Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton has been met with positive reviews, unprecedented public interest and has earned its creator an invitation to the White House. It’s also responsible for a renewed interest in the genre and its possibilities in the world of new media. But, America’s most unique Founding Father isn’t the first historic figure whose life has inspired musical theater.
Today, when you can easily watch musicals online, it’s expected that history based musicals, which can be used as an educational tool, will have an even greater comeback. Here’s a list of a few true stories that have come alive again on stage.
Titanic: the musical
In the late 80s the wreck of the RMS Titanic was discovered, sparking new interest in the famous disaster. Maury Yeston was inspired both by the technical aspect of the shipwreck and by the class tensions on board. He began writing his musical immediately, and by 1997 it was on stage. Production costs were the subject of much writing (most of it due to the hydraulic stage that was built to simulate the ship’s sinking). Critics did not approve of the play, but they admired its ambitions. It ran for more than 800 performances but was outstaged by James Cameron’s movie.
Stephen Sondheims musical Assassins caused a controversy in the 90s because many believed its topic isn’t suited for the genre. It’s a revue-style portrait of men and women who attempted (successfully or not) to kill Presidents of the United States. It starts with John Wilkes Booth killing Abraham Lincoln and ends with the assassination of JFK by Lee Harvey Oswald. Each sequence uses music from the era it depicts. Assassins has won a Tony award and it was praised by critics for examining the violent undertone of American politics.
This burlesque-style musical from 1980 is mostly important because of its subject, and not as much for its artistic value. It depicts the life of Victoria Woodhull, a 19th century feminist activist, the first woman to run a brokerage business in the US, the first woman to become a millionaire, and the first to run for presidency. Although many of the characters are historic figures, the script takes liberty with the facts (and adds a love story to be more appealing). Naturally this has caused great uproar from critics, historians and feminist activist groups.
Evita is a musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice about the Argentinian political leader Eva Peron, the wife of Argentine president Huan Peron. The plot is mostly based on the book Evita: The Woman with the Whip, written from the perspective of an anti-Peronist activist. It’s not surprising that it depicts Eva as manipulating, unsympathetic and hungry for power. It has received numerous awards and was a great popular success, inspiring many parodies. The music of Evita is eclectic, ranging from classical to rhythmic, latino to rock.
This musical comedy written by Peter Nichols and Monty Norman takes places during the Opium war between Great Britain and China and it takes the form of a pantomime. It’s a celebration of Victorian values and a sharp criticism of British colonial past. It also deals with hypocrisy, greed, sexual repression and drug addiction that were prevalent in the age. The show was revived three times, most recently in 2011 on the 50th anniversary of the Royal Shakespeare Company, when both authors were present in the audience for a “script in hand” performance.
Musical is one of the oldest theater genres and yet it remains to be relevant today. It has proven to be capable of addressing serious political and historical topics with both nuance and passion.