Seeing your life’s hardest moments depicted onstage is a distinctly uncanny feeling — one that Tony Valdovinos, the real-life inspiration for new musical ¡Americano! is still getting used to.
“When I watch the show, it’s not just my story,” he said. “It’s the story of the organizers. It’s the story of students getting together from all walks of life, who just wanted to see justice in the community.”
But the story of ¡Americano! is inexorably tied to Valdovinos. Now the founder of political consulting firm La Machine, Valdovinos didn’t have a background in theatre. Inspired to join the Marines after witnessing the 9/11 attacks, he was waylaid at 18 when he found out that he was not an American citizen, but a Dreamer.
Locked out of attending college as an in-state student due to his immigration status, Valdovinos turned to grassroots political organizing in hopes of helping other undocumented students facing the same challenges. His work in establishing La Machine, an organization dedicated to engaging a culturally diverse electorate, led to the watershed victory of Ruben Gallego (himself an ex-Marine) as US Representative in Arizona’s 7th district.
An interview with public radio podcast The World about his personal journey and electoral work, brought Valdovinos to the attention of a group of creatives at the Phoenix Theatre Company. They approached him with a proposition to dramatize his life story. Said Valdovinos: “At La Machine, we’ve expanded East Coast to West Coast, — we’ve now done work in Chicago, Nevada, Missouri — but we have a heavy portfolio of victories in Arizona. The work we do there got their attention, and that’s why they initially approached me. I had no idea it would grow to this magnitude.”
After developing an initial draft, the team began the challenging task of filling out the cast of characters in Valdovinos’s life — where perhaps their most daunting mission would be finding someone to play Tony himself. Back in New York, Sean Ewing — a veteran of several Broadway shows and notable regional appearances — found himself looking for a new challenge.
“A couple of years ago, I told my agents: ‘I really love and appreciate being a part of these wonderful pieces of musical theater that have always existed, like West Side Story — but I’ve always been interested in creating something. Can we please keep our eye out for new works?’” said Ewing. In a moment of serendipity, he was sent the material for the initial production of ¡Americano!
“I loved the script,” said Ewing. “I knew there was something to the show that was intriguing — it was so fresh, so new and topical, and I felt it was extremely poignant.” Asked to attend a series of rare pre-pandemic Zoom auditions, Ewing got the chance to connect at length with director Michael Barnard and Valdovinos himself.
The responsibility of telling someone’s life story was intimidating at first, said Ewing. “I wanted to make sure I was truthful and honest to Tony and his story and maintain the integrity and the sensitivity of the piece — trying to find that balance was really tough. I harnessed his courage and took on his story in any way that I could and made sure that I connected with him throughout the process, and said, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ Because I knew he was watching.”
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For Valdovinos, Ewing was more than up to the challenge. “It was an honor. When I see this work of art, it is just incredible to see professionals at the top of their talent. When Sean’s up there, it’s incredible to see the true justice and art of telling a story,” he said.
The entire creative team took great care in providing specificity and authenticity to the story over the course of the initial Phoenix production, several pandemic-era readings, and now, the show’s newest iteration Off-Broadway now playing at New World Stages.
“Over the last two years this team has taken the show leaps and bounds,” said Ewing. “I am so happy with how willing and honest this team has been to listen to the need to hear those who are culturally from Mexico. Their ability to open up and be understanding and apply it to the material is absolutely incredible.”
Valdovinos agrees. “It’s amplifying why we did this electoral work and honestly, how tough it was — the show itself does that entire experience justice every single day as it continues. I think it gets more true, more authentic every time.”
Audiences in both Arizona and New York have responded passionately to the show’s impactful message of perseverance and proud immigrant identity. Word of mouth has grown throughout the musical’s Off-Broadway run, drawing attendance and praise from audience members who have traveled from across the US and Mexico to see the show. ¡Americano! has also caught the attention of notable Latine multi-hyphenates Sonia Manzano and Lin-Manuel Miranda — who was overheard commenting after the production, “You all are on fire! Wow, you all sing this score eight times a week? How many key changes are there? Amazing!”
“The crowd has slowly started to grow, and the message is starting to get out — people are really getting excited,” said Ewing. “It’s great because here in New York you can feel the audience and you always can tell when they’re on board — and so far, I haven’t felt an audience that’s not on board.”
Both Ewing and Valdovinos highlighted the universal quality of ¡Americano! — which, while incredibly personal to Valdovinos, resonates with anyone who has ever fought to be considered an American.
“This is an American story — because I grew up an American,” said Valdovinos. “I’ve pledged allegiance to the flag since I was in HeadStart. We’re all immigrants in this country, and I think that’s another aspect of this story — there is nothing that people can do to strip your identity. That’s what this journey’s about — facing the odds and putting one foot in front of the other to do the work ahead.”
“All art should heal in some way,” said Ewing. “It should make audiences think about how we can unify and heal. It’s one person’s story, but it relates to everybody, it relates to all of us in some way. By being a part of it, I feel like a foghorn for so many people who need and deserve a chance to be heard — who deserve opportunity, and who deserve a place here in this country.”
Now, the new musical has its eyes on the next horizon — Broadway. “I hope it gets to Broadway — that’s where the biggest energy is,” said Valdovinos. “It’s such an amazing opportunity to be at New World Stages” on the way, he added.
Ewing said that regardless of ¡Americano!’s destiny, he hoped the show and its story of hope would have a continued impact. “I really hope it has a future — but I think what is even more important to me is delivering this message. The message of understanding and humanity — it’s a human story.”