The Phoenix Theatre’s ‘¡Americano!’ is paving the way to Broadway with ‘hope at its best’

A runaway hit in Arizona, this musical tackles a tough topic in a story meant for the stage.
“¡Americano!” is the story of a young Arizonan’s unexpected path, whose ambition and drive took a detour after learning he was not a U.S. citizen.
Published: Jun. 22, 2022 at 2:59 PM MST
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PHOENIX (Arizona Highways TV) -- Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every journey, a starting point, and a destination -- with pit stops and even some roadblocks along the way.

“¡Americano!” is the story of a young Arizonan’s unexpected path, whose ambition and drive took a detour after learning he was not allowed to fight for the country he always called home.

“It’s an American story, a true American story,” said Sean Ewing, the actor who plays Antonio Valdovinos, the “Dreamer” whose life and experience are the inspiration for “¡Americano!” “He took a new direction, turning his pride and patriotism into activism. He never gave up, and he still is probably the most American individual I’ve ever met.”

“¡Americano!” is an American story, but it’s also an Arizona story. It’s the first Arizona production – it first ran at The Phoenix Theatre Company – to potentially become a Broadway hit. It started with a chance meeting between Jason Rose, the show’s lead producer, and Michael Barnard, the artistic director for The Phoenix Theatre Company. That was in 2015. It was the beginning of what would become a yearslong collaboration.

“We knew in Arizona, for an original musical, immigration was a great subject matter, the place to birth a musical on this subject,” Rose said. He became convinced a musical about immigration would be a surefire hit -- a story meant for the stage.

“¡Americano!” is an American story, but it’s also an Arizona story. It’s the first Arizona production – it first ran at Phoenix Theatre Company – to Broadway.

“I’ve always liked politics in stories with a higher purpose,” he said.

“The subject of immigration can be touchy depending on who you are and where you’re from,” Barnard, the co-book writer and director, said. “But I will tell you this: the theatre gives you the opportunity to present it from a human point of view as opposed to a political point of view.”

“¡Americano!” wasn’t their first idea. Rose and Barnard had spent 18 months developing a work about a fictional immigrant.

“We came across the story of Tony Valdovinos – 9/11, the Marines, his patriotic journey, his frustrations,” Rose recalled.

It was “¡Americano!” co-writer Jonathan Rosenberg who told Rose and Barnard about Valdovinos. Rosenberg heard him share his story on National Public Radio in 2016. “His story inspired me,” Rosenberg wrote in an editorial for the San Diego Union-Tribune in May.

“[Valdovinos] came in for a meeting with Michael Barnard and I,” Rose recalled. “Within five minutes, Michael and I looked at each other -- I can still see that look to this day of, ‘This is special. This is it. Let’s go for it.’”

The man who lived the story

Antonio Valdovinos de la Mora was born in Mexico in 1990.

“I was brought here by the age of 2 years old, so ‘¡Americano!’ is based off of my life journey and my pursuit for the American dream,” he explained. Growing up, Antonio did not know he was not a legal U.S. citizen. Still, his is a true American story. “So, it’s a story of courage, love, duty, honor, and having pride in this country and ultimately finding ways of serving outside of the way I believed I wanted to serve.”

“I was brought here by the age of 2 years old, so ‘¡Americano!’ is based off of my life journey and my pursuit for the American dream.”

On his 18th birthday, Antonio’s lifelong dream to serve as a Marine was denied after a recruiter discovered his immigration status. He was deeply hurt, but not deterred.

“What I discovered is the pen was mightier than the sword,” he said.

Valdovinos took up activism, lifting up his community by getting involved in the democratic process, registering Latinos to vote to make sure their voices were heard, and drumming up support for immigration reform, so kids like him can follow their dreams.

“He’s an all-American kid with a smile that lights up a room, and his enthusiasm for our country is infectious,” Rose said.

“For me, it’s been very humbling to recognize the bigger picture outside of my individual experience,” Valdovinos said.

“I believe that I fell into something that serendipitously has brought the show and the era and the moment in history in our country together, universally at the same time,” Barnard said. “It’s the perfect time for this show to be.”

“It’s almost impossible not to root for Tony Valdovinos and what he wanted to do,” Rose said. “He wanted to put his life on the line for the only country he ever knew. And that is what is so powerful about this story and this show.”

It’s a story that has resonated loudly with theatergoers. “¡Americano!” had an extraordinary run at Phoenix Theatre, setting the box office record for an original musical.

We recently went back to Camelback High School with Valdovinos. It’s where one journey ended for him, and another began.

“Pulling up here today was a strengthening moment to see that parking lot,” he recalled. It was when I was with the recruiter, and he had told me to leave his car. I think he had figured I wasn’t going to be a good pull for him.”

A hurtful reminder, but also the place where he learned resiliency.

“What really was the foundation of ‘¡Americano!’ growing to what it is now was my political work,” he explained. “My work was based off of the opportunities that were not open to dreamers.”

Organizing with courage by a son of Arizona

He’s now organizing a different kind of troops, with boots on the ground trying to enact change. Through his company, La Machine Field Operations, he’s helping to elect lawmakers who help underrepresented communities by getting them to vote.

“When I saw my first political map and I was told how many people were registered and how few voted, I understood that we weren’t representing ourselves,” he said. “Our communities weren’t participating, which is why our roads weren’t getting repaved, which is why, you know, falling off the skateboard getting home was going to hurt a little bit more. And it’s just like we had less resources. So, for me, the political process became a journey of strengthening our communities. What I mostly found was a hell of a lot of other warriors that were really, really unafraid to push for a better experience respectfully in our communities.”

When Phoenix Theatre performed “¡Americano!” for the students at Camelback High School, the impact was immediate.

“I met two Dreamers that day,” Valdovinos said. “That’s what that experience was bringing the show to Camelback -- meeting two more Dreamers that were in the shadows and having to face graduating high school at a very, very, very significant disadvantage. I think that ultimately it’s been a responsibility for me to tell, I would say our story, you know, an Arizona story. And ultimately, I’m just a product of Arizona. I’m a son of Arizona. I’m very proud of feeling that way.”

Getting from Phoenix to New York -- “¡Si, se puede!”

“Even after a box office breaking run in Arizona, it was still going to take more than a dream to get “¡Americano!” to New York. Talent alone does not bring a show to the world’s largest stages. Chicanos por la Causa, the nonprofit advocacy group born in Arizona, stepped in to play a major supporting role.

“If we don’t tell that story, then who will?” asked Max Gonzales of Chicanos por la Causa.

“It just moved me to say, ‘You know what? This is something special,’” said David Adame, the president and CEO of Chicanos por la Causa. “I think there’s something here that the world needs to see.”

“If we don’t tell that story, then who will?” asked Max Gonzales, also of Chicanos por la Causa.

Getting that story to Broadway was going to take a first-of-its kind collaboration with support that would re-channel CPLC’s famous rallying cry, “¡Si, se puede!” from the streets of Phoenix 50 years ago, through today’s music, theatrics, and billboards that line the Great White Way.

Chicanos por la Causa was founded in Phoenix in 1969 by students and community activists pushing back against racial discrimination and promoting equal education. They were being forced to pursue trades when what they wanted was the opportunity to go to college. At the time, it was seen as a radical political act. But it’s a fight they’re still passionate about, especially for Dreamers.

“This story really provides us a way to do advocacy in a very different way,” Gonzales explained. “We’ve done the traditional forms of advocacy. We’ve met with our elected officials. We’ve talked to them about the issue of Dreamers, but now, let’s take it directly to the people. Let’s talk to them in a way that maybe can get to them and touch them in an emotional way, and tell the story of the dreamer. ‘¡Americano!’ does just that.”

“It highlights the wonderful culture of our community -- familia, love, faith,” Adame said. “All these things are all wrapped in the story about our community. It’s a true story about our community and it’s a beautiful story.”

And it’s bringing name recognition to a cause that is the heart of the Mexican-American community.

“This is a different return, you know, the exposure we’re getting - to see our name in lights here on Broadway,” Adame said. “I saw the NASDAQ sign last night that says ‘in association with Chicanos por la Causa.’ That is helping bring our brand to another level so that we can be even more supportive.”

CPLC has expanded to five states. It’s also in Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory, and Mexico and has plans to go to other Latin American countries.

“This is about all of our communities, Latin American and otherwise,” Adame said.

And they’re seeing the exciting possibility of the arts affecting change.

“No musical has ever come from Arizona to Broadway. ‘¡Americano!’ could be that play,” Gonzales said. “It could be that musical that really gets there and becomes the musical that is the breakthrough and provides other opportunities for artists in Arizona to really pursue their big dreams. We’re contributing to the overall quality of our community through the arts, so being here is a significant, significant step.”

Chicanos por la Causa works to open doors that were once closed to their community, like housing, health services, and economic development. It’s also creating opportunities and pathways to citizenship.

“My mother was an immigrant,” said Antonio Moya, the chairman of the board for CPLC. “She was born in Mexico, and I remember her becoming a U.S. citizen, that being one of the most proud moments of her life.”

“To have a cast that is all Latino, to see faces like myself up there representing our community on the world’s biggest stage, I think is just an amazing, amazing thing,” Gonzales said. “And frankly, it sends a message to the broader community. It sends a message to our community that opportunities are there for you and you should pursue those dreams.

“There’s still thousands of Tonys out there that need our help and need our assistance,” Moya said.

“Through ‘¡Americano!’ CPLC is rolling out a scholarship, a scholarship to be available for Dreamers to go on to pursue higher education,” Gonzales said. “Why do we want to do that? Because we want them to maximize their individual utility. We want them to just realize their dreams, and if providing them an education is one way we can contribute even more to this country of ours, then fantastic. We’d like to be a part of that story.”

‘New York was always the goal’

“It’s a relevant piece of social drama -- social musical drama -- that is perfect for the era in which we are living now.”

When ‘¡Americano!’ got the call offering them their shot, they didn’t hesitate -- not even for a New York minute. The cast and crew had just six months to be ready to open alongside other history-making shows in the greatest theatre district in the world. There were rewrites, scenes added, taken away, songs switched out, relentless, countless hours of rehearsals.

“March 1, after a one month delay due to omicron, we had our first rehearsal, and it’s been a rollercoaster – an incredible, exhilarating, frustrating, wild, nutty, fantastic journey ever since,” Rose said.

Perfect for the times we live in

“I believe this show is a part of New York’s history, of musical theatre’s history,” Barnard said. “It’s a relevant piece of social drama -- social musical drama -- that is perfect for the era in which we are living now.”

‘¡Americano!’ represents many dreams and many firsts for everyone involved in the production.

“Since the age of 5, it has always been my dream to be a part of the New York fabric, to be a part of the New York theatrical society,” Barnard said.

This is my dream. This has been one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me,” original cast member Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda said of her New York debut. “I’ve wanted to be on a New York stage since I was 3 years old, and I’m here. I’m telling an Arizona story that incorporates my Mexican heritage and that is beyond words.”

Ewing originated the role of Tony Valdovinos and reprised it in New York. Like Valdovinos, Ewing was not born in the U.S. He was born in Colombia and then adopted.

“I really try to understand what it could have been like for me if I didn’t have that opportunity, if I didn’t have the great gift of being adopted into an American family,” he said.

‘¡Americano!’ marks the first time a community advocacy group has supported a musical off-Broadway. “For Chicanos por la Causa, I think it’s incredible for them to take this on because it also coincides with their mission as an organization,” Ewing said.

“This kind of gave us a platform so we could tell our story and hopefully change the narrative about our community,” Adame said.

“It’s very clear from the responses from the audience, that the message is landing,” Ewing said. “It’s not so much a forceful message. It’s just a human story.”

Barnard said that’s the power of theater. “It offers you the opportunity to present something, be entertained by that, and create dialogue -- communication about it.”

“A story about a Dreamer, helping dreams come true. That’s alliteration and hope at its best,” Rose said.

What’s next for Phoenix Theatre?

The amazing reception for ‘¡Americano!’ has put Phoenix Theatre Company on the national map.

“‘¡Americano! ‘s’ success is absolutely thrilling and exciting and the potential for what that means for new work development here is also incredibly exciting,” said Michelle Chin, the director of new works at The Phoenix Theatre. “I think that ‘¡Americano! ‘s’ success is just sort of a very hopeful foreshadowing of what could continue to happen in the future for other pieces that start here and have a life after that.”

The success of ‘¡Americano!' is helping to build momentum for the arts being cultivated right here in Arizona.

It’s helping to build momentum for the arts being cultivated right here in Arizona. Chin believes the show’s success is shining a spotlight on Arizona and her talent and artists. “The new work’s process actually allows these artists to present their work to an audience and get feedback, and say, ‘Oh, that totally worked, or ‘That didn’t work.’”

It’s not one-size-fits-all when it comes to collecting new works that Phoenix Theatre thinks has potential. Producing a hit is not instantaneous. Any piece could go through several rewrites.

Phoenix Theatre is known for its big musical productions, so it may surprise you to know that ‘¡Americano!’ was one of the first developed as part of the Festival of New American Theatre.

“And now seeing the success it has had, trying to pivot the festival to provide that support to other musicals is something that we would love to be able to do,” Chin said. “Having this festival here is really exciting because it also gives our audiences a chance to see what the next big hit could be and lets them have a voice in helping sculpt what that could look like.”

“Developing a new work and being able to have the opportunity to bring it to New York, which is the mecca of where theater is birthed, and the opportunities for it to expand and go nationally, globally, is extraordinary,” Barnard said.

Next stop: Broadway?

The cast is taking its final bow at the New World Stages Theatre in New York, but that’s not where this story ends. In fact, the end isn’t even written yet. And for Chicanos por la Causa, whose fight for education has moved from the streets of Phoenix to the New York stage, their 50-year journey is now building bridges that connect with a new generation.

“We still have one more stop to aim for,” Rose said. “And that’s to move up the street onto Broadway into the biggest theatres in the city, into taking the ultimate shot.”

correction: This article has been updated to correct the name of the theater where "¡Americano!" played in New York and note that Jonathan Rosenberg is a co-writer.