Musicals based on history

Lauryn Clarke (@_laurynclarke) takes a look at some of the most popular musicals based on historical events and sees how they measure up with the truth

With the newfound crazy success of Hamilton, and the long reign of Les Miserables in the West End (as well as a North American Tour coming this year), more and more people are learning human history through the vehicle of musical theatre. But do you know the true history behind it? Are they at all accurate? Let’s find out!

Let’s start with the newest entry on the list. Although there have been many musicals about American history (think:  ‘Assassins’,’ 1776′, ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’), Hamilton is the new favourite. With 3 current shows in America and a new version premiering in the West End this winter this is the new up-and-comer which is telling the story of Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary of the United States and (before Miranda’s Hamilton) arguably one of lesser-known Founding Fathers. Burr shot straight, but did Lin-Manuel Miranda get his facts straight?

Javier Munoz as Hamilton ( ©Joan Marcus)

Well, some of them! Let’s discuss some of the inaccuracies… Renee Elise Goldsberry emotionally sings “my father has no sons so I’m the one who has to social climb for one” but in fact Philip Schuyler had 15 children, several of whom were sons and 2 of whom survived to adulthood. Angelica was historically very flirtatious with Alexander and attended balls with him but when she met him (as depicted in ‘A Winter’s Ball’) she had already eloped with her husband John Baker Church years before. Philip Hamilton was actually shot in the late November of 1801, after the 1800 election and unlike in ‘Blow Us All Away’, Philip and George Eaker stood facing each other after the countdown for a full minute before Eaker shot Philip just above his hip.

Some critics of Hamilton argue that the most important historical change is in the representation of the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens. They were historically very close with some historians speculating they were in fact in a secret relationship. Although he didn’t attend the Hamilton-Schuyler Wedding as was shown in ‘Helpless’ and ‘The Story of Tonight (Reprise)’  as he was a prisoner of war in Pennsylvania, they were extremely close and  had much correspondence including letters where Hamilton wrote a long paragraph detailing how Laurens had stolen his heart, one where he invited John to join the “final consummation” with him and Eliza and one where Alexander writes several paragraphs about the size of his *ahem* nose. We don’t see this closeness in the musical but it sure is interesting!


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Cast of Newsies on Broadway featuring Jeremy Jordan ( © Deen Van Meer)

This was of course based on the 1992 movie of the same name starring Christian Bale, but ultimately both were inspired by the true events of the 1899 Newsboys strike in New York – but how does this Menken musical stand up to the truth?

As a base antagonist, they got it right. Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the World (the very man the Pulitzer prizes are named after, which have been awarded to Hamilton, Rent and A Chorus Line to name just a few) was the main opponent of the newsies; but also opposing the newsies was William Randolph Hearst, the publisher of the Journal, a direct competitor with the World and engaged in yellow journalism to compete with each other. On the subject of Pulitzer, he did indeed have a daughter called Katherine however she died in childhood in May 1884 and therefore was not the strong character we came to know from the musical.

On the flip side to this, Kid Blink was an actual newsie and despite being portrayed in the movie, he was not present in the musical, even though he was one of the most famous newsies at the time as he was quoted in many papers during the strike – although I suppose trying to do Christopher Gattelli while wearing Kid Blink’s famed eye patch would be a recipe for disaster! While Jack Kelly was based on several of the newsboys’ leaders, he would’ve actually been quite old for a newsie! Most newsies were young boys or in their early teens so 17 year old protagonist Jack would’ve been an odd one out in the historically accurate newsies gang.  Where leaders are concerned there was also another change – while Spot Conlon comes to the newsies’ aid in Act 2, he wasn’t in fact the “voice of Brooklyn”, that was a boy by the name of Racetrack Higgins who was at the time elected as Vice-President of the Newsboy Strike Committee; although Spot was mentioned in certain publications of the time as the “Grand Master Workboy of Brooklyn”.


Les Miserables

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Cast of Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, 2014 ( © Matt Murphy)

This is the one of the list probably most recognisable to people as the Claude-Michel Schönberg musical about the French Revolution – but did you know it isn’t about the revolution most people recognise? The French Revolution actually started in 1789 with the Storming of the Bastille and the Terror (which was when a lot of the guillotining happened) was in 1793, a full 33-29 years before the June Rebellion which is what is taking place in the stage musical. The June Rebellion was in a completely different century to the French Revolution and happened under a different King, Louis-Philippe who although being “good” and “admirable” (as described by Victor Hugo, the author of Les Miserables) had a country which was hit with a deadly cholera outbreak and a widening income gap – these conditions increased much of the tension that led to the June Rebellion.

Although most of the characters in the musical are fictionalised, one person who is mentioned who was very much real was General Jean Maximilien Lamarque. Lamarque is referenced many times by the barricade boys and his death becomes a rallying time for the revolutionaries, much as it was in real life. In reality, Lamarque was a friend to the poor and downtrodden like he is mentioned to be in the musical and the march in honour of his death turned into a rebellious mob as is seen in the musical and especially well in the 2012 film version.

Because the musical is based on the book rather than straight history it is quite important that the book is fairly historically accurate and in this case it is. Les Mis author Victor Hugo was alive and in the Tuileries Gardens at the time of the June Rebellion and write from both what he knew of later and what he experienced. Hugo actually got trapped between barricaded streets near the North end of the Rue Montmartre and got shot at in bullet fire which he drew on when writing the novel.

One other thing that features in the film and book but not on stage is the Elephant of the Bastille, which Gavroche uses as a hideout with the other street urchins. It was a genuine monument commissioned by Napoleon in 1808 and stood in the Place de la Bastille, Paris from 1813-1846. It was meant to be made of bronze but only the mock-up 78ft plaster model was made – a recreation of this was made for the film and can be prominently seen in the scene of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’.

Are there any other musicals based on history that you know? Anything I’ve missed on the musicals above? Let us know on the MTAS twitter (@MTAS_Official) or here on our Facebook group, or on my twitter (@_laurynclarke)!


One thought on “Musicals based on history

  1. Newsies and Les Mis are the first two that come to mind that are based off of historical events. Even thought some aspects may not be accurate, I still love how the plot is shown. I love it when things get fictionalized and a different plot is shown. I have nothing wrong when a plot is not fairly accurate because it helps created an incredible plot and makes you follow along with a fiction plot instead of a nonfiction one


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