In 2015, Mauricio Martínez was facing the potentially make-or-break decision dreaded by scores of rising young artists in the entertainment industry. The Monterrey, Mexico-born actor and singer, who was gaining notice throughout Latin America for heartthrob TV and stage roles and for his ballad-heavy album Desde 1978, came under threat from a tabloid: come out as gay, or be outed.
The tabloid jab happened to coincide with the first anniversary of Martínez’s marriage to now-ex-husband Emilio Solís. “They thought that they had outed me,” says Martinez. “I took a day and I didn’t say anything, and I got together with friends that worked at GLAAD, and I said, ‘How can I use this as sort of an example and not treat it as a media frenzy, and not make it about me? How can I help a teenager that’s coming out, or a teenager that’s debating whether to commit suicide or not because he’s being bullied in high school because he’s gay?'”
An established talent south of the border, Martínez already had overcome tremendous obstacles through courage and perseverance. As a teenager he’d moved to New York City to study drama and musical theater, eventually relocating to Mexico City, where he earned roles onstage playing Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar. Then, as a young man, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Now a four-time cancer survivor, Martínez clearly has thrived by not backing down from a challenge. And he didn’t back down from the tabloids.
“I sat down with a dear friend of mine, and I wrote this letter that then became a sort of a press release, but very heartfelt, where I said, ‘Listen I never said publicly that I was gay, and I didn’t sell my wedding to a magazine or to a TV network — that is very common in Mexico that they do that and get paid for it — because it truly has nothing to do with my life as an artist, as an actor, or as a singer in either theater, television or film or music. The day that the sexual preference of a public figure is not the reason for a headline, or a cover of a magazine or a newspaper, when that day arrives, we’ll be so advanced as far as humanity, as far as countries go.’ So the press went nuts with it, and I’ve been shown, honestly, nothing but respect from that day forward.”
Many of those days and nights going forward Martínez has spent onstage performing his breakout English language role as Miami Sound Machine maestro Emilio Estefan, in the acclaimed stage musical On Your Feet!
Brought in to audition for the role by a casting director who found Martínez’s website via social media, the actor had to pass a steeper test to book the part. “I didn’t even know what On Your Feet! was,” admits Martínez. So he did his research on the Tony-nominated jukebox musical about the lives, career, and marriage of legendary Latin-pop power couple Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and then headed to New York for the audition.
“The casting director looked at me and said, ‘Well, just so you know, in the room are Alex Dinelaris, who wrote the book, Jerry Mitchell, who’s the director, and Sergio Trujillo, who’s the choreographer.’ And my mind just went: Academy Award, Tony, Olivier. So, I was like, ‘Okay, no pressure. No pressure.’ And then he said, ‘Oh, and there’s also Gloria and Emilio.’ I just lost it. I walked in, and shook Emilio’s hand, and I looked at Gloria, directly into her eyes, because I was so nervous. I basically, sang to her the whole time. I said, ‘What the hell, if I’m auditioning to play her husband, I might as well look at her, straight into her eyes.’ So that’s what I did, and it worked. At least it moved Gloria at the audition.”
Offered the opportunity to step into the part originally created by Josh Segarra, Martínez made his Broadway debut in 2017, then went on tour with the show for nearly a year-and-a-half, opposite Christie Prades as Gloria. He was the third actor to assume the role on Broadway, and credits director Mitchell, choreographer Trujillo, and the play’s associate director Andy Señor with helping him make the part his own.
“I didn’t want to copy anyone,” says Martínez, noting one other inside source of inspiration for his portrayal. “Getting to know Emilio, and getting to travel with him, and spend time with him at the studio, at restaurants, at his home, and in hotels, in theaters, and cars, it was amazing. I was like a sponge. And he is a very, very funny guy, when you talk to him. He has this very thick accent, which Gloria always makes light fun of, in a very beautiful and loving way. And the more I knew him, the more I would put in. His laugh, the way he speaks, the way he moves. Every time, with respect. Never wanting to be just funny. Just being him, being honest. He is a naturally very funny man. So, he brought that out of me, and it was great.”
Martínez said goodbye to the tour earlier this year, and is back in the recording studio working on a new album, while waiting to hear about a potential third season for his Emmy-winning NBC Universo dramedy, El Vato, in which he costars as uber-macho pop idol Marcos Gutiérrez.
To the benefit of fans in D.C. who would like to see him live, Martínez will join conductor Luke Frazier and the American Pops Orchestra at Arena Stage this Saturday, along with special guests Kathy Najimy, Trading Spaces‘s Paige Davis, and RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Alexis Michelle, among others, for I Am What I Am: A Tribute to Jerry Herman.
Calling theater his first love, Martínez recalls growing up listening to his mother’s Broadway cast albums, including Hello, Dolly!, Herman’s landmark hit. “The minute I told my mom that I was going to do ‘Put on Your Sunday Clothes,’ she literally started singing with me, without even knowing the words,” says Martínez. “Interestingly enough, right now two of the biggest musicals playing in Mexico City are Hello, Dolly! and La Cage Aux Folles.
“So, I’m very excited and honored to be a part of this celebration, this tribute to a wonderful man who I’m a huge fan of, and I get to share the stage with some amazing talents. Just the song ‘I Am What I Am’ — that’s such an anthem as to how one should live and lead their life. I am what I am, period.”
APO’s I Am What I Am: The Music of Jerry Herman is Saturday, May 18, at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $25 to $75. Visit www.theamericanpops.org.