This 4th of July, we’re celebrating with a look back at American history through the eyes of musical theatre! What musicals and songs embody the American experience for you? Let us know in the comments!
LATE 1700’S – HAMILTON
The world turned upside down when “Hamilton” premiered on Broadway in 2015, making one of the lesser-known founding fathers of America a house-hold name. This musical captures our country’s beginnings in a bold style that appeals to both modern tastes and contemporary issues. It was also featured by PBS in the documentary “Hamilton’s America.”
THE TITLE SAYS IT ALL – 1776
Before “Hamilton,” there was “1776,” a Broadway musical and film about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Among the issues that John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and others debate in the show is the question of what bird should be our national symbol. We’re pretty content with their choice. Are you?
LATE 1800’S AND EARLY 1900’S – GEORGE M!
Joel Grey starred as George M. Cohan, who published more than 300 songs during his lifetime, including the standards “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Such songs made Cohan both a father of musical theater and of the American spirit in song. “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” also known as “(I’m a) Yankee Doodle Dandy,” is a patriotic song from the Broadway musical “Little Johnny Jones,” which opened at the Liberty Theater on November 7, 1904. Cohan’s life and music were also depicted in the Academy Award-winning film “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942).
LATE 1800’S AND EARLY 1900’S – WILL ROGERS FOLLIES
Humorist and performer Will Rogers is considered a quintessential American figure. The 1991 musical commemorated his life with big production numbers in the style of Ziegfeld Follies. One such number, “Our Favorite Son,” boasts that “the day the people’s victory is won, with spirit and spunk, he’s gonna debunk the jabber and the junk that they’ve been feeding us.”
EARLY 1900’S – RAGTIME
The Broadway musical “Ragtime” features a long line of famous American historical figures, from Harry Houdini and Booker T. Washington to J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford. But the show is also a testament to the struggles and prejudices of a growing nation welcoming immigrant peoples… struggles still very relevant today. The 1975 historical novel that the musical is based on was also made into a non-musical film in 1981.
EARLY 1900’S – GYPSY
The vaudeville style seen in Broadway’s “Gypsy” features an important piece of American musical theater’s history, but really this one’s just for fun! Young “Dainty June” performs this patriotic “Stars and Stripes” number in her mother’s traveling show. “Gypsy” has seen several film and television adaptations, as well as a live recording of Imelda Staunton’s version at London’s Savoy Theatre.
1940’S WARTIME – ON THE TOWN
“On the Town” features music written by another great American composer, Leonard Bernstein. It was first produced on Broadway in 1944 and was made into a film in 1949. The 2014 Broadway revival opened with a large American flag and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The story concerns three American sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City during 1944 and is a great tribute to men and women in service, as well as to the American spirit.
MID 1950’S – WEST SIDE STORY
The film version of this modernized “Romeo and Juliet” was deemed “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress, and Time Magazine wrote of the original Broadway production, “The song ‘America’ shows the triumph of the spirit over the obstacles often faced by immigrants. The musical also made points in its description of troubled youth and the devastating effects of poverty and racism.”
LATE 1960’S – HAIR
Our last two picks are not in line with a traditional view of patriotism, but instead look at the outcasts and countercultures that lead important movements in society. The controversial “Hair” became an anthem for the anti-Vietnam War, peace movement and was made into a film in 1979. The song “Don’t Put it Down” is a satiric tribute to the American flag: “My heart beats true for the red white and blue. Crazy for the blue white and red. Crazy for the blue white and red. And yellow fringe. Crazy for the blue white red and yellow!”
1800’S to MODERN DAY – ASSASSINS
This alarming musical presents “Another National Anthem.” Musical Theatre International describe the show: “‘Assassins’ lays bare the lives of nine individuals who assassinated or tried to assassinate the President of the United States, in a one-act historical ‘revusical’ that explores the dark side of the American experience. From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, writers Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman bend the rules of time and space, taking us on a nightmarish roller coaster ride in which assassins and would-be assassins from different historical periods meet, interact and inspire each other to harrowing acts in the name of the American Dream.”