Interview: Cary Ginell of CAREFULLY TAUGHT (BOOK) at

New book examines American history through musicals

By: Dec. 05, 2022
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Interview: Cary Ginell of CAREFULLY TAUGHT (BOOK) at

Since 2007, Cary Ginell's coverage of local high school and community theater have been presented in The Acorn through his regular stories and reviews, but now the Thousand Oaks resident is displaying his knowledge in a longer form with his new book, "Carefully Taught: American History Through Broadway Musicals," published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books.

"I've always been fascinated by the confluence of theater and American history," Ginell said. "It started when I first saw the musical 'Ragtime,' which juxtaposes fictional characters with historical personages like Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington and Harry Houdini. It made me want to explore how American history has been presented in Broadway musicals, and so I ended up selecting 40 of these shows to profile in my book."

The musicals span American history from the earliest days of the Revolutionary War ("1776") to contemporary times ("Hair").

In spreading out his entries, Ginell was able to find a show to represent nearly every era in American history, tracking musicals like "Shenandoah," about a Southern family and their struggles during the Civil War, and "Bandstand," which told of GIs suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after their return home from World War II.

In addition to comparing the lives of famous Americans like Theodore Roosevelt ("Teddy and Alice") and Will Rogers ("The Will Rogers Follies") with their theatrical counterparts, Ginell discusses shows written about obscure Americans caught in dramatic circumstances, such as "Parade," which deals with Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman falsely accused of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old factory worker in 1913 Georgia, and "Floyd Collins," about an amateur spelunker who gets trapped while exploring a cave in 1925 Kentucky.

Then there was "Chicago," whose major characters, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, were based on two real-life murderers of the 1920s, Beulah May Annan and Belva Gaertner, whose crimes were turned into a cynical vaudeville revue in what is now the longest running revival in Broadway history.

All three of these shows examine the media circus that consumed each event, a facet of life that still resonates today.

Ginell's book not only examines Broadway classics like "Oklahoma!" (taking place during Oklahoma's impending statehood in 1908) and "Hamilton" (the life of Alexander Hamilton) but also more obscure works, such as "Fly Blackbird," a short-lived off-Broadway show about the civil rights movement, and "Baby Case," a New York Theatre Festival entry about the 1932 kidnapping of the infant child of aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Ginell's two-pronged approach is meant to not only broaden the horizons of theater fans and performers, but to also spark curiosity about the drama inherent in American history itself.

"You don't have to dream up characters and invent incidents in order to make for a compelling story," Ginell said. "America has its own rich history of real-life characters, both famous and unknown, with stories that almost write themselves."

Consider "Bye Bye Birdie," Broadway's response to the rock 'n' roll craze, which was triggered by Elvis Presley's real-life induction into the U.S. Army in 1958 and a calculated publicity stunt as Presley is bid farewell by a real-life WAC named Mary Davies.

Social issues such as racial prejudice pervade many of the entries in Ginell's book, such as in "The Scottsboro Boys," which dealt with a group of Black teenagers falsely accused of rape in 1931, and "Allegiance," based on actor George Takei's memories of Japanese incarcerations during World War II.

The book's title, "Carefully Taught," references a song in Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1949 musical "South Pacific," which explains how racism is indoctrinated from birth, as sung by a young Marine lieutenant during World War II who balks at marrying a young Polynesian woman because of how they would inevitably be treated when he returned home to the U.S.

Ginell's book (his 14th on different topics in American music) was published in October and is available at