How One Phoenix Man’s Story Became Musical Americano! and made it to New York

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When Tony Valdovinos laid his head on his pillow every night as a child, he dreamed of becoming a Marine. He practically counted the days until he turned 18 so he could talk to a recruiter, sign the application papers, and begin his career in the United States of America.

But fate would have a different order 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 American!which just started previewing on Off-Broadway’s New World Stages after a successful run with The Phoenix Theater Company.

But before New York called and before he was approached by Phoenix Theater director Michael Barnard to pitch the story idea, Valdovinos did his part in the Phoenix family business. His father was a contractor who specialized in demolition work. From the moment he and his older brother could lift a hammer or push a wheelbarrow, they helped their father demolish houses.

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

To keep him focused and motivated, Valdovinos’ relentless thoughts about joining the Marine Corps kept him sane. Then 9/11 happened, and that reinforced his resolve even more. He didn’t view hauling heavy debris from destroyed buildings as backbreaking work, he viewed it as early preparation for training camp. It was one step closer to his dream.

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

When the day finally came, Valdovinos met a recruiter with serious immediacy. He had been waiting for this moment for nearly two decades. It was finally time to serve his country and become the patriot he was born to be. This is where the heart of American! begins.

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Tony Valdovinos’s Life Story Now Showing Off-Broadway In American!

Rose+Allyn Public and Online Relations

Valdovinos would be turned down at the recruitment agency. Not because he lacked skills, not because he was not motivated. But it was precisely at that moment that he learned that he was a ‘dreamer’.

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

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

“I’d always, always said I wanted to join the Marines,” he says. “My mother was not concerned with it. She wasn’t 100 percent into it. She always made comments about, “You don’t!” It would never have crossed my mind that she already knew I wouldn’t be able to participate.”

That day would be the first time Valdovinos would really disrespect his parents because he felt disrespected himself. Immediately after being rejected by the Marines, he went home to confront his mother, who burst into tears. His father came up the walk at just that moment with his hoses and toolbox in hand. “I felt like a nobody. It was such a shitty experience to see my mom collapse and my dad so angry.”

Whatever anger his father felt, Valdovinos was twice as angry because the reality was sunk in that his lifelong dream had died. He thought, “I’m stuck, I’m chained to this reality that I have to get back and wreck while everyone else goes to school and everything.”

“This is a bit about what” American! catches,” he explains, taking a deep breath. “It’s that day the officer asked me where I was born. I answered the question. I never heard the words ‘Dreamer’ or ‘illegal’ back then. It just wasn’t around me, and ‘undocumented’ just wasn’t there; these words just weren’t there when I was 17.”

Valdovinos was somewhat in the public eye as a writer, business owner and political figure and got a phone call in 2015. It was Barnard of The Phoenix Theater Company who was interested in turning Valdovinos’ past into a full-blown musical. “I sat in his office, told him my life story. I thought it was just another article. But these gentlemen called me back after a week and put it on me. They said, ‘Look, we want to take your story and make it a musical.’”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think my father wanted to be there at all. In the reality of portraying one’s real-life story, there are many challenges. My dad was like my drill sergeant, and to this day we don’t hug and he’s really taken a big step away from everything, and I don’t know why.

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

Although Tony didn’t make it to the Marines, he’s very busy in Phoenix. His political influence and hard work helped in the election of a Marine, Ruben Gallego, to the United States Congress, something he is very proud of.

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

For more information about American!Click here.

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