Out director Jerry Mitchell rips Trump as ‘On Your Feet’ comes to Houston.
By Don Maines
Openly gay director Jerry Mitchell’s favorite line in On Your Feet!—the Broadway musical that congas its way to Houston November 21-26—comes when a Cuban-American immigrant tells a Hollywood record-studio executive, “This is what an American looks like.”
That memorable moment is part of a scene in which Gloria Estefan and her husband, producer-musician Emilio Estefan of Miami Sound Machine, were fighting to get their “ethnic” sound played on American radio stations. “They were told that their music wouldn’t make it in America,” says Mitchell. “I think they won the battle. These are Cuban immigrants who came to our country, and through their artistry and talent, I think, made us a greater country.”
On Your Feet! boasts an original book by Academy Award-winner Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman and The Bodyguard Musical) and the Estefans’ songbook of hits such as “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Conga,” “1-2-3,” “Get On Your Feet,” “Mi Tierra,” “Don’t Want to Lose You Now,” and “Reach.”
After 780 performances, On Your Feet! closed August 20 in New York, but its first national tour continues to keep Mitchell in the national debate over social issues that include immigration. “The gay community is faced with the same resistance as immigrants,” says Mitchell. “Both groups are saying, ‘We are equal to every other person, and we have the same rights and deserve the same recognition of our rights.’”
Mitchell relishes the opportunity to tell publications covering the show what he thinks of President Trump, who kicked off his campaign for the White House by promising to build a “great, great wall” to keep out immigrants from Mexico.
“I do have that platform,” says Mitchell, who danced on Broadway with Trump’s second wife, Marla Maples, in The Will Rogers Follies, which Tommy Tune directed and choreographed in 1991. “I hung out with Donald Trump. I got to know him on a personal level,” says Mitchell. “He’s not a president.”
Mitchell grew up in Paw Paw, Michigan, which is also the setting for the 2008 off-Broadway show Dear Edwina, about 13-year-old wiseacre Edwina Spoonapple directing her siblings in a weekly mini-musical that’s performed in their garage.
In contrast, young Jerry Mitchell began as part of “the boy’s band” in a production of The Music Man at his local community theater, the Paw Paw Village Players. He continued performing there until graduating from high school and accepting a scholarship to study acting, dance, and voice at the prestigious Conservatory of Theatre Arts of Webster College (now Webster University) in St. Louis.
In 1980, Mitchell arrived in New York City shortly before the AIDS epidemic “just about devastated” the Broadway community.
His early career as a six-foot-four-inch hoofer included dancing for legendary choreographer Agnes DeMille in Brigadoon and Donald Saddler in On Your Toes, which won the 1983 Tony Award for Best Revival.
In 1992, Mitchell conceived and created Broadway Bares, a comedy burlesque show performed annually for the charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “My first show made $8,000,” he says, compared to $1.6 million for its 25th-anniversary production. Through the years, the group has paid out almost $17 million, including a donation to AIDS Foundation Houston.
Broadway Bares also introduced Mitchell’s choreography skills to New York’s theater community.
In 1998, he made his Broadway debut as a choreographer with You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which won Tony Awards for Kristen Chenoweth as Sally and Roger Bart as Snoopy.
Tony nominations followed for Mitchell’s work on The Full Monty, The Rocky Horror Show, Hairspray, Never Gonna Dance, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Legally Blonde, which he also directed.
Mitchell won Tony Awards for Best Choreography for La Cage aux Folles (2005) and Kinky Boots (2013), along with a Best Direction of a Musical nomination for Kinky Boots.
He also choreographed both the Off-Broadway productions and films of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Jeffrey. “I don’t look to tell only gay stories,” says Mitchell, “but I have told some great gay stories.”
His next story might be a musical adaptation of Terry Ronald’s 2012 coming-of-age novel Becoming Nancy. “It’s a beautiful story, set in east London, about a 16-year-old boy who gets cast as Nancy in a school production of Oliver! because none of the girls can sing,” says Mitchell. “He starts to have feelings for the head footballer who plays Bill Sykes.”
The plan is to premiere the show in London’s West End theater district, where “Ruby Strippers,” the eighth edition of West End Bares, was performed in October. The satellite production of Broadway Bares benefitted projects that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support in the United Kingdom and parts of Africa.•
What: On Your Feet! presented by BBVA Compass Broadway
When: 7:30 p.m. November 21, 22, 23 and 24; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. November 25; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. November 26
Where: The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby