Updated: Dec 2, 2020
I considered calling this post “Everything I Need to Know about History I Learned from Musical Theatre” but that would be such a gross exaggeration that I could not do it, despite how great it looked on my screen. Still, one of the biggest influences on my life has always been musical theatre, and it played a significant role in cultivating my adoration of history. I grew up listening to and watching every musical possible. I would get sucked in by the beautiful scores and dramatic plots, unable to fathom that certain shows were based on things that actually happened. Naturally, the complex truth was not always depicted on the stage. My desire to know just how much of it was true caused me to develop a love of researching at a young age, while the music and lyrics combined to teach me that the past was not dead and gone, it was alive and I could connect to it because I understood the feelings of those who came before me. Entertainment is a powerful learning tool.
Of course, these days, to mention history and musicals usually results in someone turning the conversation to Hamilton. While Hamilton is doing a great deal to foster a love of history in lovers of musical theatre (and perhaps a love of musicals in lovers of history), other historical musicals also have much to offer us, but in many cases they lacked the mega-hit power that launched Hamilton into mainstream awareness.
As such, I’ve taken it upon myself to compile a list of musicals (other than Hamilton) that capture moments in history. It was admittedly a very long list, so I plan to break it down into ten musicals per blog post and do several installations.
My criteria for building my list was simple: it is based on real events and features characters that represent people who really lived, be it by real name or inspiration. Every musical on this list has at least one released cast recording, and most of them also have librettos in print. These pieces vary in degree of historical accuracy, but often it is the things that are shown factually that seem the least believable- much like when studying history without musical accompaniment. I believe each one of these musicals has something to offer, and hope you feel similarly once you delve into them.
But that’s enough from me, so without further blabbing, I present my first ten historical musicals, in chronological order by setting:
1776 (Late 18th century/American Revolution): Before Hamilton, there was 1776, and it was arguably the Most Famous American History musical. If you have not seen the stage production, you may have seen the 1972 film starring William Daniels as John Adams. There are reasons 1776 endures. It shows the Continental Congress in all its grumpy, complaining glory, depicts John Adams’ relationship with his wife Abigail, and does not shy away from the ugly. “Molasses to Rum”, sung by South Carolina Delegate Edward Rutledge, gives a vivid and disturbing image of the triangle trade, while “Momma Look Sharp” provides a haunting depiction of being a young man caught up in the war while older men argue about independence far away from the gunshots.
Pacific Overtures (Mid-19th century/Opening of Japan): In the 1850s, Japan found itself confronted by a visitor from the west, Commodore Matthew Perry, there to open up trade relations between Japan and the United States whether Japan wanted it or not. What Stephen Sondheim gives the world is a version of this time from the Japanese perspective. If you have to select only one song from Pacific Overtures (and I suggest you listen to the whole score), go with “Bowler Hat”, which follows a Japanese man as he becomes increasingly westernized.
The Civil War (Mid-19th century/US Civil War): This musical by Frank Wildhorn gives voices to pretty much everyone involved in the Civil War including slaves, people at home, Confederate soldiers, and Union soldiers. Particularly worth listening to are “By the Sword/Sons of Dixie” and “How Many Devils?” which provide a great contrast in the feelings of soldiers (on both sides) at different points of the war, as well as the beautiful “Freedom’s Child” which opens with the evocative phrase, ‘Look at these hands, I stole them from my master…’ (Listen to The Civil War: The Complete Work album so you can hear Darius Rucker on this song). Inspired by writings from Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and others, its music makes the Civil War come alive.
Assassins (Mid-19th century through 20th century/US Civil War through 1980s): In my opinion this is not just Stephen Sondheim’s greatest musical, but it is the greatest musical ever written about American history. Here, Sondheim weaves a connection from the first assassination of an American President (John Wilkes Booth assassinating Abraham Lincoln) up to the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley Jr. in the 1980s. I cannot stress how fascinating this piece is as it moves in and out of reality, at points allowing the various assassins (and would-be assassins) to form a bizarre family of the disenfranchised and disgruntled. The show contains both primary source usage (“The Ballad of Guiteau” utilizes the actual writings of James Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau) and completely imagined exchanges (one of the longest non-musical sequences involves both John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald). And, lest you think women are forgotten, Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme (who both targeted Gerald Ford) are also featured. Although there are multiple versions of the score available- and all are good- my suggestion is the 2004 Broadway Cast Recording. It not only contains a good deal of the dialogue, but it has a song that isn’t in every production, “Something Just Broke”, which turns the focus from the assassins to the American people. It would be ideal to open up a discussion about what the assassination of the President of the United States does to the psyche of the country.
Titanic (Early 20th century/Ill-fated Titanic voyage): This 1997 musical may share a release period with the film of the same name, but the story line could not be more different. With a sprawling cast, Titanic covers all ranks of passengers and crew members over the course of the ill-fated journey. The score is achingly beautiful, including numbers like “Lady’s Maid” (in which third class passengers dream of occupations open to them in the United States), “Barrett’s Song” (where an Irish stoker expresses how he came to work on the ship), and “Mr. Andrews’ Vision” (in which Thomas Andrews, the ship’s designer, faces the fact that the ship he designed is not going to make it, and that almost everyone aboard will perish.)- And don't get me started on my love of "The Proposal/The Night Was Alive" where one character proposes to his girlfriend while another declares his love for Marconi's telegraph. It may not have Jack and Rose, but it does not lack for emotional punch and representation of multiple class levels.
Parade (Early 20th century/Southern United States): In the 1910s, factory superintendent Leo Frank was accused of killing a teenage employee named Mary Phagan in Atlanta, Georgia. Though he was convicted, Frank’s innocence has long been proclaimed by many. Parade, Jason Robert Brown’s first Broadway musical, covers this dark, murderous scandal. The musical is good for more than just asking, “Did Leo Frank do it?” as it also explores a post-Civil War south and the relations of its people not only with the Jewish Leo Frank but also with each other. There are many themes here that will call to mind Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, but they are very much still themes worth exploring, and Parade offers a lesser-known historical event as its means of doing so.
The Scottsboro Boys (Early 20th century/Southern United States): With music by Kander and Ebb, The Scottsboro Boys title refers to a group of African American boys who, in 1931, were accused of raping two white women on a train. Race relations in the United States in the 1930s are naturally the center of the plot, and by tying it to minstrel shows and, ultimately, to Rosa Parks, this musical draws attention to the treatment and experiences of black Americans in the early 20th century. (In addition to the song below, I suggest my personal favorite, the emotional “You Can’t Do Me”).
Bonnie and Clyde (Early 20th century/Southern United States): This is exactly what it sounds like, a musical that tells the story of Bonnie and Clyde, the famous outlaws. It goes back to the source material instead of borrowing from the popular film, and follows the couple from meeting to ambush. Its portrayal of Clyde’s brother Buck and his wife Blanche (especially “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail”) was one of the reasons I did a Footnoting History episode called Buck and Blanche (and Bonnie and Clyde).
Allegiance (Mid-20th century/World War II, United States): Based on the experiences of George Takei and his family, and featuring a score by Jay Kuo, this musical explores the experiences of Japanese Americans during and after World War II. From being forced into internment camps to coping with the effects of it that reverberated in families well after the war ended, it captures the essence of a complicated, conflicting time for Japanese Americans and does a wonderful job of showing how being put into the internment camps impacted each person differently and altered their feelings about the country that did not trust them.
Come from Away (Early 21st century/Canada post-9/11): I was one of those people who thought it was bizarre to even entertain the idea of associating 9/11 with a musical, but this one does just that. Currently running on Broadway, Come from Away tells the story of what happened when planes bound had to be diverted due to the events of September 11, 2001. Thirty-Eight planes landed in Gander, a small town in Newfoundland, Canada. As the residents of Gander join together to accommodate these sudden, trapped visitors, passengers cope not only with being stranded, but also worry about their loved ones in other areas of the world, Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s score goes a long way to show the impact of 9/11 outside of the east coast of the United States. One of the most compelling moments includes Beverley, a pilot who knows her colleagues’ planes were commandeered and used for destruction (“Me and the Sky”).