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Interview: Luis Salgado of ON YOUR FEET! THE STORY OF EMILIO & GLORIA ESTEFAN at Majestic San Antonio

From workshops to Broadway to the Spanish Premiere and now the National Tour Luis Salgado has a long history with On Your Feet!

Interview: Luis Salgado of ON YOUR FEET! THE STORY OF EMILIO & GLORIA ESTEFAN at Majestic San Antonio
Luis Salgado - Photo: Jason River

On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan is sweeping the nation in it's second national tour. Today BroadwayWorld was able to sit down with Director and Choreographer, Luis Salgado to learn about the journey this production has taken.

You've just returned from a trip from Cuba, which is one of the locations in On Your Feet!, how was your experience?

It was really great. It was just what I needed as an artist, as person, and also hard to balance out the feelings of joy with the socio-political environment. But overall it was a beautiful trip.

Tell us a little about your journey to becoming the Director and Choreographer of the On Your Feet! 2nd National Tour.

So it's an interesting route. I was developed as a dancer. It's a weird thing to say today because I think what, what made me, be me. It's the fact that in reality, I was always into theater, right? So I was developed as a dancer and dance literally saved my life. But what I didn't really fully understand was that the teacher that I had was always making theater, was always making theatrical choices.

And even though he gave us access to dance and movement what he really taught us was to tell a story. So long story short, I moved to the States and I started following my dream of making Broadway. And one of the final projects I did on Broadway was On Your Feet. I was a performer, I played Kenny Ortega.

And at that moment I was already really developing more and more of my directorial choreographic voice. So I quit the show because I needed to take time to go do a Spanish version of In The Heights in Washington, DC. I thought "if I have to sacrifice performing on this Broadway show, I mean, it had already been a few years of me being in the project, so I was fine with it." But what I did not know was that Jerry Mitchell and just Sergio Trujillio both took notice of me saying this is where I'm going next.A few months later after my version of In The Heights ended up winning nine Helen Hayes Awards in Washington. it was successful and it really set me up.

Jerry called me one day and says, "Hey, I need somebody to be my associate director and go director show in Holland. Cause I'm gonna be busy with another project and Andy Señor gonna be busy with the tour. So would you do it?"

So simultaneously with the first national tour heading out, I was in Holland directing the show for Jerry. Jerry came in and spent three days watching what I had done with his work and bulletproofed it with a couple of changes and a couple of tech notes and boom, the show was open.

So it allowed me to get started. So I ended up working for Cirque du Soleil in the same position as associate director and associate choreographer next to Sergio. And all of a sudden here I was sort of inherited a little bit of the mentorship of both these brilliant minds and at the same time getting really close to the On Your Feet property. So I ended up doing the first Spanish Premier of the show in Washington DC in the same theaters had I did that In the Heights production and Emilio and Gloria came to see it and then Emilio was like, "Hey, I have a project with the president of the United States.You wanna do it?" I was like, "what?"

And so little by little, one thing next to the la the other, and you know, I had been through Covid trying to get the Spanish version to do a Latin America tour and Covid. And it didn't manifest. And boom, I ended up with the second national tour version.

You've had a long history with this show how has it changed over time?

Clearly, I have a lot of emotional connection to the piece, and a lot of feelings about each version that I've done. If I go further back, I did the workshop before it ever hit a theater. Then I did Chicago Then I did the Broadway show. Then I was able to direct the Holland production, and then the Spanish version. Then I went to Puerto Rico with it, and I did it in English in Puerto Rico, all this before the tour.

So I have developed a lot of feelings and I have always kept a sense of wonder....what do I play with now? So the tour, it's very different from all of the above but it kept a lot of things that I learned little by little as I worked in different places. Um, actually looking back now, I would have kept a little bit more of the stuff I did in Puerto Rico.

I try to do similar ideas of big gestures that I did in Puerto Rico. Something that I think is very adamant and you pointed out in your review at GALA in Washington, I play with this whole idea of Phil seeing when Emilio says "this is what an American looks like." And I knew that it was a very specific audience because we were doing it in Spanish and it would resonate.

Then when I went to Puerto Rico, I knew that it wasn't gonna work the same way because everybody in the audience was gonna be Puerto Rican. And so that, that, that sort of like, just the outlook maybe wasn't gonna have the same resonance. And so I took it out. And coming back to the tour, I deeply focus on that moment. I wanted all the elements possible sound, we created some new music projections, the full cast is coming to the stage and it was risky. And everybody in the production team looked at me like, "are you sure ? Are you sure?" And I was like, "please, just let me, let me try it."

It means a lot that people like you really caught on to that moment because that is the biggest, art Statement perhaps. If there's something that a lot of people have judged the show as just a "jukebox musical", there's something that we can leave with. There is something profound in Alexander Dinelaris' book work.

It's that question of "what is it that an American really looks like?" And that we all become a part of the fabric of what America is today I just find it to be so important in this time, where we're going through so many different political realities, not just in the States, but in the world.

To be America can be American, can be questioned, can be admired, and can be studied with different lenses. I just found it to be one of the things from all the versions, I really, came to learn of its value.

What's really powerful about that moment is the diversity of your cast. Was the casting intentional?

In today's Modern Society of the arts where everybody's trying to cast "diverse casts", I find it, with all due respect, sometimes to be hypocritical when it's done to check a box. The thing has been that I've always created my shows in this way and so it's not something that I tried to do for the tour, it's just something that I do, period. I run a nonprofit organization, R.Evolución Latina, now for 15 years which came out of In The Heights when I did it on Broadway. The idea is that we are able to finally celebrate the representation of so many Latinos that were on that particular show, and that expanded to a bigger conversation.

And so I made it my mission artistically, to always try to be as inclusive and challenge the status quo of the pieces I work with. Two examples include when I did Ragtime, as a director, the story is traditionally told through the perspective of the family, which happens to be white. But when I did the show, I was like, "Hey, Sarah is the person that we never really hear about. And then Tateh is who we need to really understand deeper." But they're immigrants. So I decided to tell it from the perspective of all these actors that were all immigrants that found the Ragtime book and decided to read the book out loud and tell a story.

That changed how I did that and allowed it allowed me to change even how I cast it.

Then when I did Matilda it was the same. What is Matilda in my mind really about after reading it a thousand times? To me, it's the story of an immigrant in her own home. This girl doesn't belong in this little household and just looks like an outsider. And so it gave me permission to cast the show a certain way and make the librarian the most important character and all of these things.

So I've been developing this lens and this voice for many years now, really over a decade of exploring and trial and error and when does it really serve? When does it not serve? So that's the first answer. That is not something I just did.

Now the second part of my answer is specific to On Your Feet! I've done so many versions and have a pool of talented people from Puerto Rico, from the Washington DC production, and those who specifically auditioned for the tour. This talent pool allowed me to have different perspectives and gave me a different way of viewing the characters. The beautiful leads of the tour Samuel and Gaby are a Venezuelan and a Mexican in leading roles. They have accents and we have to work through that before every single performance. It's a challenge that I'(M) Willing to take that other directors might be resistant to but they break with them their reality, their truth, their acting, and their lives which gives a new perspective on the characters. It's an important risk to take as a creative because they are both great leads and bring so much authenticity to the piece.

In doing this work though it's important to not take away from the actual book, right? You want to honor the book as much as possible and work to not make a choice just to be clever. When I studied Matilda there was always a different angle because there's more than one point of view in the world. So from my perspective, you can see this beautiful little girl as an immigrant in her home. You're not having to change or adapt any of the text, but you're really changing the frame from which you look at it. And who's to say the Librarian cannot be a Mexican person? Many people think that Matilda learns from Ms. Honey but the first person to ever give her a book was the Librarian. That's where Ms. Honey meets her, at the library. And so what is it that the librarian brings? Perhaps it's the immigrant perspective. So you don't have to tell that to the audience ever, but you have this point of view coming to life through the play. It changes the way you direct the piece without ever altering it.

You directed and choreographed the Washington DC Spanish Premiere of On Your Feet! with many of the same actors who are in the 2nd National Tour and performed in the Broadway production. What was the process like going between the languages?

It was hard because from Broadway to my own version the hard component there is you wanna respect everything and everyone, right? I wanna respect my mentors, but at the same time, I want to be able to have a voice. So Choreographically speaking, for example, there's no reason for me to change it because I think what we did on Broadway was really impactful. Sergio told the story, and all the elements are there, but when I stand up in the studio and I start choreographing, what resonates with me, is my background, right? I wanna celebrate folklore a lot more. I wanna be messier. And when I say messier, I mean it in the sense of these people are dancing, in this barracks, they're dancing in this town, in this barrio. At the end of the day, it's not about the choreographic aesthetic. It's about the party, it's about the celebration.

So for me, it wants to be a little bit rawer and people have different styles or different things to contribute. So on the Broadway show, like we have this beautiful, clean, number that is pure energy. And as I get into the studio for Washington DC I start realizing, how do I make this a little messier a little bit more chaotic? I want it to feel like nothing is planned and they're just coming on board. And it's having a resonance, like I, I call it a Jo-ha-kyū, which is a Japanese idea for a wave and so how do I do that?

So I just start mixing styles of dance and putting a little bit of Bomba in it and putting a little bit of the plena style and putting a little bit of the sei style. I end up with a whole new choreography. I call Sergio one day like, "Hey, there are some numbers that I just don't wanna touch." And he says, "yeah. Don't mess with Wrapped." And I was like, "oh, actually I already changed wrapped." It was the first number that I fully changed because when I was performing in it we did versions and versions of the show, of the number and we kept trying new ideas and it was fun. It was a fascinating number, but what resonates with me is that it's the history of what that particular song comes from and a lot of people don't know this, but that song originally was written by a Peruvian composer called Gian Marco. I happen to know Gian Marco in person for the past 20 years. And so I'm proud of him. So when I hear this song and I'm dancing to this song, I'm thinking of this human that I know who helped compose that. And now I have the opportunity to choreograph it. So what happens that Gian Marcos from Peru. Gloria's from Cuba. I'm from Puerto Rico. So for me, the formula choreographically all of a sudden is like celebrating all of the elements. All of us. Sergio's from Columbia. So all of the people that I've known through this song now becomes the language, the dance vocabulary. So I put a little bit of Mumbai from Colombia, and I put a little bit of tendero from Peru. I put a little bit of sei from Puerto Rico. You keep building these elements and at the end of the day, that number for me, it's all soul. It's a spiritual moment. And the spirits are not just the Cuban spirits, they're all the spirits of all the people that eventually we learn were praying for her. And these people come from all over the world. And the final step we do in my version of Wrapped is an Argentinian dance step. That feels, native in a way, if I may say that word, but it really is, it's something called carnalito that comes from Argentina. And in my production, I had the Argentinian there and it's what's the thing that resonates with your soul? And she says "-lito." And so like our process became something very unique and very different as I was developing for Washington.

I'm looking to create something that will resonate with every individual that I cast. So now as I do a number like that, I can talk to the Argentinian performer, I can talk to the Cuban performer, I can talk to the Puerto Rican performer, and they all feel like they have a property in the piece. They all feel like something is speaking their language into that number. So when they perform that number, I don't ever have to be in the theater to know they're gonna do it well because they feel like it's their number. And so things like that were very different from the Broadway production.

Going from the Spanish Premiere to the English tour was hard because you learn what the audience resonated with in Spanish, which was very different than what it resonated with in the Broadway show. The question for me was, how do I translate that? How do I accomplish this? This reaction from the audience now back to an American audience in the English language. And so it gave me a lot of things to play with and consider.

Is there one moment in the show that you find incredibly impactful?

Every time the "This is what an American looks like" moment comes, my heart stops.

And I wonder how the audience that night is gonna react. It's been pretty consistent. So I think I will say eight out of 10, we get a big reaction. If I'm in the theater, my heart stops at that moment. I'm just waiting to see if it's gonna land.

Then there's the Mega Mix, of course, because you've gone through the entire journey and I hope the audience will feel the relief of "she made it" and then really roar to their feet. That's another fun moment that I look forward to.

What do you hope the audience will get from watching the show?

I think it's the surprise element when the crash lands. The fact that we're watching this girl fight with her mother. We're watching this girl sing, we're watching this girl struggle with her own insecurities and with the desire to perform. And what we're not expecting is that all of that can be taken away from you in a second.

On the tour it's really hard because I relied on a lot of technology and venue to venue is very different. . And it's hard for us to land all the things I dreamt properly. But that's the moment that I hope the audience really gets the payoff, that we don't take for granted that this life is one and that no matter who you are, we're at risk of losing it all.

And that's why we every day need to dare to come out of the dark. There's no reason for us torturing our own selves for what we are afraid to do, we should just aim to do it and live fully and live gracefully and in gratitude, because she could have lost it all in that one moment and none of us are exempt from that reality. For me, that's an invitation to look at today and be grateful.

Just like coming back from Cuba and being like, "God, thank you God, we have food on our plates, we have grocery stores where we can just walk in and get anything." And some of these people I just visited, they don't, they simply don't. I think we all stand in such a place of privilege, and that moment reminds us of our humanity and that we really need to treat each other kindly. A smile, to a neighbor on the train, or whatever is worth a thousand things because we only have one life, period. And so that's the thing I hope the most for the audience. That at that moment they realize how hard people, in whatever status of their life, how hard we all work.

This has been really amazing. Is there anything else you'd like to share?

I think that the most important thing really is I'm so honored that the people standing on that stage. People from every shape, from every color, from every background. With every different idea in their brains are all coming together to tell one story. And Art, it's a space where we can do that. The art is a space where we can unite and create bridges and create the opportunity to be heard and to speak out loud, our voice, and so when they come see On Your Feet!, they're not just coming to. A beautiful piece that not only celebrates the legacy of the Estefans, but they're also coming to see what an American looks like represented on the stage. And I'm just grateful that they take two and a half hours of their lives to come support us.

On Your Feet! is touring the nation. To see if it's coming to a city near you please visit www.onyourfeetmusical.com.



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