What do the Declaration of Independence and King Henry VIII’s ex-wives have in common? You can learn about them through song and dance! Welcome to the wild and wonderful world of historical musicals, a whirlwind of textbook facts and creative liberties.
Historical fiction and actual events from history are both extremely popular subject matters in theatrical and musical performances. Ranging from classics such as “Evita” and “The Sound of Music” to more modern takes such as the worldwide hit “Hamilton,” history has certainly made its mark on the stage.
“Hamilton” needs little introduction, but before Lin Manuel-Miranda’s smash hit took Broadway by storm, a few historical musicals have stood out from the pack as exceptional representatives of the genre.
One of these standouts includes “1776,” a musical and film that details the creation of the Declaration of Independence. It focuses on the attempt by the obnoxiously passionate and dogged John Adams to convince the Second Continental Congress to write and sign the Declaration of Independence. Aided by the clever Benjamin Franklin and lovesick Thomas Jefferson, Adams embarks on a mission to convince his colleagues to declare independence against Great Britain.
“1776” features caricatures of the Founding Fathers, giving audiences a dose of U.S. history without losing the charm and wit of musical theater. High-energy, eclectic songs represent the debates between the Founding Fathers as they argue against Adams’ attempts at independence. These are interspersed with soft and witty songs that detail conversations between the frustrated John Adams and his wife, Abigail, as well as somber songs about the realities of colonial America, the Triangle Trade and war.
Like its popular hip-hop counterpart musical about the American Revolution, the 2022 Broadway revival and subsequent 2023 National Tour of “1776” offers a fresh take on U.S. history that challenges the traditional racial and gender norms of the colonial era. Featuring an all-woman and nonbinary cast, the revamped “1776” reflects the progressive changes that have occurred since the musical’s debut in 1969.
Going further back into history, the musical “SIX” provides a pop-punk, alternative take on the famous wives of King Henry VIII. The musical is structured like a contest between the six ex-wives regarding who suffered most due to their marriage with the king — or so it seems.
Catherine of Aragon describes her persistence in the face of her husband’s infidelity (“No Way”), Anne Boleyn details her beheading (“Don’t Lose Ur Head”), Jane Seymour sings about her single-sided love for her husband (“Heart of Stone”) and Anna of Cleves sings about her catfishing portrait that caught Henry VIII’s fancy (“Haus of Holbein”). Katherine Howard tells the audience about the trauma and abuse she endured before her beheading (“All You Wanna Do”) and Catherine Parr talks about her forced marriage with Henry VIII that tore her away from her true love, Sir Thomas Seymour (“I Don’t Need Your Love”).
The women ultimately choose to reclaim their stories, showing the audience that their lives were more than just a word in the famous children’s rhyme, “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” and that they are not just the ex-wives of Henry VIII. They come together, deciding that their contest is silly, and choose to rewrite their “happily ever afters” without the king (“Six”).
Each of the queens arrives on stage dressed in glittery, spiked clothing that feels far more appropriate for a rock concert than a British court. Yet, the musical still maintains some historical elements in its costuming and stage design, such as corset-reminiscent dresses and lights that look like fancy European castle windows.
These musicals make it both easy and fun to learn about history and provide positive messages that challenge traditional — and often problematic — views of these moments in time. They are fun pieces with mass appeal, intended to both entertain and educate. Both “1776” and “SIX” do a great job on both of these fronts, bringing history to life in front of the audience’s eyes, albeit in very unconventional ways.
History buffs may claim that these interpretations of history undermine the gravity of their real counterparts. While this is true, the main goal of these artistic endeavors is not to educate audiences on the bare-bones facts but rather to provide a fresh lens through which to view what could otherwise be perceived as a dull subject.
So, the next time you are itching to see talented people perform a song and dance for you, consider the humble historical musical. I promise you won’t be disappointed.