The Broadway Lead

Forty minutes after finishing the callback for her first-ever Broadway audition, Ana Villafañe ’12 was standing in the middle of the street in New York City with her best friend when her phone rang.

“You,” the voice said, “have booked the role of Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet.”

Years before receiving that call, Villafañe had been at LMU, playing Kate––a.k.a. Lilli Vanessi––in the university’s production of “Kiss Me Kate.” Seconds after receiving that call, Villafañe freely admits she began “ugly-crying,” which lasted all night and overlapped with several glasses of champagne and a lot of ecstatic phone calls to family members and friends.

Now, she’s playing the role of iconic Latin pop pioneer Gloria Estefan in “On Your Feet!,” a Broadway musical based on the life of Estefan and her husband, Emilio.

“It’s still kind of unbelievable,” said Villafañe, who still describes her audition in front of the Estefans as an “out-of-body experience.” “This is an absolute dream role, but I take the responsibility factor very seriously. I’m proud of the work I’m doing because it’s way bigger than any individual — Gloria represents an entire culture.”

Which made preparation even more daunting. But Villafañe relishes the challenge of convincing her audiences that she is Estefan. Part of that meant stepping into Estefan’s shoes––and then learning how to dance and sing in them. When your benchmark is Gloria Estefan, that’s no small task.

“The first day of dance rehearsal was brutal,” said Villafañe. “I was not prepared to be learning choreography at such an astonishing rate. I went home and thought, ‘I can’t do this!’ I was very new.”

That was a long time ago, though. Now, Villafañe takes the stage at the Marquis Theatre eight times a week, each time equally determined to do Estefan justice.

“It is the biggest compliment when people tell me they really thought I was Gloria at certain moments during the show,” she said. “That’s my goal. That means I’m doing my job.”

For Villafañe, there isn’t any one moment or goal that will mark her “making it” as a performer. Instead, she views her career as a constant progression—one that started long ago, when she was just a kid obsessed with movies and actresses like Vivian Leigh, Bette Midler, Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz,” and Olivia Newton-John in “Grease.”

Villafañe starred in her first professional musical when she was nine. Until that point, she’d loved to sing, but “loathed choir.”

“So my parents let me do theatre as an after-school activity, as long as I kept up with my schoolwork,” she said. “That’s when I realized that I could tell stories through music. It was a game-changer.”

In high school, that revelation ultimately blossomed into a career choice.

“I started making decisions for my future while everyone else was still concerned with boys and parties,” Villafañe said. “Don’t get me wrong — I had my fair share of that, too. But that was when I realized my priority was acting. I saw beyond my immediate surroundings and reality. I knew what I wanted and was making active choices to get closer to my goals.”

By the time Villafañe got to LMU, she was already working in film and television. She majored in music in the College of Communication and Fine Arts, and during her junior year, scored the lead role in “Kiss Me Kate.” While she had no formal background in theatre at the time, director Diane Benedict and musical director Karl Snider gave her a crash course, with Benedict personally training Villafañe in Shakespeare in her office.

Now Villafañe’s face is in lights across the marquee of the Marquis, a likeness of the performer of whom she remains in awe, and with whom she shares a Cuban heritage. Estefan is precisely the type of role Villafañe seeks out — a “dynamic, strong woman.”

“I would love to play a heroine à la Joan of Arc, or a complicated biblical character like Mary Magdalene,” she said. “I’d also definitely want to play some kind of royalty, like in the Eleanor of Aquitaine movies. That’s what I love about this career — I have the freedom to ‘be’ so many things. There is no limit.”

For now, though, Villafañe is focused on Estefan, about whom she says she has “learned everything there is to know.”

“What surprised me most is how humble and grounded she is,” said Villafañe. “She sets the standard and sets an example that will stay with me forever. Gloria is a living icon who makes everyone feel immediately comfortable and at ease. I think that’s true star power.”

José L. Martinez ’11, former editor of the Los Angeles Loyolan, is a third-year law student at Stanford Law School. A frequent writer for LMU Magazine, he majored in theological studies in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts.