Tony Valdovinos was a young man who grew up proud of the United States. Raised in Phoenix, he was inspired by the events of 9/11 to join the U.S. Marines after high school graduation. But when he tried to enroll, he learned something that would change his life: He was an undocumented immigrant whose parents had brought him to the U.S. when he was two years old.
His story about navigating life as an American DREAMer is told in a new musical that opened this month at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages for a 12-week limited engagement through June 19. ¡Americano! has a book by Michael Barnard, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Fernanda Santos and an original score by singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez, with additional lyrics by Barnard and Rosenberg.
Barnard, the producing artistic director for Arizona’s Phoenix Theatre Company, is the director, as he was at the show’s original run in Arizona back in January 2020. It’s a musical he’d like to see tour the country.
“It’s a fresh, new original story about something that actually makes you proud to be an American,” Barnard said.
Denied entry to the armed forces, Valdovinos found other ways to serve his country, including combating voter suppression and fighting for representation in government. He serves as the inspiration for the story and as the show’s consulting producer. He is grateful it has made it to New York and hopes it will eventually make its way to Broadway.
“It’s a super big opportunity, but it is as equal a responsibility for the message that it carries,” Valdovinos said. “We’re trying to reach audiences across both aisles to really humanize the experience of immigrant families and American pride. It is our responsibility to do it justice and really paint an American story.”
A bit of backstory: When the act that gives DREAM its name (the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) failed to pass Congress in 2012, President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which his successor, Donald Trump, tried to end the program in 2017. He was blocked by the courts from doing this, but another court ruling has thrown DREAMers back into legal limbo: After President Biden issued a new executive order in 2021 to preserve and fortify DACA, a Texas judge ruled that DACA was illegal and no new applications could be approved.
As someone who has spent his adult life navigating these complicated challenges and advocating for immigrants, Valdovinos is impressed with the way a piece of musical theatre can convey the human stakes of this debate.
“It has been very humbling to see folks walk out with a realization of the immigrant experience,” Valdovinos said. “Audience members I have met all have the same tone: They talk about not knowing this was going on. In 13 years, I’ve done political campaigns, knocking on doors, making phone calls, licking envelopes. It’s jaw-dropping for me, because I realized that the work is always going to be endless, but somehow the art humanizes the experience. There’s something much more powerful about art. It’s not political, it’s a story. It is very healing and very strengthening to realize art’s impact.”
After Valdovinos was rejected from the military—which is how the musical opens—he went on to become a political consultant. In the role he has fought voter suppression and helped people get elected, even though he himself cannot vote. He became the first DREAMer to work at Phoenix City Hall, and eventually started his own consulting firm. Still, his ability to stay in the U.S. remains in the hands of the courts as it decides the fate of undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children.
The show has evolved since its initial run in Arizona, in part because the world in which it is taking place has changed. Barnard said that events transpiring since COVID began, from the health crisis to social justice movements, have affected everything from casting to particular aspects of the storytelling.
“Everything from how we handle LGBT, how we handle women, how we handle macho men, how we handle language and how we handle intimacy—it’s a whole new world out there,” Barnard said. “Some things that were more important to us in 2020 have become less important and other things have risen to the top, so it’s been a fascinating journey.”
The music of ¡Americano! combines Mexican and American folk music, something Valdovinos called one of the most powerful aspects of the musical. Songwriter Carrie Rodriguez had never written a musical before and said she believes the book writers were searching for a sound that wasn’t traditional musical theatre and that reflected Valdovinos’s biculturalism.
Rodriguez, who has continued rewriting and adding music and lyrics since the show’s original run, said that she loves looking around the room in New York and seeing younger women of color—Latinas like herself—in the audience.
“We’re feeling like, wow, that’s me onstage,” Rodriquez said. “That’s my story. That’s my family’s story. And it’s really powerful to see that acted out, danced and sung.” She said she thinks of ¡Americano! as a living, breathing thing, and that the creative team learns something new every time they see it performed. She has also been thrilled to have the opportunity to tell Valdovinos’s story this way, which she calls “one of the greatest honors of my musical career,” and “one of the greatest responsibilities I’ve had as a musician. We have the opportunity to really change hearts and minds in a way that just hearing a politician speak, for example, can’t. Music opens people up. It allows us to feel in a way that other art forms don’t in the same immediate way.”
Sean Ewing (West Side Story and Amazing Grace on Broadway) portrays Valdovinos, leading a nearly entirely Latinx/e company. In 2019, he told his agent that he wanted to start focusing on new works, which led him to audition for ¡Americano!. As a Colombian American, he said he immediately fell in love with the script and has appreciated the opportunity to get to know Valdovinos and his story. This has been the first time he’s had the chance to work face to face with a composer on a new piece, he said, and he praised both Rodriguez’ music and process.
“Her music is gorgeous,” Ewing said. “She has a passion for her music. She cares so much about it and she wants her rhythms to tell stories. Her music makes the storytelling so much easier.”
The musical was developed at the Phoenix Theatre over a four-year period and opened during the theatre’s 100th anniversary season. It was conceived in part by Jason Rose, who continues to act as producer and who made a large donation to help create the show. While it was in development, New York-based producer Ken Davenport (Altar Boyz, Godspell, Kinky Boots, Once on This Island) joined the team as executive producer, with an eye to eventually taking the show to Broadway. In a release before the show’s original 2020 opening, Davenport called Valdovinos “the new American hero.” In January of 2021, New York’s Amas Musical Theater agreed to co-produce a live production of !Americano!, starting with a two-week workshop in the fall of 2021.
Valdovinos said he hopes the show can build bridges to conservative audiences, and to humanize the stories of DREAMers. He’s met with people as they walk out of the New York previews who have told him they had no idea of what was happening with undocumented immigrants, and were appalled to learn of the repressive policies in place in states like Arizona and Texas.
The show’s director, Barnard, said he’s watched audiences be moved by the piece. It is, he said, an opportunity to bring the subject of DREAMers—a group of young people who are patriotic and committed to this country, but are being denied citizenship—back to the forefront of the national conversation.
“It’s something to enlighten people to the fact that there are well over 800,000 DREAMers, young people who are terribly committed to his country,” Barnard said. “They only want the opportunity to give back and be a part of the fabric of this country. I mean, they’re there. They are woven into the country. The only thing they don’t have is citizenship.”
Bridgette M. Redman (she/her) writes about theatre and the arts for publications around the country. Her work has recently appeared in Encore Monthly, OnStage blog, the Chicago Reader and the Houston Chronicle. She’s been a theatre critic since 2005.
Creative credits for production photos: ¡Americano!, book by Michael Barnard, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Fernanda Santos, music by Carrie Rodriguez, with additional lyrics by Barnard and Rosenberg, directed by Michael Barnard, choreography by Sergio Mejia, orchestrations and arrangements by Sergio Mendoza, music direction and vocal arrangements by Jonathan Ivie, scenic design by Robert Andrew Kovach, costume design by Adriana Diaz, lighting design by Jamie Roderick, sound design by Kevin Heard, and hair and make-up design by Krystal Balleza
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