How Often Are Broadway Musicals About Real People?

Jennifer Ashley Tepper Is answering your questions with Broadway Deep Dive!

By: Nov. 05, 2023
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How Often Are Broadway Musicals About Real People?

Do you have a burning Broadway question? Dying to know more about an obscure Broadway fact? Broadway historian and self-proclaimed theatre nerd Jennifer Ashley Tepper is here to help with her new series, Broadway Deep Dive. Every month, BroadwayWorld will be accepting questions from theatre fans like you. If you're lucky, your question might be selected as the topic of her next column!

Submit your Broadway question in the comments here!

This time, the reader question was: With Harmony sharing the real story of The Comedian Harmonists, I’m wondering- how often are Broadway musicals about real people who actually existed?

This season’s Broadway musical Harmony, with music by Barry Manilow and book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman, tells the story of The Comedian Harmonists, a music group in 1920s and 1930s Germany. The Comedian Harmonists consisted of both Jewish and non-Jewish performers, and performed to great international acclaim until the events of World War II. The musical currently playing at the Barrymore Theatre is a fascinating exploration of the true journey of this somewhat forgotten popular music group.

There have been many great musicals about real people on Broadway.

One of the first sub-categories that might come to mind here are jukebox musicals which use the well-known songs of a certain popular artist to tell their actual life story. Currently on Broadway, A Beautiful Noise utilizes the songs of Neil Diamond to share the highs and lows of his career and personal life with audiences at the Broadhurst Theatre. Other examples include Ain’t Too Proud, Beautiful, The Boy From Oz, Jersey Boys, Leader of the Pack, Lennon, Million Dollar Quartet, MJ, On Your Feet, and Tina. In all of these shows, multiple human beings who actually lived are depicted. In some cases, these shows can boast input from still-living creatives who were actually there, from Ellie Greenwich appearing as herself in Leader of the Pack to Gloria Estefan’s involvement with On Your Feet.

Scene from MJ

In other cases, we’ve seen documentaries made into Broadway musicals. Grey Gardens originally opened off-Broadway in 2006, before transferring to the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway. Based on the 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens introduced audiences to Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, two incredibly eccentric relatives of once-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Big Edie and Little Edie lived in a decrepit mansion for several decades, as explored in the documentary. In the musical, act one depicts the mother and daughter’s early years, before their surroundings fell into disarray, and act two is reflective of the era in the documentary, decades later. The 2013 musical Hands on a Hardbody was based on the 1997 documentary about a group of down-on-their luck Texans who strive to literally keep their hands on a truck the longest in order to win the vehicle. Movingly, several of the real-life folks who were part of the contest in the documentary attended the Broadway show at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, seeing their tale play out as told by actors.

Like Grey Gardens, many other Broadway musicals have depicted actual people who intersected with politics, whether they were politicians or otherwise. Currently on Broadway, Here Lies Love depicts the journeys of leaders Ferdinand Marcos, Imelda Marcos, and Ninoy Aquino in the Philippines. Recently, Diana (2021) made waves on Broadway, bringing to musical life the story of Princess Diana from the 1980s through her tragic death in 1997. Musicals that involve real politicians or those who intersected with politics also include 1776, the game-changing 1960s musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Stephen Sondheim- John Weidman penned Assassins, about assassins and would-be assassins of U.S. presidents, Evita, centered on Argentinian leader Eva Perón, Fiorello!, about New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and The King and I, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic about the governess to the children of the King of Siam.

While it might seem like all musicals about real-life political figures have become well-known hits, there have also been under appreciated musicals in this category. For one, in 1980, Broadway saw the musical Onward Victoria, with book and lyrics by Charlotte Anker and Irene Rosenberg and music by Keith Hermann. This show told the story of Victoria Woodhull, who was a groundbreaking political figure in the 19th century, the first female candidate for President of the United States, and a pioneering suffragist and entrepreneur, among many other credits!

Scene from Hamilton

Onward Victoria had an anachronistic score, with its pop style reflecting the ahead-of-her-time nature of the protagonist rather than the actual period when she lived. Other anachronistic musicals inspired by real figures in history include the beloved Jesus-centered Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, 2006’s punk rock Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and the current Broadway smash hits Hamilton and Six.

Of course, we’ve also seen powerful musicals about folks who have made headlines due to injustice and prejudice, becoming well known based on tragic circumstances out of their control. The recent revival of Parade told new audiences the story of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank, wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of factory girl Mary Phagan in 1910s Atlanta, and the anti-Semitism surrounding the case. The 2010 musical The Scottsboro Boys shared the story of the nine Black teenage boys who were wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in 1931, and the racism surrounding the case.

There have also been a fair share of musicals about real historic events but which are not centered on real historic figures, such as Titanic and South Pacific. Among these are musicals that include real-life figures but are not centered on them, such as Ragtime and Pacific Overtures.

In the show business world, Broadway has certainly seen its fair share of bio-musicals depicting real-life writers, actors, vaudeville performers, circus personalities, filmmakers, strippers, and much more. These include A Class Act, Barnum, Chaplin, Fela!, Funny Girl, Gypsy, Harrigan ’n Hart, Jelly’s Last Jam, LoveMusik, Mack and Mabel, Marilyn An American Fable, Marlowe, Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, Side Show, and The Will Rogers Follies.

There is also a special brand of show business bio-musical which features the actual central person on stage playing themselves. These vary greatly in style, and have included shows from Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life to Everyday Rapture to Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me to Passing Strange to [title of show].

Scene from A Strange Loop

Similar to these shows are musicals that might be called autobifictionography, where a creator utilizes their own autobiographical elements as well as fictional ones in a book musical. This category encompasses some of the most influential musicals in Broadway history, including Pulitzer Prize winners A Chorus Line, Rent, and A Strange Loop. Other autobifictionography musicals include A Bronx Tale, Fun Home, In The Heights, Hair, and Wonderful Town.

There are many different ways that real people have been portrayed in musicals! Other shows that don’t quite fall into any of the above categories include the recent hit Come From Away, about the people on planes diverted to Newfoundland on September 11th, 2001 and the people on the ground who welcomed them, the classic The Sound of Music, based on Maria Von Trapp’s memoir, and musicals centered around people who became famous for various reasons outside of show business and politics from The Capeman to Flying Over Sunset to Kelly to Legs Diamond to Sunday in the Park with George to The Unsinkable Molly Brown to War Paint

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