Learning history through musical theatre

learning history through musical theatre

Historical musical theatre is a good way to start learning history, but there still are some things you should be wary of.  

Entertainment can be built on true stories or events. This link to reality can serve different purposes: either telling an unknown story, paying tribute to an important character, or just attracting the public by showing things they can relate to. Learning history through musical theatre is a good way to start discovering a part of the past, either by interest or by accident: musicals represent an open door to a new world and new knowledge.

However, one has to be careful with that knowledge. Just like it seems logical to check the information you find on a friend’s Facebook profile, you should always question historical facts you discover in entertainment pieces. It also works for historical musical theatre.

Here you’ll find a list of some of the most interesting historical musicals (almost all in English) to start learning more about history. The main advice to start would be don’t trust anything you hear, even if it’s very well written, and always do your own research if you’re really interested in a topic. 

 

  1.     Hamilton: An American Musical (2015)

It is probably one of the most famous. Hamilton became a modern revolution when it opened on Broadway in 2015, not only because the topic was surprising, but also because of the style and cast. For the ones who still haven’t heard of this musical, Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, Founding Father of the United States and first Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington.

The story is already uncommon for a musical play, but the creator Lin-Manuel Miranda went further: among traditional Broadway show tunes, he put hip hop and sung rap songs. And to add even more modernity, the cast is composed of actors of colour. It brought representation and diversity on the most theatrical avenue of New York. 

All these facts, added to the music’s quality and the cast’s talent, transformed Hamilton into an incredible piece of art, with repercussions on Americans’ everyday life: some say that the musical helped secure Alexander Hamilton’s place on the $10 bill. Playing the character of Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda sings “I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me.” If Alexander Hamilton did build something that lasted longer than his period on earth, Lin-Manuel Miranda probably did too.  

But even if you’ve already sung the whole cast album in your car at least a hundred times, remember that not everything is accurate. For instance, (spoiler alert) Philipp Hamilton didn’t die right before the election of 1800 but in 1801. The way the Founding Fathers are portrayed is not always representative either, some bad aspects of their personalities are hidden for the sake of the story. Some parts are missing, simply because it is impossible to summarize a life and 50 years of history in a two-hours-and-thirty-minute musical. 

If you’ve been obsessed with the American Revolution since you listened to Hamilton for the first time, do more research on the topic. Hundreds of books have been written. Lin-Manuel Miranda based his musical on Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton but if you don’t want to read all that, smaller biographies exist. There are plenty of resources, make the best of it. And keep singing the songs in your car. 

 

  1.     Six (2017)

 

If American history is not for you, Six might be. Although it is not the most famous, it might be one of the most surprising and original pieces here. On West End since 2019, the musical by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss tells the story of the six wives of Henry VIII. This play gives them some credit and a well-deserved place. It’s one of the good points here: musicals can also put light on less famous historical figures, even if it’s just an insight into their lives.  

Just like in Hamilton, we don’t hear any period music and here we don’t even have period costumes. No, they gave their place to pop music and modern, shorter, more practical costumes. The six queens, played by a diverse cast (improving representation), tell their stories in the form of a concert, fighting to see who has had the worst life with Henry because the winner would take the position of the lead singer.

But Six is more than just telling the story of six unfortunately not well-known women. In a period when women are more independent, Six shows that these queens known only for their marriage with a king should also be known as individuals. It is particularly visible in Catherine Parr’s song, in which she tells her story according to what she accomplished, not only her love life. And it is still a current message that needs to be spread. 

Each Queen has a song to tell everything about her life, and it’s not enough. Nobody could summarize a life in five minutes. The lyrics mostly mention things that should be checked if people want to learn more about them, because no details are explained in the musical. The writers’ point of view and the story should also be taken into account, because it shaped the songs to tell a certain version of history. You could (and you should) keep singing their songs at the top of your lungs and remembering their names, but if you want to know their stories, a simple Google search would be good. 

 

  1.     Bonnie and Clyde (2009)

 

Hamilton and Six aren’t always joyful, but Bonnie and Clyde is probably the darker musical of the list. And it is not surprising, when it tells the story of one of the most famous criminal couples in history. From the beginning of their “career” to the end of their life (which the musical actually opens on), the catchy or serious songs will show you the path of these not-so-lovely lovebirds. 

Unlike the previous musicals here, Bonnie and Clyde does not embody modernity. It is mostly explained by the period when the story takes place because if 16th or 18th-century music probably would not have a huge success nowadays, music from the 1930s is easier to listen to. Through rockabilly, gospel, and blues, the sonorities are close to the 1930s, even if Broadway tunes are still there. 

Here we can compare with films, since Bonnie and Clyde have been the topics of many pieces of art. Curiosity about crime and criminals can be surprising sometimes. But films can’t show a whole life, and a musical play can’t either. It is also a piece of entertainment and not a documentary: crime is popular because most times it is romanticized. 

Interest in crime story is not as weird as some people want to make you think and if Bonnie and Clyde arouses your curiosity, the internet is full of various sources on the criminal couple that will show you the darker aspects of their true life, something no one can show on any theatre scene. And don’t worry, liking characters and lyrics from this musical don’t automatically transform you into a murdering robber.

 

  1.     Fictional characters during true historical events: Newsies (2011) and Les Misérables (1980 in French, 1985 for the first version in English)

 

Musicals don’t need to be about specific historical actors to help people learn about history. Historical fictions are a good way to discover how people lived during a certain period or even to learn about historical events. But it is important to remember that the character didn’t actually exist, even if performers are often good enough to make you believe they did. 

Newsies opened on Broadway in 2012, but the Disney film was released in 1992. The main character (fictional) is a newsboy named Jack who plays a part in the newsboy strike of 1899 in New York. The strike really happened, but probably not the love story between an heiress and a newsboy dreaming to escape to Santa Fe. Here, the fictional story may make you want to check how the actual strikers did it. It can even make you discover that this strike existed, because it’s not a first-scene historical event. 

 

Les Misérables is a little bit of a different topic because of its origins. The eponymous novel by Victor Hugo (1862) is classic in French literature and a huge part of literary history. Starting as a French musical, Les Misérables is also a phenomenon in English. The play takes everyone through different historical events such as the 1832 Paris Uprising and shows the living conditions of the French during these troubled times, giving an insight into French history (and literature) to all English-speakers in the world.

 

Newsies and Les Misérables are very different but they have a common point: unreal characters going through real events. It is another way to discover history, but people need to be even more careful with fictional musical plays. Saying that Enjolras was a key actor of the 1832 Paris Uprising or that it was great to have a female journalist covering the 1899 newsboy strike would probably make a historian laugh. But you have to start somewhere. 

 

  1.     Bonus: French musical theatre and the passion of historical events

 

In France, the most famous musicals are all, with little exceptions, linked to history. Taking a look at the last two decades, the analysis is clear: history (French or not) is a good topic for French musical writers and producers. 

There are historical musicals based on people that actually existed such as Mozart (Mozart l’Opéra Rock, 2009), Cleopatra (Cléopatre, la Dernière Reine d’Egypte, 2009) or Louis XIV (Le Roi Soleil, 2005). Here the advice would be the same given in the whole article: don’t trust them too much. French writers are not different from the others, they can’t stretch time to make a whole life fit into a two-hour play. So, take a look at the true history, if you’re really interested. 

Then we can quote 1789: les Amants de la Bastille (2012) to talk about fictional characters living through real historical events. But contrary to Newsies or Les Misérables, here we mostly follow real historical characters such as Marie-Antoinette, Danton, Camille Desmoulins and other key players of the French revolution, but the two mains characters are fictional. Their love story is too.  

In the French musical landscape, we also find adaptations of either books, like with Les Misérables (1980) but also Notre Dame de Paris (1998),  or myths with Robin Hood (Robin des Bois, 2013) and King Arthur (La Légende du Roi Arthur, 2015), and even biblical stories like the Ten Commandments (Les Dix Commandements, 2000). The styles are diverse, but history is very present and for non-French speakers, these musicals are both a good way to discover a culture and a history but also to learn a language (which is also true for non-English speakers with musicals in English), especially because most of them are available in DVD. 

 

Learning history through musical theatre is a good way to start, but not a very effective way to become a specialist. You can enjoy the music, the stories and the historical facts but keep in mind that not everything is true. And you, do you think learning history through musical theatre is a good thing? Let us know in the comments and don’t hesitate to share your personal favourite historical musical. 

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About the author

Laurine Tiran

I'm a French student doing a Master's degree in International Politics at the University of Toulon, France.

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