A group of 15 UMB students, faculty, and staff took their lunch breaks and gathered at the Hippodrome Theatre on June 7 for an intimate conversation with Doreen Montalvo, a longtime actor and principal performer in the touring production of the musical On Your Feet!
The Broadway 101 lunchtime event was the latest in an enlightening series organized by the University’s Council for the Arts & Culture that takes members of the UMB community behind the scenes of the Hippodrome and its shows. On Your Feet! — which just finished a six-day run at the historic venue on Eutaw Street — is billed as “an inspiring true story about heart, heritage, and two people who believed in their talent and each other to become an international sensation: Gloria and Emilio Estefan.”
In this production of the musical, Montalvo plays Gloria Fajardo, the mother of Gloria Estefan — and a staunch critic of her daughter’s music career. Though Montalvo plays the unsupportive mother, the actor herself has much in common with the show’s main characters, and she shared stories of her career that illustrated her love of the theater, determination to make it on Broadway, and dedication to her craft.
“I still go to dance class when I’m home at least once or twice a week,” Montalvo told the UMB group. “I still take voice lessons with my same voice teacher that I’ve had since I was 18 years old. You’re constantly learning.
“I love it, and what’s why we do it — because we love it.”
Montalvo discovered that love of performing at an early age: A priest in her parish recognized and nurtured her talent, and she recalled singing in church as early as 6 years old. She said she chose to study broadcast journalism in college because her school didn’t offer theater as a major.
After graduating, Montalvo began her career at a local television station in New York, but her love of theater never left her. At 24, she heard about a yearlong touring production of Man of La Mancha and decided to audition. Much like with Gloria Estefan and her mother in On Your Feet!, Montalvo’s mother was not supportive of her acting career at first. She wondered why her daughter couldn’t simply continue to work in journalism and pursue theater as a hobby.
But Montalvo said her mother quickly came around. Montalvo booked a role in that production of Man of La Mancha, for which she received her union equity card, and she never looked back. She has been acting on Broadway and in television and film ever since.
‘Survival Jobs’ Before a Life-Changing Show
Montalvo shared many stories that illuminate what life is like as a theater actor and what it takes for a show to finally reach Broadway. She held many “survival jobs” over the years, including voiceover work and part-time posts at trade shows and conventions that allowed her to make a living while continuing to audition.
Her first Broadway show was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights, which focuses on the largely Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York.
Montalvo revealed that she was the first person in New York to audition for Miranda for In the Heights, when the playwright/performer was 20 years old. In September 2002, Montalvo joined the first reading of In the Heights in the basement of The Drama Bookshop in New York. She participated in readings of the show for five years and stayed with it through various productions until making her Broadway debut in the ensemble at nearly 40 years old, when the show premiered at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2008.
Montalvo spent nine years working on the show in some capacity, from the first reading to closing night on Broadway. To put it simply, Montalvo said “That was the show that changed my life.”
That was just one of the stories from the Broadway 101 event’s conversation that illustrated the uncertainty of a life spent in theater, but Montalvo never let it deter her from pursuing her goals, and she told others not to be deterred, either: “It’s never too late to live your dream. It’s never too late to dream it and do it.”
After her time in In the Heights, Montalvo continued acting in theater. She joined the cast of On Your Feet! early on, when she participated in the second reading of the show — the first of Act 1 and Act 2 together.
Referring to the musical’s subjects, Montalvo said Gloria and Emilio Estefan were actively involved from the beginning. She remembered the surreal moment of singing Gloria Estefan’s songs with Estefan sitting in the room for the first time. “The minute those two walked in the door of the theater, everybody’s hearts just stopped. They are two of the most generous and loving people on earth,” Montalvo said.
After the reading of On Your Feet!, Montalvo re-auditioned for the Chicago production of the show and stayed with it as an original Broadway cast member in the ensemble as well as the understudy for Gloria’s mother when it debuted on Broadway. She took over the role of Fajardo for the final six months of the Broadway production. After a break, she returned to reprise her role on the national tour, which led her to the Hippodrome on June 7.
Don’t Stop Working on Your Craft
One UMB attendee asked whether Montalvo feels like there are more roles of substance for Latina performers today than in her earlier years as an actor. Montalvo said that when she was starting out, “West Side Story was pretty much it,” but with shows like In the Heights, Hamilton, and On Your Feet!, more roles are being written that allow performers to share their heritage with the audience in a universal way. “It’s wonderful to be able to celebrate a culture and share the culture, yet keep the show open to everyone and make the story open to everyone.”
When it comes to getting a show to Broadway, Montalvo noted that securing investors to fund the production is crucial, and that involves getting people to come and see the show and to believe in it.
As for her advice to aspiring actors and performers, Montalvo noted the importance of being a triple threat — singing, acting, and dancing — and encouraged people to always continue to learn and work on their craft.
“Keep taking classes. Don’t stop,” she said. “Keep learning constantly. And keep growing.”
– Emma Jekowsky
Visit the UMB Council for the Arts & Culture website to learn more about its events and programs.