Josh Segarra on Becoming Emilio Estefan for the New Gloria Estefan Musical, On Your Feet!
He's kicking bio-musical butt and putting the "bro" back in Broadway.
Hours before curtain at the new Gloria Estefan bio-musical, On Your Feet!, Josh Segarra can be found stretching out on a camouflage foam roller on the floor of his dressing room at the Marquis Theatre. "Bro, it's kind of like a deep tissue massage that you give yourself," he explains. Having just hit the gym, he's not taking any chances on sore legs during this two-hour-fifteen-minute musical infused with Sergio Trujillo's athletic Latin choreography.
Segarra plays Emilio Estefan, husband of Gloria, who's played by Ana Villafañe. They lead a cast of 30 while portraying two of pop music's biggest icons. Segarra takes both jobs very seriously, speaking at length about his deep respect for the Estefans. At the same time, chatting with him is like talking to a high school basketball coach before the big game, an attitude that perhaps lingers from his Broadway debut, the basketball-themed musical comedy Lysistrata Jones. A framed poster for that show faces the minibar. The motto from the high school football drama Friday Night Lights adorns the wall next to the door: "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose." It's the last thing Segarra sees before going out to do a show.
He spoke with TheaterMania about his relationship with the Estefans and about what On Your Feet! means to him as a Latino actor.
You do a lot of dancing in this show. Do you consider yourself a dancer?
No way, dude. I grew up in a house where we danced all the time, because we're Puerto Rican. I have rhythm, but I'm not a trained dancer. The guys in this show are ridiculously good. Sergio Trujillo is a beast, dude. You've got someone like Carlos Gonzalez in the show: Carlos came here from Cuba when he was a kid and he's living out his dream on that stage. You can't teach the way he dances. It's in his bones.
And it's not in your bones?
Bro, the show is about a Latin guy who had to fight through trials and tribulations, stuck to the girl he loved, and created an empire. He changed the world. I haven't done that yet, but I do know that I came from a mother and father who moved to the States from Puerto Rico with not much more than degrees in pharmacy. They opened a pharmacy, weren't making very much money, but they had three kids; they sent me to NYU. They're living the American dream. They're reaping the benefits of taking that big leap. So in a way, it is in my bones. I get to say some stuff in this show that is very pertinent to my life.
There's a scene with a record executive in which he tells us we're not back home in Cuba. I get to look him in the face and say, "This is what an American looks like." It's such an apt line for the time we're in: Our country is changing. I no longer have to be defined by my ethnicity. I don't only have to play drug dealers and gangsters. I hold Emilio near and dear to my heart. He's become a very important person in my life because he's the avenue though which I get to tell this story.
He's a famously shrewd businessman. Is this your first time playing a role like that?
Yeah, bro: Where he's got that money glow? This is my first time playing someone like that. That's a fun little trip to go on every night. He's a multimillionaire, but he and Gloria have never forgotten where they came from. He would give you the shirt off his back. I walked into rehearsal one day and he was like [lapsing into his Emilio voice], "Hey, you want some sneakers?" He came back with some shoes for Ana and me. He didn't have to do that. He wants us to be comfortable. He likes his memory-foam shoes, so he wants us to like our memory-foam shoes.
You've clearly found his accent.
Dude, I wish I could tell you a really cool story about it, but I've been doing that accent since I was a kid. My family talks like that. When I first got the part I called my uncle and had him read through the script, just in case I picked up anything new.
Is the Cuban accent vastly different than the Puerto Rican accent?
It comes down to consonants.
Click below to hear Josh Segarra demonstrate the difference between the Cuban and Puerto Rican dialects:
I understand that you're a huge WWE fan. I believe that it is the most successful theatrical enterprise on earth.
It absolutely is. When wrestling tickets sell out in thirty minutes, I'm one of the guys buying tickets. That's how this all started for me. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pro wrestler. Other kids wanted to be cops and astronauts, but I wanted to be Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake, and Jake "The Snake." I wanted to be those guys! I used to tape matches on my trampoline and body-slam my brother. I used to paint my face, hold fake title belts, and have my mom interview me in the kitchen. That was all preparing for this, bro.
Dancing in a Broadway show is about as physically strenuous as professional wrestling. Does going to the gym scare you — the thought that you might pull something?
Nah, I'm more bummed that I can't play basketball every Tuesday and Thursday. I got screamed at by my manager the other day because I was playing in a Wiffle ball tournament. I was like, "Dude, it's Wiffle ball!" He said, "Josh, if you get hurt playing Wiffle ball, the show is done." So it's a bummer, but you know: first-world problems. Every day I get to pretend to be a millionaire, fall in love with a girl, and have people clap for me. I love it and I wouldn't trade it for anything.