Rhythm of ‘On Your Feet’ Is Gonna Get You

A dance number during “On Your Feet” | Matthew Murphy

Cuba Libre is a rum bar and restaurant in Old City known for its lively atmosphere and salsa dancing, but that’s not what Devon Goffman refers to when he talks about his love for “Cuba Libre.”

Instead, it’s one of his favorite songs — though he loves them all — in On Your Feet, the musical following the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, in which he stars as Phil, a New York City record producer who works with the Estefans and the Miami Sound Machine (of which five of the original members play in the band on stage, too).

“He brings an important part of the story,” Goffman wrote in an email between performances on the tour, which congas into the Academy of Music through April 15. “People in ‘power’ and business often get caught up in the past and how things have always been done. Phil is an example of a powerful man who needed to see the change happening before he would take the risk.”

Gloria and Emilio Estefan were “trailblazers,” he added, noting that when they asked Phil — who Goffman also described as a fun and funny character — to produce their next song in English, Phil quite abrasively refuses. He later changes his tune after finally coming to see them perform it, which they also do during a show-stopping scene at a boy named Jeremy’s Bar Mitzvah.

“Thank God, because he would have missed out on all that conga fun and millions of dollars!” Goffman wrote.

The story explores a young Gloria’s childhood in Cuba and her family’s fleeing to Miami during the Cuban Revolution. At first against some of her family’s wishes — particularly her mother, who also dreamed of being a star — she pursued a career in performing once she met the Miami Sound Machine, whose leader, Emilio Estefan, she fell in love with.

It tackles the obstacles they faced along the way — including physical ones, like the accident that nearly ended Gloria’s life — as they strived to break beyond the confines of playing only Spanish-speaking venues and share their music with the world.

Goffman noted you will fall in love with the actors playing the pair, too.

“[Gloria and Emilio] led the way to a cultural change in music,” wrote Goffman, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. “Not only was the change good for humanity, it was great for the quality of the music, and it was great for the economy of the music business. It is amazing what being open-minded to progressive change can do for our world.”

For Goffman, who has been with the tour since its start in September 2017, being a part of the show is a unique experience, as he is the only cast member not of Latin heritage.  

But his Jewish identity has given him a bit of an understanding “about being a part of a culture that is oppressed.”

He recalled experiencing anti-Semitism when he was growing up, which was “painful and scary.”

“I am an advocate for all cultures and I believe it is important to stand up to bigotry,” he wrote. “This show brings people together to celebrate the Cuban heritage and all Latin-American cultures and music. … It is important for me to be an advocate against bigotry and I realize what a blessing it is for me to be here.”

Mauricio Martinez as Emilio Estefan, Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan and Devon Goffman as Phil | Matthew Murphy

The Jewish values such as family and tradition he was raised with also cross over into the musical — and into other cultures.

“No matter where you grew up with whatever cultural background, carrying on the tradition is the same,” he said, citing “Tradición” as the show’s most important song. “I believe the tradition of family, love and taking care of each other is a common denominator.”

The notion of taking care of others on the planet is another he was instilled with growing up, as his mother, Denise, “taught me that we only have each other in life. We have to take care of people in need.”

For Goffman, theater is a way to bring communities together and find an escape.

That, “and/or it give them a chance to feel some feelings that are hiding inside,” he added. “Theater makes us feel things. Theater affects people and brings joy. It also is a really wonderful community of people who take care of each other.”

The story of On Your Feet, in addition to being an opportunity for some fun music and dancing (“Seriously, what [the dancers] do with their bodies every night is a miracle,” Goffman marveled), is a poignant story for the present day.

The Estefans’ optimism is part of what made them so inspiring to Goffman, and their kindness.

For him, with the current political climate — a notion hard to ignore when watching this musical — is a reminder of why this story is so important.

“We needed and still need heroes and leaders who do not accept bigotry,” he wrote. “There is no room in our beautiful country for it. We are a country built by immigrants. We all came here from other countries and our country is a melting pot. This story is a perfect example of how wonderful the American dream is. They are heroes.”

The pair’s determined efforts to follow their dreams also rings true as a lesson the audience can learn and take home — and to follow your guts, as they did even when people like Phil tried to stop them.

Goffman encouraged people to see the show not just for the inspiring and true story that plays out on stage, but also because they will probably do as the musical’s title suggests and get on their feet to the music.

“It’s real. It is truth on stage made into an inspiring musical,” he said. “It’s a blast. The dancing and the singing and the band mixed with this important story — I’ve never seen someone leave unhappy.”

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