SAN ANTONIO — They say life imitates art. In recent months, the cast and crew of the all-new Magik Theatre show “Selena Maria Sings” have come to realize just how much.
That includes Andrea Morales, the play's director. She was in the hospital in February when the job was offered to her, a few months after acting in the show’s debut run in Arizona last fall. Morales was about five months pregnant at the time.
Now she was in labor (but “not active labor,” she emphasizes) when Anthony Runfola, the Magik’s artistic director, called her up to ask about the directing gig. It would be less of a day-to-day commitment than acting, but just as important a job. Would she be interested?
“I said, ‘That’s an interesting thought. I’m in labor, so I’m gonna have to get back to you,’” Morales recalls with a laugh. “He’s like, ‘You’re what? Why did you answer your phone?’”
A few weeks later, while caring for a healthy newborn girl, she accepted. Morales already knew “Selena Maria Sings” inside and out, having been involved since 2018 and acting as the young protagonist’s mother. But her perspective on the story had evolved after starting her own motherhood journey, deepening her relationship to it in the process.
The pandemic, too, has given "Selena Maria Sings" a new context, reinforcing its themes of community and working one’s way through grief.
“The story hits me differently now,” Morales says. “All of us are experiencing grief on a much different level. We’re still recovering from whether we lost someone to COVID or grieving the loss of things like missed graduations, missed weddings, missed opportunities because we were stuck inside.”
Twenty-seven years after her death, Selena continues to have a strong pop cultural foothold. Her story recently received the Netflix treatment, her music continues to be released posthumously and the 1997 Jennifer Lopez movie about her life – which screens at some Texas theater practically every weekend – was selected for the National Film Registry last year.
“Selena Maria Sings,” which opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 2, takes a different approach. It indirectly explores what the musician represented to her fans—specifically to young Latinas with dreams of their own. It tells the fictional story of Selena Maria, an aspiring musician navigating not just the growing pains of young adulthood but a stilted relationship with her mother and the loss of her brother.
Family is integral in “Selena Maria Sings,” from the singer’s mother to her protective tia to Herman the neighborhood dog. If the show feels like it comes from a personal place, that’s because it does.
The playwright is Corpus Christi native Miriam Gonzales, who not only grew up firmly aware of Selena Quintanilla but who can remember where she was when she heard about the singer’s killing.
Gonzales, herself a mother who comes from a family of creatives, had long wanted to write something inspired by the Queen of Cumbia, who died in 1995. She was in Washington, D.C., at the time, where she received the news from her father.
“He called me crying," Gonzales says. "He was in Corpus, and he said, ‘We’ve lost her. We’ve lost her.’ He was just devastated. She was really breaking through for us.”
The magnitude of that loss, on levels both personal and cultural, resonated deeply enough with the playwright that it made sense to approach “Selena Maria Sings” using that pain as a starting point for a story about personal empowerment.
“I wanted to capture what it’s like to experience loss from a child’s perspective, and sort of understand what is it that we go through. I felt that was a beautiful way to honor Selena Quintanilla's legacy, because she would want every young girl out there to be exactly who they are and to embrace their unique selves.”
Less interested in the side of Selena’s legacy associated with lookalike contests, Gonzales instead leaned into how she inspired young artists to pursue their own creations—an impact Gonzales discovered for herself while researching who modern musicians cite as their influences. Many of them, it turns out, styled their sound after Selena.
Morales, too, felt it was important to separate Selena Quintanilla the icon from Selena Quintanilla the person, in an effort to focus “Selena Maria Sings” as a story about individual empowerment. Especially in a time when prejudice still exists, and especially when she now has her own daughter’s future to consider.
“Her story, to me, is probably the best representation of what it is like to be a young Mexican-American,” Morales says.
Stories about cultural identity and loss might sound like heavy stuff for younger audiences.
Morales says that, based on her experience, they can take it. She believes they’ll be able to see themselves in the play’s young protagonist, from her anger to her aspirations.
“I don’t want to dodge issues with them at all," she said. "I want kids to see there are different channels for grief, and different channels for living. How we’re able to express ourselves makes us who we are.”
Creating an original sound for young ears
For one of her plays to be this deeply rooted in music was also a new venture for Gonzales. She interviewed classmates of her daughter who have grown up in an era where a simple phone app and some online tutorials are all the tools you need to create your own song.
“Which wasn't the case when I was growing up," the playwright says. "It's pretty democratic, what YouTube and other platforms have allowed artists to do.”
It’s no spoiler to say Selena Maria and her mother find their way back to each other through music, but it isn’t “Como la Flor” and “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” that paves that emotional road in the show.
Instead audiences will get a taste of LA-based musician Daniel French, who, working with Gonzales, created several original songs giving oomph to Selena Maria’s story. He’s created music for many mediums, including documentary films, while playing everywhere from the Hollywood Bowl to England.
But “Selena Maria Sings” marks the first time he lent his talents to live theatre (save for the nativity plays his family participated in when he was younger). He was in from the get-go, having listened to Selena’s music as a child over the speakers of the California market where his mom worked.
Like Gonzales, the singer’s sudden death struck him—even from several states away.
“It was the first time a celebrity passed that I was sad," French said. "I could not have told you at that age what was going on inside me, but I think she meant something culturally to me as a kid.”
And continues to mean something to him, only now as a proponent for self-expression through song. Turns out he has that in common with the fictional Selena Maria, which made French an appropriate collaborator on the production.
“We just had a blast and learned a lot from each other,” Gonzales said about working with French. “It was fun to learn how you put words to music, and ping-ponging back and forth with him about sound and lyrics and the idea behind the song.”
The two first discussed who the show’s protagonist might listen to, and found their musical reference points from there, French says. Compiling those real-life artists into a playlist that a young teenager would believably rock out to in 2022 – like Twenty One Pilots, Bomba Estereo and Texas-based The Chamanas – they then crafted the kind of songs that a scrappy “little beatmaker” might create.
The result is a group of tunes that range from hip-hop and reggaetón to punk rock and cumbia, including songs with lyrics as well as instrumental music.
“I think the music is really trying to tap into her sentiment; her happy moments, her emo moments where she's dealing with her sadness, her frustrations,” French said. “I think she's a little bit ahead of her time; there may not be a name yet for the kind of music that she makes.”
'It makes me so fiercely committed'
“Selena Maria Sings” was originally scheduled for the spring, before a rise in COVID-19 cases delayed it to later in the year.
The show’s Texas premiere is a long time coming for its creators, who used the extra time to perfect it. Aside from casting local performers, “Selena Maria Sings” has undergone a few changes since its initial Arizona run; a script tweak here, another new song there.
Morales says it’s all done in service of a south Texas audience that naturally will arrive at Magik with a stronger investment in the material, and perhaps with higher expectations as well.
“(It) makes me so fiercely committed to wanting to get this right,” she says.
It feels like an even longer time coming for Gonzales, who started writing the show “four or five years ago” and understands how much more likely it is to resonate with a regional audience that still reveres Selena.
“It is a show that talks about our culture, that brings in our language, that brings in our music, that brings in our idols, our muses—our people that we have loved and that mean a lot to us,” she said. “Like Selena Quintanilla.”
"Selena Maria Sings" runs Saturday through Oct. 2 at the Magik Theatre. Special dates have been scheduled for ASL performances, sensory-friendly performances and pay-what-you-can performances. Tickets are $23.50.