Musical Theatre and it’s Role In Creating a Space For History To Be Told
Theatre, especially musical theatre, has been a big part of my life for a long time. I’ve enjoyed the occasional pantomime in my life, I have a fairly basic but well-loved list of favourite broadway musicals from the past little while, and I have never been one to
turn down going to a live show.
In turn, History has also been something I have enjoyed learning about greatly since starting high school. I am always interested in learning about the past, connecting it to today, figuring out cause and consequence, and just overall learning more about how and why the world is the way it is.
Recently, as I’ve embarked in the second half of my PLP classes for this year, I have began to make connections between what I’m learning and musicals I really enjoy. For the last little while we’ve been learning about a lot of US Presidents, and anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock for the past 8 years knows there is a very popular broadway musical based around the beginning of American Politics. Hamilton.
I may know all of the words to the musical and find it enjoyable within itself, but the connections I was making between the musical and what I was learning got me thinking about how much musical theatre helps keep history alive.
History is important, there is no question about it. By learning from history, we can create a better future. Even if it feels slow and sometimes a bit backwards these days. It’s taught in many ways: in classrooms, in stories, in movies and books, in music and art, in science and the growth of technology. One of the ways that I have noticed has allowed young people to feel more connected to history (in this case, especially American history… which says a lot about their nationalism and self-presentation as The Best Country, but that’s a topic for another day…), is through musical theatre.
Many people hear history and musical theatre and immediately think of Hamilton. Which is fine, Hamilton is a great musical, described by creator Lin Manuel Miranda as “America then told by America now”, but it’s not the only one. So, without further ado, I present a list of some Broadway shows that have helped bring history to the theatre audiences of today.
Tony Award winning Hamilton is a hit broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of America. It follows him from age 19 (1776), to his death, and shows many of the important moments in his life that lead to his story ending the way it does. The cast is picked out with POC in mind, allowing for America to see their story told by people of all races instead of the pure-white reality it was, hopefully teaching young viewers about diversity in their history. The story follows Alexander Hamilton through his political pursuits, the American Revolution, a marriage and a child, a scandal, and the end of his life. It runs for 2 hours 22 minutes, and can be found to watch on *Disney+
SIX is the story of the six wives of King Henry VIII, the founder of the Church of England. The musical shows the six women in a competition to see who was treated the worst by their collective ex husband before they died. Following the order of Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded Survived, the story is told through catchy edm-pop like music and highly humorous wit. SIX is kind of a more feministic take on the story of these six women, and alongside catchy songs, it really is a fun way to learn about what happened, whether the stories are 100% accurate or not.
Les Mis is an extremely popular musical telling the story of the French Revolution. It has been running since 1985, and honestly deserves a better description than what I can come up with seeing as I have not seen it live and have only listened to it a few times. However, this musical being so well known is another way that history has been immortalized in the fans of the show, and the fact that it is still running so long after it first came out is extremely impressive.
Canadian History! Yay! There’s not many musicals about that yet, maybe someday there will be more. Come From Away tells the story of the town of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada during 911. After the attack in New York, all planes in the air were required to land at the closest airport and stay until things were safe again. For a large amount of planes, that airport was the one in Gander, making the town famous after they hosted 6700 people from all over the world after the terrorist attack that had the globe shaken. Come From Away is another quite well known musical that has allowed a large range of audiences to learn a bit about Canadian history for a change which, as a Canadian, is kinda nice. And also a pretty big deal.
Fun Fact: The broadway cast actually returned to New York for the first time since Broadway shut down in March 2020 for the pandemic earlier this week which is pretty cool. Broadway is set to re-open in September.
Newsies is set in the early 1900’s, telling the story of the paperboy strike in New York at the time. This story follows the news boys of New York as they strike and fight for their right to become unionized and make enough money to get off the streets. This story is also very well known, and can be found on Disney+ for viewing. I had the chance to see a local production of Newsies once, and it’s such a heartwarming strory, despite the difficult topics of homelessness and lower-class struggles it portrays. Also they have tap shoes, which is always a good time.
Having these musicals on Broadway and The West End (two of the more popular places in the world to see musicals), has allowed for history to be told in a memorable and meaningful way to mass amounts of audiences who probably would never have cared all that much if they didn’t get to see the show, or maybe the stories would have been completely lost in time had they not become so well known.
Musicals are a very important part of the performing and visual arts, and if I get to learn a bit about the past as I enjoy it, you won’t hear me complaining.