One of the most frustrating parts of being a musical-theater aficionado in the past few decades is watching the laziness of the genre. By this, I mostly mean watching the focus on new musicals be either of jukebox style, or based on movies. Sure – when properly adapted, the movie musicals tend to be more inspired, if only because the creative team is forced to write music for a property that was previously not music focused. [Side note: sometimes this is not even true when you get musicals based on movie musicals – I’m looking at you Disney!] But the jukebox style – taking previously published musical works, usually by the same artist – and either turning them into or shoehorning them into a story. An American in Paris could count for this, since it’s Gershwin music, and all of it had previously appeared in other Gershwin musicals. But Gershwin had been reusing his own music for years, so it didn’t seem too odd.
No – the current crop of jukebox musicals seems to have started with the music of ABBA which appeared in Mamma Mia! And I’m not complaining, because I loved Mamma Mia, and I feel like they figured out a good storyline which didn’t necessarily involve telling the story of ABBA. But when you hear about new artists deciding to take their music to the Great White Way and tell the stories of their life…it can be tiring.
So it’s possible to imagine that I went in to seeing On Your Feet at the Kennedy Center with some trepidation. After all, it hits a lot of the cheesy tropes of the jukebox musical – music from one artist, set as the soundtrack to their life story. Fortunately, what On Your Feet has that is missing from other musicals in the same vein is life and excitement. Sure, it’s another life story, but this time it’s of two first generation Americans from Cuba making it big – not just in Latin music, but as crossover artists. It has a story that is familiar and true, but also one that you may have forgotten, or not known in its entirety.
As a child who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, I was well aware of Gloria Estefan and her music. There were some aspects of her life and story that I was vaguely aware of that the musical highlighted, but many of the specifics were new to me. And while much of the music too was familiar, there were deeper cuts that were quite enjoyable and fit into the places in the story where something more well known would have stuck out like a sore thumb. All in all, a highly enjoyable show.
The other thing that the show has going for it (which could be positive or negative depending on your point of view) is that it speaks strongly to the immigrant experience. One where those who arrived years earlier are beginning to succeed and really trying to make themselves a part of the American experience and lifestyle. In a highly charged time when too many seem to be longing for an America that has not existed for nearly a century, we get a line directed at a record producer who wants to keep the Estefans in their place saying, “Whether you know it or not, this is what an American looks like!” In a liberal city like DC, this gets a lot of applause. It makes me wonder how that line plays in other locations – or maybe the kind of people who go to see musical theater are just more embracing of differences anyways?
In any case, it’s a fun show. I may think that jukebox musicals are lazy, but when I find myself standing, clapping and dancing at the end, it’s hard to justify that judgment in this case. It did not hurt that I once again was present for a celebrity viewing of a show – in this case, we had the subjects of the show themselves, Gloria and Emilio Estefan in the audience. I think everyone agreed that it was a more fun, exciting, and appropriate celebrity sighting than I had last summer at the Kennedy Center!