then there’s the story at its heart. The musical details the real-life obstacles that Gloria and Emilio Estefan overcame as Cuban immigrants and struggling musicians to rise to the top of the charts.
After two successful years on Broadway, the show embarked on a U.S. tour in fall of 2017.
Clay Ostwald, music director of “On Your Feet!” and an original member of Miami Sound Machine, spoke with the Bradenton Herald ahead of the show’s five-day run at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota.
Ostwald helped reimagine the music of Miami Sound Machine for the show, and he also takes part in performances, playing keys and conducting a live band.
So, you met Gloria and Emilio and joined the Sound Machine in 1986. Thirty years later, there’s a musical about all of it. What is that like?
I never really had visions of being in the musical theater. I didn’t work in musical theater at all until Gloria and Emilio asked me to do the work on this show. It’s been really great. To have a new challenge, a new experience in our careers this far along is really fantastic. To have our music and Gloria and Emilio’s music used again for such a wonderful production like this is really a thrill.
What were some of the challenges of reimagining that music for a different kind of stage?
Well, there are certainly some places in the show where there are concert settings — where we’re kind of recreating the actual concert music and production that we had done for all those years. So that was kind of seamless and easy as far as the Broadway musical goes. Then there are other scenes where the music is just slightly different, or maybe orchestrated slightly different to match what’s needed for the play.
What was your role in that process as a music director?
Gloria and Emilio put me in place from the very beginning of the development so that I could kind of supervise and make sure that the music was being developed in the right way for them. On the Broadway show, I was the associate musical director. I played keyboards onstage of course. So for the two years on the Broadway show I was really learning a lot about Broadway production and the entire concept of how to do good theater production from our musical director Lon Hoyt, who was fantastic.
Then as a soon as the Broadway show closed, we started rehearsals for the tour right away. Then I was able to be the musical director chair for the tour, which has been a privilege.
What’s your favorite part of that job?
You know, there are a lot of great things about it. To have our cast, our great cast, who is inspired and energetic and they make a real mission of doing the show. Christie Prades and Mauricio Martinez and the whole cast. Nancy Ticotin. They’re all fantastic. To lead them, and to give them my experiences and my insight into what I think the music and the musical are representing, is a real challenge, and I really enjoy that part of it. And I think the cast really gets it to. They really thrive on the whole process.
So are you passing on some of that knowledge you learned on Broadway to the touring cast?
The learning process on Broadway was just the actual kind of mechanics of the theater and the psychology of being in the theater. Doing the show repetitively eight times a week. That was the learning process on Broadway. But as far as what I’m passing on to the cast, it’s the musical integrity and priorities that I think Gloria and Emilio have always had, and I think the creative team has always had, from the very beginning. They wanted the music to be meaningful and really a big part of the show. That’s a big part of my job.
What has it been like taking the show on the road so far?
It’s been great. We toured for many years, for a long time, with Gloria and Emilio. So the traveling part I’m really used to. The hardest part of course is being away from family, and being in a different place all the time. But, to take the show that we did in New York City for two years and then take it around the country and see how it affects people, and how it works no matter who the audience is, has really been a fun part of it.
I understand that a lot of the storyline is based on real events in the lives of Gloria and Emilio and the band. Do you think that is part of its appeal?
I hope so, but even people that don’t know much about about Gloria and Emilio are still going to get a lot out of the show and just enjoy the entertaining part of it. It’s very fun, it’s a big jukebox musical with all the famous songs and hits. And it’s even more than that. It’s a story about immigration, it’s a story about the American dream and immigrants coming to United States and learning how to deal with American society but also to hold onto their culture and to have that be a part of their lives.
How would you describe the show to someone who has not seen it before?
Well, there’s the jukebox musical part of it where it’s just fun and everyone’s gonna get up and dance and have a great time and recognize all the songs. But I think they’re going to be inspired and go home feeling really good about what they just saw in the show, and have a little bit different insight into the immigrant’s story and the culture that is the Latino and Caribbean, South American, Mexican cultures that are represented.
Do you have a particularly favorite part of the show?
There are a lot. I really enjoy the concert settings where we’re just playing the music and representing what the concerts were like. But there are some beautiful scenes where the music is used very creatively. I think the one that I like the most — there’s a dream sequence where the song “Wrapped” is played. There’s some beautiful choreography and it’s kind of a dream sequence. I think that’s a beautiful setting. Wonderful choreography by Sergio Trujillo, and a wonderful setting.
Is there any possibility of this becoming a movie eventually?
I’ve heard talk of it, so I hope so. That would be fantastic.
And after this U.S. tour, it’s going international?
Well there was a show in Amsterdam for six or eight months, and it closed in August. It was a short run. It was very, very successful and we had a great response there. And we’re setting a show for the summer in London starting in June, and there will be a U.K. tour after that I believe.
So what’s your part in the live show?
I’m on stage with a band the whole time. There are settings where we’re not seen, we’re in back of a big drop, and then there are settings where we’re in concert and we’re seen by the audience. It just depends on what’s needed for the scene.
And you play keyboard, correct?
Yes. And I conduct from backstage. I’m on a screen so everyone can see me, but I’m backstage conducting. We have 10 people in the ensemble, and five members of the Miami Sound Machine band are with us on the tour.
Any final thoughts?
I think we’re all looking forward to getting back to Florida. We had such a great time and a great response in Miami when we started the tour there last year and we’re just looking forward to getting back. Florida’s always great to get back to.
Details: “On Your Feet!” runs Dec. 26-Dec. 30 at Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. vanwezel.org.