Musicals present history in fun, different waysBy Luke Haynes | 03/25/2015 10:12pm
"Broadway's 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' uses a punk rock musical score while telling the story of the United State's seventh president." Amazon
It’s pretty well established that Broadway’s primary function is to entertain. However, many Broadway shows are reaching beyond that and finding ways to not only entertain audiences, but also to educate them as well. Broadway musicals have the fantastic ability to present history with a catchy tune that makes it more engaging and interesting to young and old audiences alike, and give us all an interesting look at some of the events that have shaped this great country of ours.
Of course, live theater isn’t in the business of documentaries, so its historical shows always come with a taste of fantasy. For example, in the 1998 musical “Ragtime,” we see the story of fictional characters representing average, everyday Americans portrayed in the presence of historical giants. Characters such as Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington and J.P. Morgan play integral roles in this drama, and events such as the sinking of the Lusitania and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand are important plot points.
Conversely, Steven Sondheim’s 1990 musical “Assassins,” plays almost entirely with historical characters, but fictionalizes some of the actual events. This musical deals with the motivations of the perpetrators of the four assassinations of U.S. presidents and five of the most famous failed assassination attempts. Since very little is known about the personal lives of these individuals and what exactly did prompt them to take such a violent place in history, much of the content of the show is inspired by true events, but technically fictionalized. While these shows can’t tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, they can be counted on to impart some fairly significant historical accuracies, and at the very least, serve to interest their audiences enough to cause them to research the history behind the show on their own.
Other Broadway musicals have elected to tell history with somewhat more accuracy, but alter it with an unconventional twist. One example of such a musical is “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” a musical which uses punk rock music, pools of blood and lots of eyeliner to tell of the rise and fall of our nation’s seventh president. Another, more timely example is the new hip-hop musical coming to Broadway this summer entitled “Hamilton,” which shows a unique view of the American Revolution – centering around the character of Alexander Hamilton – through the medium of Cabinet meetings turned rap-battles and angst-ridden breakup songs sung by King George III. Both of these shows connect the history of yesterday with the music of today and use this absurd expressionism to make historical figures feel more real.
For after all, if the youth of today identify more strongly with the figures on their radio than the ones in their textbooks, then perhaps what is needed is a bridge between the two. While musicals always will, and always should, serve to entertain, if they can teach us as well then we may grow to appreciate, understand and even learn from the important figures of history that brought us where we are today.