By the time On Your Feet! ends its Broadway run on August 20, Ana Villafañe will have played somewhere around 800 performances as international superstar Gloria Estefan. Including the show's pre-Broadway run in Chicago, Villafañe has been living and breathing Gloria for three years, taking the biomusical from the Midwest, to Broadway, and now to the finish line at the Marquis Theatre.
It's the show that gave Villafañe a breakout debut, a trip to the Tony Awards, and a chance to serenade Michelle Obama on national television — all during a Broadway season (the Hamil-season to be exact) that notably ignited conversation about diversity onstage. As the life-altering experience draws to a close, Villafañe invited us into her dressing room for one last look around her "Broadway shrine" (prominently featuring a congratulatory note from Audra McDonald) where she's been tirelessly getting on her feet while learning from her real-life counterpart how to keep those same feet planted firmly on the ground.
1. What is your favorite line that you get to say?
At the end of "Tradición": "…so that the love for our country lives now and forever."
2. Everyone loves inside jokes. What is the best one from your show?
Every single show we dedicate to a different thing. For example, last night we did it in honor of "girls who think they're dancers but aren't dancers," so we were going around the stage doing all these stupid modern dance moves. Only I can pick up on them, but we do that to make each other break character. And sometimes it actually works.
3. Every show experiences technical difficulties. What was the worst technical difficulty experienced during your show and how was it handled?
We did an entire show once with no automation in Act 1. It was like the high school production of On Your Feet! But there's a moment where I speak to my father in a bed. It's a beautifully written monologue where she's confessing to her father that she's in love for the first time, but since he has multiple sclerosis, he can't respond. There was no automation so there was no bed, so I just focused on an exit sign and said the monologue on a bare stage — just me and the audience. It actually ended up being kind of beautiful.
4. What was the most "interesting" present someone gave you at the stage door?
This is pretty awesome — it's the original Playbill from the opening night of Gypsy. This was from a fan who knows that I love that show and that I one day want to play Mama Rose. I have it right up here next to a note from Audra McDonald with one of the roses that she sent me. That's like my little Broadway shrine right there.
5. Who is the coolest person that came to see your show? (You can't say your family!)
We've had everyone from Antonio Banderas to David Hasselhoff to Gina Rodriguez. Last night we had the voice of Bart Simpson which is really cool. And I mean, obviously, the Estefans. That's still cool.
6. Describe each of your Emilios in a word or phrase.
Josh Segarra: "OG," because he was my original. We created this thing together.
Ektor Rivera: Ektor is just "Puerto Rico." He lives and breathes Puerto Rico. It runs through his veins. He's the most Puerto Rican thing I've ever seen.
Mauricio Martinez: "A gift." He's only here doing five weeks and it's been a big breath of fresh air.
7. You've had the chance to take a lot of fun field trips with the cast of On Your Feet! Which has been the most memorable?
The White House was huge. It was in November of 2015, we had just opened, and Michelle Obama was doing this big Broadway at the White House program for Thanksgiving. Being at the White House during that presidency and being a part of such an incredible year on Broadway— because that was the year of The Color Purple and Hamilton— we were all the diversity shows. To perform in the White House with the core group of the original cast — and of course Emilio and Gloria were there too — it was so incredibly special. I remember when I was singing "Coming Out of the Dark," I was looking straight at Michelle Obama, and I was like, "Is this real life right now? I just made my Broadway debut, this was my first Broadway audition, and now I'm singing at the White House." It was a really special time period. I think within the week we did the White House and opened the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade — in a show that is all Latin kids standing onstage and saying, "This is what an American looks like." That was huge.
8. What is the best moment of audience participation the cast has experienced during the Act 1-closing conga line?
We have bachelorette parties where you see them in their ribbons, or you see the one with the tiara that lights up in the middle of the audience. But the best is that one random middle-aged woman who clearly is a tourist from wherever and is Living. Her. Life. She is usually dancing in the aisles and she is loud and she is holding that On Your Feet! cup in the air and she is thriving. Those are the people we really live for.
9. Which part of the show is most difficult to perform everyday? Which part of the show do you never fail to look forward to every day?
I still look forward to the entire thing, to be completely honest with you. That's why I'm still here. But I think the most difficult is the emotional ride that Gloria goes on. It's harder than the choreography, it's harder than the jumping, it's harder than singing 17 songs in two-and-a-half hours. Going from so incredibly happy and feeling like you're on top of the world when you're in concert to the vulnerability that she lets people into when she has her breakdown and when the accident happens — those are really dark moments. I had to ask her a lot of really personal questions in terms of preparing for the role, so I can't take it lightly. Even on days when I'm really tired, I need to give 150,000 percent, because somebody who might be watching the show for the first time or who might not know the story — I want them to get the same experience that our opening-night crowd got.
10. What qualities of Gloria's are you hoping to keep with you after you leave the character behind?
She's so incredibly intelligent. She redefined what being a Latina in this country was in terms of being in the public eye. And she gave somebody like me the opportunity to even be in the industry. So if anything I would just take the intelligence factor. She also has been the perfect example of how to be successful and still keep your feet on the ground. I think that's something that I'm going to hold on to forever. No matter how big you get, you're a human being. So just be smart, be a good person, be humble, do good work — Boom.