On Your Feet! star Josh Segarra discusses being mentored by Emilio Estefan and the power of Gloria’s music

Josh Segarra in On Your Feet!

Josh Segarra in On Your Feet!

The rhythm has “gotten” audiences and critics who have seen the new musical On Your Feet!: The Story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. As one of the strongest contenders for the Tony Award for Best Choreography, the musical isn’t only one of the most thrilling musicals on Broadway for its familiar, catchy songs but it’s visually stunning and there is no question that everyone on the Marquis Theatre stage is performing with their whole hearts.

As a standout in the production for his role as Emilio Estefan, Josh Segarra has received critical acclaim since the musical opened on November 5, 2015. Segarra, along with his leading lady Ana Villafañe, are leading the charge as two of the most powerful Latinos currently on Broadway.

And if the eight-show week wasn’t enough, Segarra has made his mark on television. He starred in Sirens on the USA Network and has a recurring role on the NBC drama Chicago PD. Segarra also had a role in the Amy Schumer film Trainwreck.

On Your Feet! also released a live cast recording on April 29.

Segarra spoke with Stage Door Dish about the unique formatting for the album and his personal connection to the real Emilio Estefan.

How is the On Your Feet! cast album different from a regular studio recording?

It’s different because having it recorded live allows you to, honestly, not really think about it, you know? Sometimes you go into the studio, you’re trying to replicate something you’re naturally doing on stage, and that’s hard because of the different setting. So, when it came to this, I loved the idea that you are just capturing what it sounds like if you were at the show. It was a really fun experience in that way. It kind of gave everyone a little jolt, it was really different. I’ve never done anything like it. It was exciting.

Was there any different preparation that you had to do, in terms of microphones or equipment before the shows? 

No, nothing like that. They just told us, ‘Hey, we’re going to be recording the show, that’s how we’re going to do the album.’ And we said, ‘Okay, cool,’ and went out and did our show.

Which song are you most excited for people to listen to? 

Oh man, I don’t want to give you a cop-out answer, but I’m excited for people to hear the recording because, like you said, it’s different. It’s different from other recordings that you’ve heard before. I kind of feel like it’s a throwback, in a way, you know? I used to watch live recordings and listen to live recordings and now I feel like it’s a cool experience to be a part of one. I guess, if anything, I’m excited for people to get the feeling they’re at our show. If you’ve seen the show, you get to relive that experience, because I feel like that’s what our show is.

What was preparing for this role like compared to others you’ve played? In this show, you’re playing a person who is still alive, as opposed to shows like Dogfight where you created a fictitious role. 

It’s a very similar process. I think that whenever you’re approaching anything new, whenever I’m introducing anyone to the role, whether it be Boland in Dogfight, or Emilio in On Your Feet!, or Mick in Lysistrata [Jones], I get to kind of create them from scratch. And yes, Emilio already exists. The only difference was that I knew he was watching me and I wanted to pay him as much respect as I could, and I wanted him to be happy. Truly, I just wanted him to be happy with what I was doing. In the same way that he exists in my mind, these other characters exist. I needed to figure out every detail about them; how they grew up, who they were, and what story I’m trying to tell. With this, the difference was Emilio was with me throughout the process and having him as a source of information was irreplaceable. With the other guys, I had to find information about context, but with him, he’s right there. I could just ask him, ‘What was this like?’

How much one on one time did you have to work with Emilio while you rehearsed the show? 

There was no limit on the one-on-one time with him. He was an open book for me. We still talk, we still share stories with each other, and he’s just been a great friend throughout this process. I’ve learned a lot from him.

What’s the best piece of advice he’s given you? 

He’s always telling me to take care of myself. He’s saying, ‘Get your sleep, drink your water.’ Those are the basic things, but the bigger things — he’s not one to tell you, he’s one to show you. He’s one of those who leads by example. I see who he is and I admire him so much. He’s such a lovable, laughable guy, and I love the way he carries himself. He’s always smiling. I feel like he wears his heart outside of his chest. He’s very admirable. I’ve just learned a lot from him. I mean, look how far he’s gotten. Look how far they‘ve gotten, just carrying and fighting for what they believe in. That’s something that all you can do is pay respect towards.

Are there any qualities that you’ve learned from him that you’ll keep with you years from now? 

Hard work. Simple as that, just hard work. He’s always working, that guy, always. Every time I talk to him, he’s always doing something. He finds his downtime, and his family is the most important thing in the world to him. He always makes time for them, but he’s always working. I admire the work ethic. I admire where he came from and now look at him. If I keep working hard, I can be him when I grow up.

Did you grow up listening to Gloria’s music? 

I did, I did. Obviously now I have a much closer relationship to the music than I did when I was a kid, but I’ve got videos of me and my family at theme parks doing those fake music videos. It’s pretty cool. I remember having them in the background at parties, they were part of my upbringing. I didn’t quite know it at the time, but I guess I now look at it — It’s come full circle. Now I get to tell that story.

What’s your favorite Gloria song? 

It changes, honestly. It changes every week, but I would have to say, I love ‘Wrapped’. I think it’s a great song. I do love ‘Conga’, I know that it’s our showstopper. It’s such a great song. It makes me think of my mom, because my mom used to dance to it when I was a kid, so to me, it’s always ‘Conga’. ‘1-2-3’, I love as well. I love those hits. Those are the ones I remember the most as a kid, so now when I get to do those every night it’s so much fun. I get to watch a concert happen. It’s so great.

On Your Feet! is such an energetic show, and I’ve noticed that the audience gets really involved because they know the music. Do you have a favorite moment that happened involving an audience member? 

I gotta tell you, right when we start there’s a scene that goes into ‘1-2-3’. It’s the first time that you see Gloria with The Sound Machine, Emilio’s band. You get to see them in rehearsal in the garage, and I love the scene that goes into the song. I get to tell Gloria, ‘don’t worry about it. I know you’re shy, but just sing me the song. Pretend that I’m the shy one’, and then she goes into ‘1-2-3’. All you hear is ‘one-two-three-four’, and you hear the audience audibly gasp. It’s such a cool moment. I love that we don’t have the song listed in the program, because that way you get the surprise every time a song comes up and you know it. I just love hearing the couple of gasps, it’s such a fun moment for me every night.

Was there ever any nervousness or embarrassment when it came to wearing the short shorts every night? 

Oh, yeah, of course there was. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being a little nervous with those shorts. To me, they’re comfortable. I’ve had these tree trunks for life. I’ve got to thank my momma for them. You have to shake what your momma gave you, right? I feel like I get to go back to Miami and back to that time. It really takes me back there. I’m proud of those white shorts.

Since you’ve done theatre, TV, and film, do you have one preferred medium?

No. I love them all. They each come with their own pros and cons. I can’t even say cons. They each come with their own lessons. You learn so much from each medium. Right now, I’ve loved my time on stage. I’ll always be a kid of the theatre. I love the stage. I love the energy you get from performing on stage. I love the lights, I love the idea of the people getting one night a week where they’ve been looking forward to seeing a Broadway show, and that’s my job. I get to bring them that joy. There’s nothing else like that. You get to feel the energy. I meet people after the show that tell me that night they felt something they hadn’t felt in a long time. I get to bring that to people. That’s a gift. I love screen too. I love the work that is working on screen. I love the chances you get each take to switch it up each time and keep it fresh. Each one comes with it’s own packages of goodies and I love them all. I’ll be a creature of all of them. I hope that my career jumps back and forth for the rest of my life.

Are there any challenges that come with going back and forth? 

Sure. They are each their own craft. They all start with yourself, from the inside out, but each one has it’s own needs. Each one requires a different set of storytelling devices. Transferring from one to the other, you have to make sure to focus on what those are. What tools am I going to use today? How am I going to warm up today? How am I going to tell this story today? Each one is a little different. Yes, similar, but still different.

What was it like stepping into a recurring role on one of the biggest TV franchises with Chicago PD? Could you see your character coming back at any point? 

I can’t really go into that, because I’d have to give you a scoop. Justin has been a very fun character for me to play. I’ve had such a great time with him. The cast has been amazing and accepted me with open arms. What was cool about that is that yes, I was recurring, but I appeared in the third episode of the first season, so they were all still new to each other as well. I got to be there from early on. It’s not like they’d known each other for five years before I got there. We all got to know each other early and they’ve been such a great group. They’re such a great, supportive cast. Every time I get to come and go, it’s just been all smiles and laughs. I’ve had a great time. That’s what’s so great about the jobs I’ve gotten to do. Every single one just feels like it’s own little home. You get to work with actors who are funny and giving and caring. I can’t complain about any of the jobs I’ve had so far. Chicago PD has been one I’m thankful for. I’m thankful they gave me that opportunity. It’s been a good ride.

You were on Sirens at the same time, and your characters were very different. How were you able to go back and forth between the funny, not-so-bright character on Sirens to the darker character on Chicago PD

That was the best! One day I’d wake up and go to set on Sirens, and get to play Billy, who I love very, very dearly. That was a character that I’ll always hold near and dear to my heart. I’d work on Sirens for two or three days, and then I’d wake up on Thursday and go to PD, getting to play Justin, who was a little bit of a darker soul. Maybe he’d gone through more things that affected him differently. For me, it was kind of like therapy in a way. I’d get to go explore these two worlds and each one was fun it it’s own right. By no means was it a lot of pressure. To me it was just living the dream. I still am living the dream.

What was it like seeing your scene in Trainwreck for the first time on a movie theater screen? 

Oh my God, my mouth was just wide open. I was with my wife at the screening and it was just right there, and it’s a minute and a half into the movie. All of a sudden, this bare butt pops up and I’m like ‘oh, there I am’. It was just such a great time. Amy [Schumer] was such a rock star. She’s such a cool scene partner to have, and getting to work with Judd [Apatow] was just a dream come true. Getting to hear stories from him and just chit-chatting with those people that I’ve loved and respected. I felt a part of that. It was a very cool experience. I could have intimidated myself by being like ‘man, I’m about to do this big ol’ movie with all these really cool people that have done really great things in their career’, and they just welcomed me with open arms. I just had a great time. Now I look back and I’m like, ‘wow, I can’t believe I was in Trainwreck.’ That’s pretty cool.

Amy has such a huge personality. What was working with her and filming that scene like? 

Oh, it was the best. It was just so fun. The second we met, she was so sweet. She told me about when she saw my tape and just laughing, and I was laughing, I told her about a couple of sketches I’d seen earlier. I watched her show before I did the movie. I had so much respect for her and how she’s carving her path. Her path is a beautiful one to watch. Working with her, I learned so much. She’s so quick off the brain. She was so quick to come up with that great moment. The moments come from just being in the moment. We had a great time. I think we laughed for about seven hours straight. I’ll always look back at that experience with a smile.

Out of all the characters you’ve played, which do you feel is the closest to who you are, and which is the biggest departure from just Josh? 

I think all of the characters I played have a part of me in them. I know that, because with every part that I’ve played, I have to start from within. What do I have in common with this character? Even when you play bad guys, I can’t think they’re a bad guy. I have to understand why it is he’s doing the things he’s doing. For instance, Boland in Dogfight is a tough character to play because from the outside, you’re seeing him as the one who kind of sets up the dogfight. I bring Annaleigh Ashford’s character with me to the dogfight, and he’s conniving and he’s lying to all of his best friends. It’s just the things that make the story. For me, I have to play him as a kid who’s maybe scared because he’s a kid who’s going off to war. That fear comes with it’s own insecurities. How does he explore those insecurities? Okay, he has a bravado about him now. He has a machismo about him now, but you always have to start with the inside. The one that I’m closest to will always be Billy. That’ll always be my guy. Billy on Sirens. I always say he’s a little bit of my brother, a little bit of me, he’s a little bit of what I want to be. He’s naive to the world. He’s open to ideas. He wants to learn about things. He’s never afraid. Sometimes when I get really scared, nervous or embarrassed about something I think of what Billy would do. Crack a joke and keep going. I hope that there’s a part of me that shines through in everything that I do.

What’s one role on Broadway right now that if you were given the chance to, you’d like to step into? 

I have to say Hamilton, right? I’d want to say that I’d want to take a crack at Aaron Burr, but I have to say that after watching Leslie [Odom Jr.], to me that was perfection on stage. I think that cast, with how beautiful that work is, the reason it’s so beautiful is because they’ve brought these characters to life so it’s hard for me to re-imagine them any other way. I say it with a little bit of hesitation, because I’d love to be a part of that cast, but I also wouldn’t mind watching that show every night and watching they work they do. I’d love to be a part of that cadence and the rhythm that they get to work in, what that would be like to be a part of such a historic moment in theatre right now. To sink your teeth into something that would be great.

That actually leads into my next question. I read that you told Playbill you saw In The Heights nineteen times. Lin-Manuel Miranda has been really vocal about how much he supports your show and loves your cast. What’s it like having support from someone you admire so much? 

It’s the highest honor. Honestly, it’s the people that you admire and respect — when they show you that same respect and honor, if anything, I just want to love them even more. I’m so grateful that I get to be a part of this season because of how beautiful it is to see all the new works that have been created and all of the things we couldn’t imagine on stage. I couldn’t imagine what Hamilton was. I heard about it early on, and was like, okay, okay, what’s this going to be? And then I saw it, and was like, ‘oh my God, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!’ To be a part of that, and to have them right next door, and to work with so many actors that I have admired for so long in In The Heights, now they’re my cast. It’s a pretty surreal experience to be up on stage with Andréa Burns. I’ve loved Andréa for so many years, and I’ve respected her for so many years. To be a part of this process has been unbelievable, and it all started with Heights.

Do you have any funny or memorable moments from hanging out with the Hamilton cast? 

Me and Chris Jackson go way back. That’s my buddy right there. Nothing that I can really share, but we have such a great time, and he’s been a mentor to me. He was one of the creators of music for The Electric Company, which was my first job out of college. Chris, Tommy Kail, and Bill Sherman were all very influential in my path so far. When we found out we were going to be in the same season, right next door to each other, we both clicked our heels and jumped for joy.

You grew up in Florida, and got into theatre in high school. What was the first Broadway show you saw?

The first Broadway show I saw was Phantom of the Opera. I was in 8th grade and we did an entire day of sightseeing, and we went and saw Phantom of the Opera. I love Phantom now, but at the time, I fell asleep because I was a 13 year old at Phantom and we were in the back row. I didn’t know what was going on. In 8th grade, I didn’t quite know that I was going to end up doing musical theatre one day. I came back my senior year with my dad to look at NYU, where I ended up going, and we saw Take Me Out. I saw Denis O’Hare up there. I saw Daniel Sunjata and the rest of the cast, but that was the first time that I saw a story I wanted to tell. I wanted to play Denis O’Hare’s part, Mason Marzac. I wanted to play the accountant who discovered baseball for the first time. I was like, ‘man, I’ve never seen this story told this way.’ I never thought about what it would be like in the locker room of certain teams dealing with information coming out, and I just fell in love with it. It was the first time I saw myself, that I could be on that stage. The rest is history. Then I got to work with Joe [Mantello] in Dogfight, which was awesome.

Since you’re a really big sports fan, which historical team or sports story do you think would make a great musical? 

The Orlando Magic with Shaq. That team from the 90s was supposed to win multiple championships. They were destined and everything broke down when Shaq left. That’s something that’s really, really ingrained in me. I remember that time very vividly. I watch all the documentaries about it. I hope that one day someone makes that story and I get to be in it. I don’t know who I’d play in it because there’s really no character for me. I’ll think about who I can play. I’ll be a GM, on the business side of it.

Why should people see On Your Feet!, and what makes this story so special? 

I think people should come because we’re telling a story about the American dream. It’s not necessarily for Latinos, I think it’s for everybody. Anybody who fights for what they believe in and what they can achieve. Look, they came from nothing and they created this sound that hadn’t been heard before and they fought, and look where they are now. They paved the way. They really were pioneers in their industry and I think when people come to they show they walk out feeling invigorated. You walk out feeling like you saw what these people had to go through to achieve the American dream and how much it means to them. I hope that’s what people feel.

I always say that when I saw On Your Feet! that it was the most fun I’ve had in a theatre in years. 

Yeah, that’s a pretty cool thing, right? When you leave a show, and you’re just like, ‘I had so much fun! I’m smiling, I’m jumping up and down.’ That’s what we give people. We give people a moment to escape the outside world and come in, enjoy this, go back to Miami for a little bit.

If you could play any other icon in a show, who would you choose? 

When they make the biopic about Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, that’s mine. That’s the part I want. I want to put on the muscle. I want to show the wrestling part of his career and then the crossover part. When they do the biopic of The Rock, that’s where I’ll pop up.

Of all the people you’ve worked with, who would you most want to work with again? 

I’d want to work with the guys that I made Sirens with, Denis Leary and Bob Fisher, and the producers. That team was so much fun. I learned so much from Denis and Bob, and the cast was so great. I could go to work everyday with those guys for the rest of my life and be a very, very happy actor and happy human. They were just so great. We had such a good time. I felt like I was making a sketch for college. I felt like I was in a college improv group where we would just go, shoot these episodes and pop them on TV and just laugh our heads off watching them, reminiscing about old times.

What’s something people would be surprised to learn about you? 

I’ve never seen West Side Story. I feel like I shouldn’t be confessing that, but I was just talking about that the other day. They were like, ‘Josh, you’ve never seen West Side Story?’ I’ve never seen a stage production of it, or the movie. I need to do that. I missed a lot of the important, pivotal movies that shape a lot of young actors. I was busy watching professional wrestling and sports. I always had sports on the TV. That’s all I watched, I would pop in VHS recordings of Magic games and wrestling matches. That’s all I watched as a kid, so now, in my older age, I have to go back and educate myself on all of those movies.

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