Why the “Great White Way” Needs the White House: Political Musicals on Broadway
While spending my afternoon surfing the Internet, as we all do, I ran across an interesting piece by Ben Brantley from 2010 (yes, ages and ages ago). This article basically asked the question: when did political figures become inappropriate for American musicals, and will we see a resurgence of them soon? This was written just a few months before the hugely attended Public version of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson moved to Broadway and subsequently flopped. With the highly anticipated opening of Hamilton on Broadway, I will take a look at why musicals based on historical events, specifically those addressing world leaders, have been and will be popular – especially now.
Let’s take a quick look at a few of the musicals with historical themes that are in the works or on the road to Broadway with the EXCEPTION of Hamilton (please contain your gasps). Amazing Grace (which opened on Broadway earlier this month) takes a look not only at a famous hymn, but also at the disturbing slave trade in the 18th century and its implications today. It’s also very timely since President Obama sang part of this hymn in his eulogy for the victims of the South Carolina shooting last month. Allegiance, inspired by the personal experiences of George Takei, is set in a Japanese Internment camp during World War II and follows a Japanese family – specifically the father, who is trying to help and protect his family. This musical is expected to begin previews in October and open on Broadway in November 2015. I just had the pleasure of experiencing Come From Away at La Jolla Playhouse, which tells the beautiful story of the international flights rerouted to Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001 and the kindness and strength provided by the passengers, crews and natives during such a tragic time. Its next iteration/appearance is at Seattle Repertory Theatre in November of this year. And of course we can’t forget Smash’s Bombshell, which revolves around the life story of Marilyn Monroe, complete with the alleged affair with John F. Kennedy.
So why do historical events, and more specifically political leaders, work well as fodder for a musical? Well, for one thing, there is built-in drama and action. Just take John F. Kennedy’s assassination as an example; every single person who was alive on that date has a different story about how the attack affected them. Those stories are just as dramatic, action-packed and emotional as any fictional story, and they are vital stories that need to be told. Another reason for basing a musical around a leader is the fact that there is a built-in protagonist. Usually this protagonist also speaks well (making it “easier” on the writers), has a passion, and communicates that passion to an audience. They usually have issues and problems beneath the surface, which makes for a deep character and an interesting musical. A political leader would be nothing without his “posse,” which provides supporting characters for this imaginary musical. And lastly, basing a show around a historical event or leader gives the book a built-in ending. We can’t change history, after all; we can only tell the story in an interesting way.
Hamilton is obviously very successful and will most likely continue to be successful for a long while on Broadway. On top of it being a beautiful, well-written, genius musical (I might be biased), it is simply the right time for this story to be told. While there are terrible events happening around the country, the majority of Americans are not as sensitive to external threats as they have been in the last 15 or so years. Some producers would see it as a risky investment to do a show centered on war while we were fighting in the Middle East – scared that audiences would be offended. For example, the revival of Assassins (that starred Neil Patrick Harris) was postponed from 2001 until 2004 since the content was so sensitive in light of New Yorkers’ feelings post-9/11.
I believe the 2016 election also plays a part in Americans accepting more politically-based musicals. Citizens have to make a decision about their personal political views – and what better, more palatable way to present a political stance than through song and dance? Producers also know that these shows have been successful in the past, even if there hasn’t been a huge political musical success recently, and might be willing to take the risk if they are reminded of shows like 1776, Fiorello!, The Fix, and even Evita.
I think Brantley’s query as to whether American audiences will accept political musicals has been answered with a resounding YES! Now my question is, how long will it last?
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