It is the challenge and honor of artists to create compelling stories of how history has perceived the lives of those who rocked the proverbial boat. The audience may never have a full understanding of what was without the foggy glasses of our bias and knowledge. Therefore, we place our trust in the artists to present a story of our past. Of the many varied mediums, many audiences are most fond of the emotion and struggle experienced when watching a stage performance; no matter how silly or musically the original topic has been disseminated. Theater brings the people of today and those of the past together for a meal. They break bread and learn about each other by telling stories of their siblings and joyful moments, in addition to the hardships they suffered. Rather than a history book, biographical musicals can help audiences meet real people with emotions and fears.
Biographical Musicals: Bringing Familiar Characters to Life
Musical theatre can present unsettling events to an audience of any age and experience with comprehension. Simply put, a pre-teen girl dressed as Katherine Howard at the previews for SIX: The Musical will be able to enjoy the music and understand the tragic life Howard lived prior to and during her marriage to King Henry VIII. Howard sings “All You Wanna Do,” in which she describes the abuse she suffered at the hands of the men in her life. This topic is hard for adults to discuss, let alone pre-teen girls. However, this young lady will always remember learning about identifying and overcoming trauma, regardless of how upsetting the ending is.
“Of course, we want our students to create characters from the ground up,” says Kristy Cates, NYFA’s Chair of Musical Theatre. “We do that each year in our new works series…but there is also a certain joy and educational benefit in learning how to bring your own spin to familiar characters.”
Many classic tales have been spun and woven from the annals of history, including but not limited to The Sound of Music (1959), 1776 (1969), Assassins (1990), and SIX: The Musical (2021). These stories can be appreciated by any, no matter the age, for a well-spun story draws you in, and you cannot bear to look away. Here is a series of biographical musicals based on real events and why they’re so effective in their approach.
Evita (American Repertory Theatre)
The hit rock opera Evita, featuring memorable songs that include “Buenos Aires” and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” is currently showing at the American Repertory Theatre. Featuring NYFA Musical Theatre alum Ilda Mason, the Tony Award-winning musical tells the story of Eva Perón, the wife of Argentine president Juan Perón.
Once a film starring Madonna, Evita is a powerful show that captures the spirit of one of the most well-known female politicians. Eva Perón was instrumental in passing the women’s suffrage law and was known for her leadership and compassion.
Tickets are available through the end of July at americanrepertorytheater.org.
SIX: The Musical (On Broadway & Touring)
In short, British royal history as performed by the Spice Girls. SIX has won 23 awards in the 2021/2022 season, including the Tony Award for Best Original Score. This highly entertaining take on the six wives of King Henry VIII tells the sordid and tragic tale of each wife from their perspective: “herstory” instead of history. Each Tudor Queen competes for who has the most tragic and painful tale. The soundtrack is a true BOP! You will be humming, singing, and tapping your feet to it for days.
SIX is currently on Broadway and Touring the United States. You can purchase tickets on their website or through TodayTix. If you decide to purchase through TodayTix, you will be able to view sales and plan your day on Broadway for a small discount.
On Your Feet (Touring)
If you have a love for the conga, On Your Feet is the musical for you! This jukebox musical tells the inspiring story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan as they use both their talents and faith in each other to become international superstars. On Your Feet has been critically acclaimed by audience members and reviewers alike. It is no wonder the musical was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Choreography.
If you are an NYFA student, you may be pleased to know that this dance-heavy show includes the incredible 1-Year Musical Theatre Certificate program alum Marina Vidal. Marina is currently performing as an ensemble member of the Broadway cast, as well as the 2022-2023 Broadway National Tour.
Tickets are available from the On Your Feet website for the national tour.
Assassins (Stream Community Theater Productions on YouTube)
Assassins (1990) is a much-loved Steven Sondheim musical. The show itself is tongue in cheek, with catchy songs like “How I Saved Roosevelt” and “Everybody’s Got the Right.” Themes of sacrificing for the greater good, desiring attention, idealism, pain, and desperation may be felt throughout the entire performance. One might even propose that this group of assassins is a community that inspires each generation in their choices, however harmful. Unfortunately, Assassins is not currently being performed on Broadway, but you may be able to see the show at your local community theater or a recording of a community theater production on YouTube.
If you are interested in reading an amazing novel based on the Assassins, read “Assassination Vacation” by Sarah Vowell. Much like the production, you’ll be in for a treat.
Tick, Tick… BOOM! (Stream Film Version on Netflix)
Tick, Tick… Boom! is the semi-autobiographical story of Jonathon Larson (Creator of “RENT”) as he worries about choosing a career in performing arts as an aspiring composer instead of pursuing a job in marketing. On top of all that, Jonathon is terrified of turning 30 because of his lack of achievement (See the song “30/90”). It is simply amazing to watch Larson grow into the composer he would one day become and how relatable a tale can be to your own life’s challenges and dreams.
Although a recording of the musical is not available on any streaming service, you can watch the movie adaptation on Netflix.
Parade explores the story of how Leo Frank and his family were impacted by anti-Semitism at the turn of the century. In 1913, Jewish factory superintendent Frank was falsely accused of assaulting a 13-year-old female employee in Atlanta, GA. He was incarcerated, appealed, and then eventually kidnapped and lynched by a mob of residents from his community. The score is impeccably arranged and manages to tell the tragic story in a new way.
Of note, the opening night of the 2023 Broadway Revival had some unexpected visitors. Protestors stood outside the theater, harassing the theater attendees and the cast. Ben Platt, who is performing as Leo Frank, made a public video announcement following the protest and stated, “They did us a favor to remind us that this is needed at the moment. And it really galvanized us, and we’re going to focus on telling the story and try to use it as a reminder as to why we’re telling the story.”
Pursue Your Future in Musical Theatre at NYFA
Want to take the big stage yourself one day? Learn more about our Musical Theatre programs! NYFA offers a range of degrees, certificates, and workshops that help aspiring visual storytellers enhance their performance, voice, and dance skills. Connect with our Admissions team and start your NYFA journey by requesting more information today!