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Andréa Burns plays a multifaceted woman who just happens to be Gloria Estefan's mother
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles.
While the splashy Broadway bio-musical On Your Feet! chronicles the specific rise of multi Grammy Award-winning Miami music makers Emilio and Gloria Estefan, it's also a universal story about an immigrant family trying to make it in America. As a Miami native born to a Venezuelan mother and Jewish father, Andréa Burns relates to it all. "Gloria Estefan's songs were the soundtrack to my upbringing," says the performer, best known for her turn as Daniela (the sassy salon owner) from In the Heights. "But I also holed up in my room studying Sondheim and Hal Prince. The fact that I'm now in a theatrical piece about the Latin immigrant experience on Broadway is amazing."
That said, when she was initially invited to play the part of Gloria Estefan's mother, Gloria Fajardo, in a reading last year, she hesitated. "My first thought was, her mother?!" she remembers. "For any actress over 40, it's like, 'Is that it? I'm now playing 70- and 80-year-olds?'" But she went in and quickly realized that she wouldn't be portraying some little old lady. Audiences get to see Fajardo at multiple points in her life, including as a young nightclub singer in Cuba before she and her family fled Castro's Revolution and settled in Florida. "This character comes across as ageless because you see her in so many different aspects of her life," Burns says. "It becomes less about her being a mother of a certain age and more about her being a woman who's seen a lot, sacrificed a lot, had dreams taken away from her, and made some mistakes, but is big enough to own up to them and ask for forgiveness. This is a real woman, not a fairy tale. That's the privilege of a role like this."
The devoted but contentious relationship between mother and daughter fuels much of the drama in On Your Feet!. Although she acknowledges her child's talent, the matriarch, who works as a teacher, tries to discourage her from pursuing music professionally, complaining that she's throwing away her college degree. Even after Estefan becomes an international superstar, her mother accuses her of choosing her career over her family. But Burns doesn't see her as a villain. She believes her actions, though sometimes misguided, always come from a place of love. "I have a Latin mother myself!" she explains. "Anyone who came from Latin parents at a certain time knew that it wasn't cool to pursue anything artsy. It wasn't respectable. My character is trying to protect her daughter. The family did a lot to come to this country. She put her daughter through private school and sent her to university. She wants the best for Gloria and though she believes in her talent, she doesn't foresee what she can be."
Although the actors playing Emilio and Gloria Estefan, Josh Segarra and Ana Villafañe, have spent a lot of time with the power couple they're playing, Burns has yet to meet Fajardo in person, but she still has insight that informs her performance. "I've certainly heard many stories from Gloria and Emilio's perspective. And there's this amazing interview Gloria did with her mom for Mother's Day that told me everything I needed to know about the character. First of all, she's hilarious, and second, I saw Gloria Estefan, this icon of the world, suddenly turn 15-years-old with this force sitting next to her. You see the deep love between them and their different ways of communicating."
Burns' big number, "Mi Tierra," is her character's Mama Rose moment, a flashback to her singing in Cuba when you get a sense of what might have been had she been allowed to continue performing. It also encapsulates the dilemma all immigrants grapple with: "the pull that your homeland has on you, no matter where you are," Burns explains. "It's a song that has always spoken to me. I even used in it a club act! Even though my mom has been in the US forever, her Venezuelan roots remain. The song is joyous and percussive and sexy and wonderful, but it always makes her cry." In the middle of it, Fajardo's husband tells her they need to escape from Cuba, which colors everything that comes after. "At first you see her at her most carefree and then, suddenly, life as she knows it is over, and yet she has to finish the show," Burns says. "This song of pride and joy becomes a song of angst and loss. There's such an emotional journey that happens in the course of one number."
Photos by Matthew Murphy