How One Phoenix Man's Story Became the Musical Americano! and Made It to New York

The cast of "Americano!"
The cast of "Americano!" Reg Madison Photography
When Tony Valdovinos put his head down on his pillow every night as a child, he dreamed of becoming a Marine. He practically counted the days until he turned 18 so that he could talk to a recruiter, sign the enlistment papers, and start his career serving the United States of America.

But fate would have different orders for Valdovinos, and he would learn the harsh truths of a tumultuous world full of biased politics and steadfast traditions. His story is the basis for the musical Americano!, which just began previews at Off-Broadway's New World Stages after a successful run at The Phoenix Theatre Company.

But before New York came calling and before he was approached by Michael Barnard, the director of Phoenix Theatre, to pitch the story idea, Valdovinos was doing his part in the Phoenix family business. His father was a contractor who specialized in demolition. From the time he and his older brother could lift a hammer or push a wheelbarrow, they were helping their dad raze houses.

“You know, we would do real stuff; the very nasty, dirty stuff,” Valdovinos says. “The work was very dangerous, very demanding physically.”

To keep him focused and motivated, Valdovinos’s relentless thoughts about joining the Marine Corps kept him sane. Then 9/11 happened, and that strengthened his resolve even more. He didn’t think of hauling heavy debris away from shattered buildings as back-breaking labor, he thought of it as early preparation for boot camp. It was a step closer to his dream.

“I never wanted to go to college, and I didn’t at the time truly understand the route of an officer," he says. "For me it was about joining, to join.”

When the day finally came, Valdovinos met with a recruiter with an earnest immediacy. For almost two decades, he had been waiting for this moment. It was finally time to start serving his country and become the patriot he was born to be. This is where the heart of Americano! begins.

click to enlarge Tony Valdovinos' life story can now be seen Off-Broadway in Americano!. - ROSE+ALLYN PUBLIC AND ONLINE RELATIONS
Tony Valdovinos' life story can now be seen Off-Broadway in Americano!.
Rose+Allyn Public and Online Relations

Valdovinos would be turned away from the recruitment office. Not because he lacked skill, not because he wasn't motivated. But, it was at that precise moment he learned he was a "Dreamer."

“A Dreamer is a coined term directed at immigrants from all walks of life,” explains Valdovinos, “from all different countries who have landed here in the United States as either young adults or children. The term Dreamer was coined because of a congressional bill called the DREAM Act [Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act] ... That bill would have given people like myself the opportunity to earn citizenship through military service or to earn citizenship through education. It was called the DREAM Act because it was giving the children and students a chance to follow their dreams.”

The experience at the recruiter’s office left Valdovinos enraged and confused. Why would his parents not tell him sooner? He didn't understand.

“I had always, always vocalized that I wanted to join the Marines,” he says. “My mom was not about it. She was 100 percent not about it. She would always make comments about, ‘You’re not doing that!’ It never would have dawned in my heart that she already knew I wasn’t going to be able to join.”

That day would be the first time Valdovinos would truly disrespect his parents because he felt disrespected himself. Immediately after he was rejected by the Marines, he went home to confront his mother, who broke down in tears. His father was just coming up the walk at that exact moment with his hoses and toolbox in hand. “I felt like a nobody. It was a shitty experience to see my mother break down and my father so angry.”

Whatever anger his father was feeling, Valdovinos was twice as angry because the reality sunk in that his lifelong dream had died. He thought, “I’m stuck, I’m chained to this reality that I got to back and do demolition while everybody else goes to school and everything.”

“This is a little bit about what Americano! captures,” he explains, taking a deep breath. “It’s that day when the officer asked me where I was born. I answered the question. I never heard the words 'Dreamer' or 'illegal' at that time. It just wasn’t around me, and 'undocumented' just wasn’t around; these words were just not around when I was 17.”

Having been somewhat in the public eye as a writer, business owner, and political figure, Valdovinos got a call in 2015. It was Barnard from The Phoenix Theatre Company, who was interested in turning Valdovinos' past into a full-blown musical. “I sat in his office, gave him my life story. I thought it was just another article. But these gentlemen called me back after a week and they laid it on me. They were like, ‘Look, we want to take your story and make it into a musical.'”

Their proposal was incomprehensible. His life as a musical? It took about five years to develop, with nearly 81 scripts and a lot of consulting. Barnard is credited with directing, musical staging, and co-book writer/lyricist; Jonathan Rosenberg is alos listed as a co-book writer/lyricist. Singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez composed the score and contributed lyrics; choreography was done by Sergio Mejia.

Though Tony didn’t write any of it himself, he was happy with the end result: “The core of the story is absolutely true.”

Americano! opened as a part of The Phoenix Theatre Company’s 100th-anniversary lineup in 2020. The show broke records, including selling out 10 performances. Tony Award-winning executive consultant Ken Davenport found out that the Shubert Organization wanted to bring Americano! to off-Broadway in spring 2022. Previews began on March 31, and the show will run 10 weeks, from April 21 to June 19.

It will be the first Phoenix musical to be invited to a New York stage.

As for his parents, Tony says that his mother is very supportive of the show. But that doesn’t mean the healing is complete.

“I think my father absolutely didn’t want to be part of it. In the realities of portraying someone’s real-life story, there’s a lot of challenges. My father was like my drill sergeant, and to this day we don’t hug and he's honestly taken a huge step away from it all, and I don’t know why.

“One of my closely guarded secrets is that this whole experience has been very tough to climb through and relive those traumas that legitimately happened in real life,” Tony says. “And to be exposed and to really put that out there, and what it was like for me to walk the two miles home after the recruitment office told me to fuck off and literally explode with anger, confusion, and devastation. I felt embarrassed and rejected over something I was so sure I wanted to become.”

Even though Tony didn’t make it to the Marines, he keeps very busy in Phoenix. His political influence and hard work helped elect a Marine, Ruben Gallego, to the U.S. Congress, something of which he is very proud.

“I don’t feel like an immigrant. I’m an American at heart," Valdovinos says. "From 2 years old, all the way to 31, I’ve lived in the city of Phoenix. I’ve worked in this city, I’ve built in this city. Americano! is an American story."

For more information on Americano!, click here.
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Timothy Rawles