- OnStage New York Columnist
If you, like me, have yet to see Hamilton, you may, like me, also be reluctant to listen to the cast recording, wanting to experience as much of the score as possible for the first time in person. But if you are like me in these ways, you probably also want to play relevant showtunes as part of your 4th of July weekend celebrations, and so you find yourself conflicted about whether or not to crack open that cast recording a bit early.
But did you, like me, know that Hamilton is not the only musical based on American history? Sometimes, coverage of Hamilton has made it seem as though it is the only musical that has ever existed, but there are, in fact, other musicals about times in America’s past, times that we should be proud of, and times that we should look to for guidance about what not to do in the future. Here are ten musicals that are not Hamilton that draw inspiration from American history:
10: To start off, one of the most prolific writers of musical theatre, Frank Wildhorn, wrote The Civil War with lyricist Jack Murphy and librettist Gregory Boyd. It is a musical that, like America after the Civil War, has been through a lot of changes over time. For instance, it now goes by the name Freedom’s Song and has a significantly smaller cast. Not a traditional book musical, it has more in common with themed song cycles, having actors singing about the war between the states from various perspectives, specifically the Union side, the Confederate side, and the point of view of the slaves. It employs a number of musical styles, including gospel, folk, and country, and a studio cast album in 1999, after the brief Broadway run the previous year, included musical theatre stars like Linda Eder and Betty Buckley, but also artists from other fields, like poet Maya Angelou and the rock band Hootie & the Blowfish.
9: History teachers around the country have found Hamilton to be a convenient teaching tool for getting students interested in history, but employing musical theatre in the classroom is not new. Take Adventures of Lewis and Clark: Roger Emerson and John Jacobson’s educational little show is only 40 minutes long (some other musicals could take a lesson from this classroom show), and tells the story of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who set out in 1804 to explore the territory President Thomas Jefferson had recently purchased from the French (There is a musical called Louisiana Purchase, but it has nothing to do with this part of American history). The necessary inclusion of their guide Sacajawea puts Adventures of Lewis and Clark in that very short list of American musicals that actually have Native American characters, and it probably does the most respectful job of depicting them.
8: Benjamin Franklin loved France and the French. During the American War of Independence, Franklin sought the support of the French against the British, which was needed, but not easily gotten. Mark Sandrich, Jr., and Sidney Michael’s Ben Franklin in Paris (with songs contributed by Jerry Herman) somewhat fictionalizes one diplomatic trip he took to the French capital, during which he enlisted the help of a confidante of King Louis XVI and dealt with his own son’s betrayal of the cause back home. Which actor had the charm to pull off such a feat as making the iconic Benjamin Franklin a musical comedy hero in the original production? None other than the Music Man himself, Robert Preston.
7: Leonard Bernstein’s last original score to make it to Broadway, which he wrote with Alan Jay Lerner, told the story of the White House in its first hundred years. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue featured Ken Howard playing every president represented in the musical, including Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and Andrew Johnson. The musical concentrated on events having to do with slavery and race, including Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemmings, since confirmed with DNA evidence, but at the time still only an allegation. Though the score was always well regarded, Bernstein would not allow a cast recording to be made at the time, so upset was he by the critical response to the musical. It was later reworked, after Bernstein’s death, as a classical piece called A White House Cantata, which was recorded.
6: Pacific Overtures uses the fictional characters of Kayama Yesaemon, an inconsequential samurai, and Manjiro, a fisherman who gets lost at sea and learns to appreciate the culture of the Americans who rescue him, to tell the story of the westernization of Japan. On July 8th, 1853, an American, Commodore Matthew Perry, docked in Uraga Harbor, demanding to speak with Japanese leaders. The first act shows how his reception in Japan was delicately arranged, deals were made with him, and he left peacefully. The second act begins with Japan being bombarded with diplomats from the rest of the western world, including England, Russia, and France, and America comes back, wanting more. Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures score is one of the most interesting in musical theatre, featuring beautiful, haunting ballads like “Poems” and “Pretty Lady,” and delightfully fun up-tempo numbers like “Someone in a Tree” and “Please Hello.” Though it takes place entirely in Japan, it is included here as a depiction of how our then young country was perceived as it began to interact with the wider world.
5: Musicals, like all art, serve to remind America of those moments to be proud of and those moments it should not repeat. Allegiance, by Jay Kuo, Marc Acito, and Lorenzo Thione, inspired by George Takei’s story of when he and his family were removed from their home in 1942 to live in a Japanese American internment camp, serves the latter purpose. And while the story’s central characters are fictional, based on Takei’s family and other Japanese Americans in the camp, a background plotline follows Mika Masaoka, a real life figure who, having previously been part of the Japanese American Citizens League’s decision to allow Japanese internment in the first place, is depicted during his efforts to create military regiments in which Japanese Americans, like Telly Leung’s character Sammy, could fight during World War II. He’s a minor character in the musical, and a complicated one in American history, but crucial to the patriotism at the heart of Allegiance.
4: The omnipresent hip-hop musical Hamilton managed to save its namesake, Alexander Hamilton, from being booted off the ten-dollar bill. Andrew Jackson’s emo-rock musical was not as effective at saving him from losing his place on the twenty. Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson uses emo-rock to bring out the tortured and, in some cases, whiny sides of its characters. The title character, and seventh president of the United States, gets more of the tortured tunes (“I’m Not That Guy,” “The Saddest Song”), and other historical figures, like John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay, are portrayed as whiny, entitled, and conniving (“The Corrupt Bargain”). The pairing of Jackson with this kind of music is fitting. He was captured and tortured by the British when he was 13, during the American Revolution, and rose to prominence as a military leader who, among other things, organized the forcible removal of Native American tribes from the south eastern United States, an action echoed later when he was president, with the Indian Removal Act. That first aggression toward Native Americans is represented by a demented cousin-song of the children’s rhyme “Ten Little Indians,” with the same name. Noted Jackson biographer Jon Meacham is a fan of this musical.
3: Harriet Tubman, who will replace Andrew Jackson as the face of the twenty-dollar bill (though he will still be on the back, apparently) doesn’t exactly have a musical of her own, but lines between musicals, operas, and oratorios are blurring more and more, and her oratorio is Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman. Based on a book of the same name by Kate Clifford Larson, Marcus Shelby’s oratorio for jazz orchestra and chorus tells of Tubman’s astonishing life working on the Underground Railroad to free slaves, working as a nurse during the Civil War, and working for women’s suffrage after the war. Tubman is definitely someone worthy of appearing on American currency as well as the musical stage.
2: Assassins began its life at Playwrights Horizons in 1990, a creation of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, based on an older script by Charles Gilbert, Jr. Gathering from across time, various men and women who tried to and/or succeeded at killing presidents, line up to play a carnival shooting game. Some hit, some miss, all ultimately lose. The musical does not go in chronological order, beginning as it does with John Wilkes Booth, the “pioneer” presidential assassin, and ending with Lee Harvey Oswald, the last “successful” assassin, whose act, according to the musical, struck the country in a way no other attempt on a president’s life had or would. Sondheim’s score is a kind of pastiche of demented Americana, with Dixie tunes and triumphal marches and even pop songs that don’t sound quite right, more cynical in tone than traditionally optimistic American music. It’s a great primer on this particular corner of American history, as is Sarah Vowell’s book Assassination Vacation.
1: 1776 tells the slightly altered and abridged story of the writing, voting on, and signing of the Declaration of Independence, a move driven by the musical’s central character, John Adams. This musical boasts the longest passage of time between the use of music to tell the story in musical theatre history, more than half an hour without a song, and often uses passages from the real letters Adams and his wife Abigail wrote to each other while Adams was leading this charge for lyrics and dialogue. Depicted are such famous historical figures as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and some less well known figures, like Richard Henry Lee, whose “The Lees of Old Virginia” is a comic highlight, and Edward Rutledge, whose “Molasses to Rum” is a haunting reminder that all was not sunshine and rainbows at the Continental Congress, and that the founding documents were far from perfect. In fact the whole musical is about the kind of disarray the founders found themselves in trying to figure out America. One of the best songs, though, is “Is Anybody There,” sung by Adams as he reads dispatches from George Washington’s military campaign. Composer/lyricist Sherman Edwards's music is triumphant and determined, and Adams’s description of parades and fireworks one day being employed to celebrate what he and his companions are doing has got to be one of the most 4th of July songs in the musical theatre cannon.
Happy Independence Day.
Aaron Netsky writes about musicals on tumblr (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and books, politics, and culture on his personal blog (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com). His writing has been published on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, and StageLightMagazine.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.
*This article originally said that the composer of 1776 had made up John Adams's prediction about how Independence Day would be celebrated. The lyrics are based on a letter Adams wrote to his wife, as so many of the lyrics are.