Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

Welcome to the show

To the historemix

Switching up the flow

As we add the prefix

Ex-Wives Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss

Over the past few days, the class that I am a teaching assistant for has been talking about how history has been portrayed on film and television. The topic of history depicted in film is not something new for myself, I have been interested in the various debates and discussions on the topic since my first public history class during my undergrad. As both a historian and World War two fanatic, I love watching movies such as Saving Private Ryan, Monuments Men, and Dunkirk just to name a few. Of course, I know that there are historical inaccuracies in said movies, but there is just something about those first 40 minutes of Saving Private Ryan that just hit home for me. As public historians many of us have (or eventually will) come across the topic of history on film. Besides books, film and television are the next favourite form of entertainment for many of us. Combine that with podcasts and video games, and you’ll notice how many of our beloved forms of media have at some point depicted or interacted with history.

Why can’t I tell that story?
‘Cause in history
I’m fixed as one of six
And without him
I disappear
We all disappear

I Don’t Need Your Love Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss

However, I have noticed there is a form of historical depiction that is often left out of the discussion. Perhaps its the old trope and connotations of it being for the elite class, but hey, so was history!

What’s Your Name Man?

Enter Hamilton Stage Right

The world’s going to know your name…

While far from the first time history has been presented on stage, there is no denying the impact this musical has had on the theatre world and pop culture.

Hamilton, written by Lin Manuel Miranda debuted on Broadway in 2015 and tells the story of America’s first secretary of the treasury of the United States, Alexander Hamilton. The nearly 3 hour sung-through musical takes us through the life of Hamilton, the American Revolution, his subsequent affair and eventual death

As previously mentioned, Hamilton is not the first time history has been depicted on stage and certainly not the first time the American Revolution has been seen in musical form. Musicals like 1776 (1969) and Ben Franklin in Paris (1964) came well before Hamilton was even a thought. So what made Hamilton so so impactful? It’s making musical history.

As one article as put it, “Hamilton fuses American history with current politics, using a soundtrack of American popular music and one of the most inventive librettos ever written.” [1]

The other revolutionary (pun well intended) aspect of Hamilton is the racially diverse cast featured on stage. Lin Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail (director) have stated that they want the cast to be diverse as if they are, ” holding up a mirror to society.” [2] The creative team wanted to tell they story of America through the diversity of today’s America.

So, a history musical, so what? Who goes to see musicals anymore? Some may argue that films can be used in the classroom unlike musicals, especially if they are only being featured on the Great White Way.

Enter the Hamilton Education Program, a collaborative effort between the creative team behind Hamilton, The Rockefeller Foundation, the NYC Department of Education and the Gilder Lehrman Institute. [3] The program initially started by providing 20,000 Title-I public school students with a chance to see Hamilton and support integration of the production into classroom studies. [4] Before students see the production, students are introduced to people, events, and primary sources and learn how Miranda incorporated both primary and secondary sources into the songs for the musical. [5]

The accessibility of the musical outside of the theatre also contributes to Hamilton‘s popularity. The cast recording is available on streaming services and there are hundreds of videos of performances, behind the scenes, lyric videos, covers, and karaokes on Youtube.

While we as historians may enjoy the odd textbook, monograph and documentary, not everyone finds pleasure in those activities. Music on the other hand is something far more universal, there is a surreal experience when you listen to a really good song. With Hamilton‘s approach of including hip-hop, rap and R & B into the musical theatre genre, you now have a musical that will appeal to even more people. Let’s be honest, not everyone is going to want to learn about history, it’s a fact of life! Musicals can present history in a new and exhilarating way, where it is enjoyable for a historian and for those less interested in the American Revolution. Honestly, the best learning sometimes, is when you are having so much fun, you forget you are even learning.

Now, this doesn’t make musicals and plays free of criticism. They face the same, if not more, limitations as films do when they attempt to depict history. Hamilton is no exception. Historians will know that the history of American Revolution is not clean cut or all sunshine and rainbows. Many of the founding fathers were slave owners, a topic that is not confronted in Hamilton. [6] Some lyrics also imply that Hamilton himself was more for manumission than primary sources have shown. [7]

A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists?
Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is

My Shot Lin – Manuel Miranda

There are also factual inaccuracies including the fact that there is no mention of the Schuyler sons, rather only the three oldest Schuyler sisters, Angelica, Eliza and Peggy. This omission was done to help Angelica’s character arc in the musical, explaining why she couldn’t be with Alexander, as she had to be the one in the family to marry for status, not for love.

My father has no sons so I’m the one who has to social climb for one

Satisfied – Lin Manuel Miranda

In reality, there were three Schuyler sons: John, Phillip, and Rensselaer. I mean the musical doesn’t even mention the other two Schuyler sisters Cornelia and Catharine. [8]

Don’t Throw Away Your Shot, Take a Listen:

Perhaps America’s proclaimed founding fathers are not your thing? While Hamilton was the shot heard around the world in 2015. 2017 saw an emergence of a new musical which added a necessary prefix, to a very well-known rhyme.

Don’t Lose Ur Head

Enter Six Stage Left

Divorced. Beheaded. Live.

What happens when you mix Beyoncé , Lily Allen, Adele, Rihanna, Brittany Spears and Alicia Keys? You get the cast of Six!

Six takes a look at the wives of King Henry the VIII, presented in the form of a girl group concert. Each queen wants to become the lead singer of the group and to determine who should be the lead, they decide whoever has the saddest story shall win. 6 out of the 9 songs in the musical take a closer look into each of the queen’s lives.

  • No Way looks at Catherine of Aragon’s life as the first wife
  • Don’t Lose Ur Head looks at Anne Boleyn’s rocky relationship with Henry
  • Heart of Stone looks at Jane Seymour’s love for Henry and her son
  • Get Down looks at Anne of Cleves and her short marriage to Henry
  • All You Wanna Do looks at Catherine Howard the young girl thrown into a whirlwind of a situation
  • I Don’t Need Your Love looks at the survivor, Catherine Parr, who outlived Henry

By the end of I Don’t Need Your Love, the queens have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter who has the sadder story, what matters is that they finally break free of Henry’s rule. They no longer need him to tell their side of the story, they are taking back the microphone.

While Six may not have an education program to help tell their history, they have shaken up musical theatre and to some extent history in a different way. Six gives the ex-wives of King Henry VIII agency, it gives them a voice. Gone are the days that they are only remembered in a stupid rhyme. They are their own individual, with their own stories and they don’t need to be seen through the perspective of Henry to matter in history.

An interesting line that highlights the creators’ desire to give the ex-wives their voice back from the final song of the musical is, “Too many years/Lost in history.” This line has a double meaning and could be read as history or as his story. Both of which are fitting as many Tudor historians lump the women together or view them solely through the lens of Henry. In both cases, their voices are lost both in Henry’s story and in history.

They don’t need Henry’s love, all they need is each other.

Raise Your Voice and Take a Listen:


And the Nominees Are…

As I said, Hamilton and Six were not the first musicals to depict history on stage and they certainly wont be the last. Other musicals that deserve a nomination include:

Come From Away

What happened when nearly 7,000 people ended up in a small Newfoundland town? Well, take a gander. The use of oral history to develop the characters is evident as many of the characters are based on real people such as Beverly Bass, whose own plane had to make the detour when American airspace was closed following the 9/11 attacks.

Welcome to the farthest place you’ll get from Disney land!

Miss Saigon

Sometimes musicals use history as the backdrop to tell their story. While arguably a problematic musical due to the nature of the historical connotations, it is still beloved in the musical theatre community.

Les Misérables

Arguably one of the most successful musicals of all time. Despite being based largely off Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, the historical backdrop is still evident.

Red – a world about to dawn!

Assassins

Did you ever think there would be a musical based on presidential assassination attempts? In true Stephen Sondheim fashion, Assassins takes a look at the various assassination attempts through American history.

Just hold tight to your dreams!

The Runner Ups

I could discuss history depicted on stage for hours, but to make it short and simple, discover some other notable works below!

It’s the End of the Show

Besides the self-serving aspect of this blog post, allowing me to geek out about my favourite musicals, what’s the point? Who cares if history is incorporated into musicals? If a musical about Alexander Hamilton can win 11 Tony Awards and a Grammy, we should be discussing the pros and cons of history being depicted on stage. It is undeniable that these musicals are encouraging people to become interested in history, to read more, research more, and to explore a topics of interest. Besides, it’s quite nice to listen to some history inspired music when doing homework (including writing this blog post!). While there are inaccuracies and problems that arise from these various depictions, there are things that are good. They are revolutionizing the way we think of history, they are giving voices back figures who have had theirs silenced, they are bringing topics back to the forefront of audience’s minds. Most importantly, they are bringing history to the mainstream, to teenagers and young adults. We can argue whether or not historians should create their own audience and avoid the mainstream. But, there is no denying the power the mainstream has and if we can use musicals as a way to grow our own audiences from the mainstream, why not jump at the opportunity?

For those that hope history will go as viral as a picture of an absolute unit of a ram, Six went incredibly viral on TikTok not to long ago because of this song. The use of this song led many TikTokers to look into the origins of the song and the rest is history. So if a Lily Allen inspired song about Anne Boleyn can bring history to the mainstream, there is hope for us that want that 100% in class and room for musicals to be included in the discussion of historical depiction.

Well that’s enough self-serving interest for the day! Until next time!

~ Kat


Bibliography

Churchwell, Sarah. “Why Hamilton Is Making Musical History.” The Guardian, November 5, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/nov/05/why-hamilton-is-making-musical-history.

Ellis-Petersen , Hannah. “ ‘This Isn’t Colour-Blind Casting’: Hamilton Makes Its Politically Charged West End Debut.” The Guardian, December 20, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/dec/20/colourblind-casting-hamilton-west-end-debut.

“The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.” About the Hamilton Education Program | Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, n.d. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/programs-and-events/hamilton-education-program/about-hamilton-education-program.

Scott, Susan. “Cornelia and Catharine: The Other Schuyler Sisters.” Susan Holloway Scott, December 22, 2017. https://susanhollowayscott.com/blog/2017/12/22/cornelia-and-catharine-the-other-schuyler-sisters.

Stewart, Zachary. “The Tudor Girl Group Musical Six Is Poised for World Domination.” Theater Mania, August 9, 2019. https://www.theatermania.com/broadway/news/the-tudor-girl-group-musical-six-henry-viii_89504.html.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jenna Philbrick says:

    Hi Kat, I loved reading this post! You listed so many of my favourite musicals, Hamilton, Les Mis, Evita, and many others! You make some great points as well, I definitely agree that writing history in the form of a musical makes it so much more accessible to the general public. I think your mention of the Hamilton Education Project is especially important, I’ve read about the program before and I think that it’s making American history so much more interesting and engaging for youth. Hopefully it will set the stage, so to speak, for other programs like it. Another amazing musical that could be included is Fiddler on the Roof. Though the plot itself is not as historically significant, the setting is in a Jewish village in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia 1905. The musical ends with the Jewish families being evicted from their village with the edict of the Tsar. It’s definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it already!

    Like

    1. katmarie1313 says:

      Hey Jenna! I am so glad you enjoyed the post! I do love Fiddler on the Roof (There are far too many amazing musicals based on history, I could probably write a whole book about them!) Jess actually sent me a link to a new musical that is currently in workshop called 19: The Musical which is about the 19th amendment! Here’s the link to the workshop: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3sdAzf02O8&t=13m15s&fbclid=IwAR1Bh1TTbfwF2nWrh5Cx0q0eSKUcDs1LPyZ0Eews82uIfreUCVRwtsnZ6Rc I am really excited about it!

      Like

      1. Jessica says:

        19 is going to be amazing! The workshop is definitely in the rough stages, but some of the music on Spotify is beautiful! I can only imagine where they may go with costuming and a set.

        Like

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