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A Day in the Life of Ana Villafane of ‘On Your Feet!’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

Making her Broadway debut as Gloria Estefan in 'On Your Feet!,' the talented actress and singer takes us along for a day

It could be said that Ana Villafañe was born to play Gloria Estefan. “I don’t remember not knowing Gloria’s music,” says the Miami native who found it somewhat hysterical when she was sent sheet music for the On Your Feet! audition.

“I have known this music since I could walk. I said, don’t worry about sheet music, but thank you.” For Villafañe, who is half-Cuban, half-Salvadoran, the songs were embedded in the fabric of her life. “I have a big family, so anything anyone does is reason to celebrate,” she says. “And celebrate means a lot of food, music, dancing and really loud talking that might become an argument. With a big Cuban/Salvadoran family, we get together and, of course, Gloria Estefan and/or The Miami Sound Machine is going to pop up on that play list.”

When she was nine, she made her singing debut at a convention in Orlando, belting Estefan’s “Reach.” “I remember feeling like such a star singing this Gloria Estefan song,” says Villafañe. “I could have chosen any song. Now it’s come full circle that I get to sing that song in a pivotal moment in the show. Gloria said it was written in the stars.”

By the time Villafañe was in the fourth grade and cast in the children’s chorus in a regional production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, she knew that she had to be a performer. “I learned that I could act at the same time that I was singing,” she says. “Acting made me feel very free. It gave me kind of an invisibility cloak — I’m such a Harry Potter fan. I get to disappear and have the freedom of telling somebody else’s story.”

Villafañe with friend and castmate, Luis Salgado (Photo: Courtesy of Ana Villafañe)

Villafañe with friend and castmate, Luis Salgado (Photo: Courtesy of Ana Villafañe)


Now making her Broadway debut in On Your Feet!, a new Broadway musical based on the life and music of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, Villafañe gets to tell Estefan’s story. Her acting school has been watching her colleagues. “To this day I’ve never taken a legit acting class,” says Villafañe. “I learned from people with experience. I try to be as honest and authentic as I can. I learn how to be an actor by living, having experiences and great examples like Andréa Burns and Alma Cuervo in the show and the people I’ve worked with in film and TV.”

So how does her family feel about her playing such an iconic figure. “They’re very proud and happy. Nothing I could probably ever do is going to top this,” say Villafañe. Then she jokes, “I could be giving birth and my mom would say, ‘Oh, whatever you played Gloria!’… For my mom there’s nothing else.”

Villafañe shared her action-packed day.

I set alarms on anything ending in a four, my favorite number. It’s really random, but I’m kind of OCD about that. If you scroll through my phone, all my alarms end on four. I love the idea of balance. There are four seasons and I’m the second of four kids so there’s definitely meaning for me there. The first thing I do in the morning  is warm up my voice for about ten or fifteen minutes. If I’m not going to be on vocal rest (and it seems that I’m never on vocal rest), I try to have everything ready. Then I checked emails and got ready to work out.

I stopped for a chai latte with soy milk at Starbucks next door. I tend to work out first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. I had soy milk so that I wouldn’t pass out in the ring. And I eat very protein-rich things afterwards.

I met my friend Luis Salgado who is in the cast to do some boxing at Mendez Boxing on 26th Street and 5th Avenue. The cast is my family. I’m here in New York for this. It’s very rare to be in a place in life where every single ounce of energy is going toward the show and how I can make sure the show is everything it should be. It’s not about me. It’s about Gloria. I feel a responsibility to do that and keep a well-oiled machine.

We grabbed a late breakfast/lunch next door at Black Barn. I had a kale salad with shrimp which was delicious.

I came home and took a shower. I’m very into soaps. I also plan my showers very specifically. Yesterday I took a shower and washed my hair. Then I did an Epsom salt bath so my body could recover and to help my muscles repair right after the intense workout.

The gym in my building actually has yoga classes. So, I did a yoga class in the afternoon before doing an interview.

I had an interview which was great. I actually like doing press.The hardest part is scheduling it. Once I’m actually there I love meeting new people. It really makes me feel fulfilled to hear that people are excited about the show and moved by it and want to know what I have to say. I like the idea of affecting people positively. It’s fuels me to do my job eight times a week.

Our show is a celebration of “The American Dream” — being strong and true to who you are and letting your identity shine through despite people telling you what you should be. That’s why Gloria and Emilio are so successful. Even to this day I get texts from her. She’s been there and guided me through this process. Who better than her? We had an understudy go on for the first time for the role of Gloria’s mother, Gloria Fajardo. Doreen Montalvo was stepping in for Andréa Burns who is such a force. Doreen is such a pro but I wanted to make sure that Gloria knew so that Gloria could reach out to her and send her positive energy. Gloria and Emilio are just such real, honest, humble, hardworking people. You kind of almost forget that they’re icons.

I got my eyelashes redone at She Winks Lash Studio near the theater. It was voted one of the top places by Vogue in the city to get them done. It’s very glamorous. I never thought I would be the girl with lash extensions. It takes about an hour and looks like eternal mascara. She Winks is very luxurious. They offer me champagne every time I go in. I can’t, of course, because I’m not drinking before the show. They play beautiful ethereal music and there’s just something so relaxing about laying there and knowing that someone is putting on my lashes. I knew that I was going to be tired from working out twice with the boxing and yoga and fell asleep. I ended up taking a nap. It’s so embarrassing. They had to wake me up afterwards and say ‘Ana you’re done. You can go.’ And I’ll say ‘five more minutes, please?’

After my nap, I went straight to the theater to get a haircut. My hair guru, Jessie Mojica, does hair and wigs for the show. He’s in charge of making me transform into Gloria. So he gave me a haircut backstage which was amazing. I needed to get my layers re-cut. Then I read Malala’s book, I Am Malala.

Sarah, my dresser, came in. She’s become my best friend and is like a mother, fairy godmother –– she’s everything. We made tea, talked and caught up during the down time before all the craziness started. We rotate between different teas but I did a green tea with lemon and ginger to get energy after an activity-filled day.

I steamed with a personal steamer. It feels amazing and hydrates your vocal cords from the outside. It really does a wonderful job of having you feel open. It also has a great skin benefit because I don’t wear makeup during the day unless I have press. I just had moisturizer and ChapStick. I’m constantly drinking water and coconut water just to stay hydrated. Sometimes I’ll throw in an Emergen-C in my water bottle.  I also checked emails right before starting to really get ready for the show.

I like to catch up and say “hi” to everybody in the ensemble before the show. We are a family and it’s amazing to feel that. We want to connect and look each other in the eye before going on stage and doing the show. We have 32 people in our cast. Yesterday was National Swing Day. I wanted to take a picture with our four incredible swings.

I had a call with my publicist and my sister right before Half Hour. Half Hour is at 7:30 when I really start getting ready. We went through New York Fashion Week which is coming up in February and I’m really excited about it. I love aesthetics in general. I have a background in painting and love all aspects of beauty. Fashion is just another form of expression. It’s art. We were having a really fun talk about scheduling the shows coming up that I’m really, really dying to see, schedule permitting. Of course eight shows a week and trying to go to the shows is crazy. But I really believe that where there’s a will there’s a way. I will try to get it all done.

I started doing all my warmups again. The steamer opens everything up. So by the time I’m actually warming up again it’s almost like a new day vocally. I’m very diligent. Jessie does my hair — puts in pin curls and puts on my wig and I finish my makeup. It’s a slow process and I like it that way. I like things to grow organically instead of rushing, rushing, rushing. I can’t start the show from a place of frantic or nervous energy. I have to be calm, at least as calm as you can be. But it’s exciting. It’s an optimistic calm. I love that energy and feed off it.

They called 15.

When they called five (five minutes before the show begins), I knew that I had just a precious few minutes before places. Our cast does something very special. We get together, stand in a circle and hold hands. On different days, different people will speak. Eliseo Román who plays my father, was leading the circle. At every show we feel out the energy that we’re all having — if there’s any tension or someone’s going through a rough time or it’s a really good day — we all share where we’re at. We thank the opportunity of being there and doing our job. Then we take a deep breath together, put our hands in and yell “Full out!” at the top of our lungs as a company. That’s (director) Jerry Mitchell’s catch phrase. Every night we have to be “full out” no matter what we’re going through, It’s hilarious because everyone in the building hears it. In fact, we used to do the circle on stage behind the curtain. But the audience could hear us yelling “Full out” so we had to switch to the hallway.

During the show the only change I have where I have enough time to get water and check my makeup is during the big “Mi Tierra” number with Gloria Fajardo (a flashback of Gloria’s mother singing in a Havana nightclub). I’ve watched that number as much as I possibly can backstage every single show. I learn from Andréa every day not only watching her on stage, but backstage as well — as a human being. She’s an anchor for me. That scene in particular is designed so beautifully — with the costumes, the choreography, the set. For me, being half Cuban, I get to see a little bit of Cuba eight times a week. It’s so powerful. It’s masterful work — in terms of our show, the creatives who put it together and Andrea who does it every night and the whole ensemble who gets to be a part of it. I secretly hope that I can come back and make my return to Broadway one day in the revival as Gloria Fajardo just to sing that song and wear that dress.

Last night I wanted to be there to support Doreen — even though she couldn’t see me. I was anxious to watch her go on for Andréa from the wings. Those are big shoes to fill. I did my quick change so fast I ran out of the quick-change booth and I stood in the wings stage right, watching Doreen fill those shoes for Andrea and make it her own. It was beautiful to watch.

Intermission. Intermission is when I see my dressing room again. It’s when I sit down, get my breath together and regroup. I took a moment and wiped the sweat off of my body. I get sweaty in the show. It’s such workout that’s why I have to condition myself so much physically.

The intermission is also a very special moment because when I come back in act two, Gloria is completely different. By then, she’s married and found success professionally. She’s at a completely different point in her life. As I see it, intermission is where Gloria grows up. It’s very fun for me because I end in concert singing “Conga” at the end of act one. But it’s a completely different type of performance by the top of act two. By the top of act two, I’m a seasoned performer. There are subtle differences in the way I have to control my body on stage  —  how I hold myself and connect to the audience.

So I change clothes, drink water and change my makeup a little bit.  The lipsticks and eyeliner gets a little darker and I go out to perform. That’s my half time show. Then I go out for the second half.

After the show we conga-lined off stage and hugged. There are moments when it hits me backstage where I still can’t believe what I’m doing. I’ll be with Sarah in the middle of a quick change and have 30 seconds to change from one corset or one wig to another. I look at her and say, “Oh my god!  I’m actually playing Gloria Estefan on Broadway. This is real!” And she’ll start laughing and say, “Yes! Go make your entrance.”

I went to my dressing room and did my cool down. My wig came off and I transitioned back into Ana. I wiped off some of the makeup. Then I hit stage door which is almost like the third act of the show. I get to see people’s reactions and experience how people are so excited about what they just saw and connect with that. I like to give people time at the stage door, especially if they’re making the time to be there. There are so many people who feel moved and feel a place of home when they watch the show. It’s nice to get that feedback.

I got in a car with Henry Gainza who’s one of my really good friends in the show and is arguably one of the best vocalists. We went to meet with our associate director, Andy Señor, who is in town and got ramen at Ramen Ya in SoHo. We have a tradition. Whenever Andy is in town, we get together after the show and have ramen. I’m gluten free so I get ramen without noodles. So I essentially just have broth.

When I got home, I washed my face intensely, laid down and journaled. I don’t do it every day, but last night I went through the day and wrote it down. I have a special journal. When I first moved to LA when I was 18, my mom gave me this hardcover beautiful black journal with a ribbon in it to mark the pages. Robbie Fairchild from An American in Paris told me that I need to journal. He said, “You really need to enjoy this. This is a very special time in your life.”  I’m really trying to be present, enjoy, remember and write down as much as I possibly can.

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