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Gloria and Emilio Estefan feel the love at Shea's launch of 'On Your Feet!'

On a March afternoon in 1990, Gloria Estefan was on her way to perform in Syracuse when her tour bus hit a jackknifed truck on a snowy Pennsylvania highway.

The accident sent Estefan to the hospital with a broken vertebra, cutting down the Cuban-American pop singer at the height of her career. In Syracuse that night, concert promoter Albert Nocciolino and much of Estefan's band -- the Miami Sound Machine -- waited for a star who would never arrive.

"The trucks were all unloaded, and the stage was set up," said Nocciolino, a producer of the hit Broadway show "On Your Feet!" and its national tour, which launches in Buffalo on Saturday. "When something like that happens, you're not worried about the show being canceled; you're worried about the person."

On Thursday morning in Shea's grand lobby, star and concert promoter were reunited in much happier circumstances: to celebrate the launch of the jukebox bio-musical about the Estefans' lives and careers, which has been holding technical rehearsals in Buffalo for the last month.

Raising the curtain on the 2017-18 theater season

At a podium in the lobby, Gloria Estefan recalled that difficult day as a turning point in her life, and shot a smile at Nocciolino.

"I owe you one," she said. "Hopefully this will do it in some way."

During Thursday's news conference, Mayor Byron W. Brown issued a proclamation declaring Sept. 21, 2017 "Emilio and Gloria Estefan Day" in the City of Buffalo, and members of the Western New York Hispanic Heritage Council presented the couple with the gift of a Buffalo statuette.

"On Your Feet!" charts the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan's lives, from the time they were born in Cuba to their struggles to break into the American music industry and beyond. The musical closed its successful, two-year Broadway run in August. Its launch in Buffalo is part of a New York State tax credit program designed to boost the economies of upstate cities.

The Estefans, who have been in Buffalo attending rehearsals for about a week, have generated a bit of a buzz in the Theatre District, where they've often been spotted walking to or from their hotel or dining at downtown restaurants.

"The people have been phenomenal," Gloria Estefan said, describing a recent encounter at a theater district restaurant, when a Buffalo family sat down with them and then called their extended family members to say hello to the stars.

"We were face-timing everybody," Emilio said.

As for Buffalo's food, while it might not match the Cuban cusine of their hometown, the Estefans approve.

"The food is wonderful, although I gotta watch it," said Gloria, who stands at 5 feet 2 inches. "For me five pounds is a pound per foot."

For the Estefans, the launch of "On Your Feet!" in Buffalo represents an opportunity to inspire fans who weren't able to see the Broadway version of the show.

Like much of the music Estefan is known for, the story is intensely personal -- probing aspects of the duo's lives many would be uncomfortable with sharing.

"To me, that's the only point of doing something like this," Gloria Estefan said in an interview with The News after Thursday's news conference. "We've had an amazing career in music and everything, and you always want to try new things. But in order for it to have some kind of depth and connect with people honestly, you have to be honest. You have to get down and be human and let everybody see that."

That spirit, she said, is on display in songs like "On Your Feet!" and "Coming Out of the Dark," a song inspired by a phrase Emilio wrote on a scrap of paper while taking Gloria to the hospital in New York on the day of her accident.

For the Estefans' local fans, the launch of the musical in Buffalo represents a proud moment.

Eunice Lewin, a longtime fan and member of the State University of New York Board of Trustees, came close to tears in describing her love for the Estefan's music and its meaning to her as a Cuban-American.

"I have followed the Estefans for many years, and to see how they have used music to bring love and goodwill to humanity to me, gives me the chills," said Lewin, 65, who arrived in the United States as a teenager in 1967. "I think that the message that she carries about love and the beauty of diversity, especially during this time, is commendable."

That feeling also resonates through the cast and crew, which has become its own family throughout the monthlong rehearsal process.

"Backstage when you see this cast, it's not like in a normal show," said "On Your Feet!" cast member Devin Goffman, an Orchard Park native playing the role of a music producer. "There's a circle of people holding hands before each show, talking about family, talking about taking care of each other on stage, talking about community. It's not normal, and I've done plenty of theater. This is a community of warm and genuine humans that take care of each other."

For the Estefans, the sense of community and togetherness Goffman describes is central to the show and its message about persevering through difficult times.

"When we started in the states, they almost force you to change your last name. They said our music will never work," Emilio Estefan said. "And we broke a lot of records, we got a lot of awards. I think we were able to inspire not only Latinos, but [all] minorities."

"We hope to remind people what this country is about," Gloria Estefan said. "The American dream is just that. "This country is built by immigrants, and I think it's dangerous when you set yourself apart and all of a sudden slam the door shut on the American dream and what this country has been for the entire world: a beacon of freedom and acceptance and open arms."


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