As a music student at the University of Miami during the early 1980s, it was easy for Clay Ostwald to get caught up in the infectious energy of the area’s vibrant Latin music scene.
Ostwald, a self-described “middle-class white kid from Colorado,” may not have fit the look or background of the music he played, but that didn’t stop him and a group of classmates from forming a Latin music band.
Their reputation on the Miami music scene caught the attention of resident superstars Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who in 1986 tapped Ostwald’s group to perform as the rhythm section of their band, the Miami Sound Machine.
Today, Ostwald still works with the Estefans, both as a member of the Miami Sound Machine and as the music director for their touring musical, “On Your Feet: The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan,” which comes to the Durham Performing Arts Center Jan. 2-7. Ostwald, along with five original members of the Miami Sound Machine, also play in the production’s band.
“I don’t know any other bands that have worked with the same artists and been together for 30 years,” he says. “We have truly worked with Gloria every day for 30 years, which is an amazing run.”
The musical, based on a book about the Estefans written by Alexander Dinelaris, kicked off on Broadway in 2014 and hit the tour circuit in late 2017. It tells the story of Gloria’s rise from a child in Cuba – fleeing the Cuban Revolution to Miami – to becoming one of pop music’s most enduring figures, alongside husband and collaborator, Emilio.
Her string of hit songs – from the buoyant “Conga” to sultry ballads like “Anything for You” – provide the soundtrack. The story culminates with Gloria’s remarkable comeback after a devastating tour bus accident in 1990 that left her with a fractured spine, among other injuries.
“When you watch the musical, you think the music was written for the scene it was in, but that’s only because of the way Alex (Dinelaris) crafted the plot,” Ostwald says.
For Ostwald, the show provides a nightly throwback to some of the most exciting days of his own career, as well, offering a new perspective on the impact the group had on the music industry.
“When you’re in the middle of it, it’s just a daily activity – you’re just wrapped up in the next thing, the daily routine of it, and you don’t see it as being as big as it really is,” he says. “When you see adoring fans, it’s always exciting, and it’s what we always dreamed of doing. Looking back on it, it was an amazing time for all of us.
More than just a fun jukebox musical, Ostwald says the production’s American Dream story is one that particularly resonates today – the journey of immigrants escaping unrest in their homeland to find success in the United States.
“It’s a real feel-good show, but there’s a lot more to it,” he said. “There’s a depth underneath that’s even more important in this day and age.
“The immigrant story and importance of understanding others’ needs and struggles and culture is incredibly important,” he said. “I think the audience will go home loving the music, but they’ll also understand something more about the immigrant story.”
What: “On Your Feet: The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan”
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham
When: Jan. 2-4, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 5-6, 8 p.m.; Jan. 6, 2 p.m.; Jan. 7, 1 and 6:30 p.m.
Info: dpacnc.com, onyourfeetmusical.com