I’ve already written a blog piece on why modern theatre is so important but now I want to go back in time and talk about how theatre is important for understanding history, as well as modern society.
When I started thinking about this idea for a blog post, I only had a few musicals in mind, but as I started looking at the list of shows I’ve seen, I realised that so many shows are based on history which I think is also so important!
Here we go…..
Set following the death of Henry VIII
The six wives of Henry VIII tell their versions of events when married to the British king. In a sassy-Hamilton-girlband style, this show tells history in the most modern way yet! Personally in history class I was taught about the king rather than his wives, so what an interesting perspective on British history.
Set during America’s fight for independence against Britain
Hamilton tells one of the most important stories for our friends across the pond; the tale of America’s founding fathers, The Declaration of Independence and the construction of the American government. Bringing to life some historical figures that we have only read about and telling the stories of many men who fought for freedom and the woman who stood behind them, this show depicts a truly important piece of history.
The Braille Legacy
Set during Louis Braille’s adolescence in the heart of Paris
A small show I saw off-West End that told the powerful story of how one bright and courageous boy took the leap for all blind people to invent the best possible system for blind people to read. A powerful show telling an important part of history, often left untold, and Braille taken for granted.
Set during the proceedings and aftermath of the French Revolution
One of the most famous musicals, history of the French revolution is told through the heartbreaking story of 9 principal characters in Paris. The story tells of justice, heartbreak, death, God, and most importantly – love. This period of history in France is told differently though the eyes of each of these main characters, as well as their ensembles.
Set during the newspaper boys’ strike in New York
A lively and enjoyable show telling the important historical story of how a selection of poor “newspaper boys” won their rights against Joseph Pulitzer. History tells a lesson we can all learn about standing up for what you believe in, and how each one of us has a large voice – especially when put together.
Set during the life and death of Eva Perón
Based on the life of Eva Perón – an Argentinian actress who became the wife of Argentinain president Juan Perón, Eva became known as the most beloved and hate woman in Argentina. Through this musical we learn about how Eva championed woman’s suffrage and ran the nation’s first large-scale female political party and truly made history in Argentina and around the world.
The Sound of Music
Set preluding the Second World War in Austria
Mainly focused on the lives of nun “Maria” and the Von Trapp Family, this show also tells of Austria’s alignment to Nazi Germany before WW2. When I first watched this show as a kid, I was unaware of its political and historical messages – now I recognise and understand the important history it tells.
Set the segregated south when “black music” attempts to integrate into a dominantly white society
The rock and roll of the 50s comes alive in Memphis the musical, portraying how difficult it was for “black” music to find a platform in the mainstream. I’m sure we take for granted now all the music styles available to us, but it wasn’t always so easy. Memphis the musical tells us the history around that.
Made in Dagenham
Set during the Ford employees strike to gain equal pay for women
This powerful story fights for what feminists continue to fight for today: equality for women in the workplace. The female employees of car manufacturers “Ford” walked out and picketed against their employers and – similar to Newsies – showed that the power of the people is something that cannot be underestimated. This historical strike paved the way for female empowerment.
Set during the American military occupation of South Vietnam
This heart-wrenching love story set in the heart of the Vietnam war centres around characters Chris and Kim who are torn apart because of war. I think it’s so easy to forget how war affects individual lives and stories, but Miss Saigon really anchors this and tells the historically true story of so many lives changed and ruined by the Vietnam War.
Set during the miner’s strike in the north of the UK
So many musicals seem to be based on strikes! Through the lives of many men in Durham, this show tells the history of the miner’s strike during the Thatcherite era. While the show focuses on one dancing boy, the political and economic history is what drives the narrative. Through Billy’s family life we see the impact that this monumental strike had on families across the UK.
Come From Away
Set in the week following the attack on the World Trade Center
A new musical that opened on Broadway last year and graces the UK with its presence next year, Come From Away tells the true stories of those who were stuck in 38 different planes following the attack in the US. Set in Newfoundland, this show tells a part of the story of 9/11 that you hardly ever get to hear, so this shows offers a new perspective on the most historically famous terror attack to date.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
Set in Sheffield and explores themes of changing gender stereotypes
Following the ever-growing progression of LGBTQ movements, this show challenges what it means to be a “boy” or “girl”. Firey Jamie wishes to wear a dress and heels to his year 11 prom, motivating audiences to really think what gender means. The show reflects historical and social changes happening today.
Musicals don’t just tell fictional stories with singing and dancing for audiences to enjoy and then forget about 10 minutes later, they tell history, they tell the truth and they tell experiences and lives of real people. Through interesting and capturing narratives of a few lives and families, we see the real impact that major historical events had on the people living through them. Theatre is a medium where we can learn about the world, society, history, politics, social movements and the economy without reading a textbook or being sat in a classroom. Theatre offers so much more than meets the eye, and I think it’s important that we note this and encourage our theatre industries to continue to tell more than just stories, but history.