While not everyone is a fan of musical theater, it still does draw plenty of people to its elaborate stage sets, over-the-top song and dance numbers, and enthralling actor performances. In fact, the New York Broadway season for 2018–2019 saw a record-breaking $1.83 billion in gross sales with an attendance of more than 14.7 million people. Some musicals are completely imagined stories, while others are rooted in fact and history. As a huge fan of both musicals and American history, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to shows like Hamilton. And while I do love Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about the American Founding Father, it’s important to recognize that it isn’t the only musical to take history and make it interesting. And, I don’t think it even does it the best!
This list showcases ten musicals that tell a true historical story. Some are funny, some are sad, and a lot of them are both! So while you may not be able to watch the performance, you can certainly still enjoy the music and picture it.
10 Clinton: The Musical
The name says it all. This show focuses on the presidency of Bill Clinton with a little twist: Clinton is split in two. His fun side is Bill, and his serious side is W.J. And Hillary is the one who can see them both at the same time. Written by Paul Hodge and Michael Hodge, it offers a satirical look at the presidency of the 42nd American president. Theatergoers enjoyed its short 10-week off-Broadway run in 2015.
Clinton: The Musical is literally one of the funniest musicals I’ve ever come upon, and I’ve seen quite a few. Let’s set the scene: Kenneth Starr as a flamboyant pop star, Eleanor Roosevelt as a personal mentor to Hillary, and Newt Gingrich as, well, himself. This show takes the Clinton scandal and turns it on its head. Take the time to listen to Monica Lewinsky’s song (“Monica’s Song”) if you want to get a taste of the show, and you’ll immediately understand why it’s a favorite.
The Windy City can be a place of corruption and crime, and this satire emphasizes that in a hilarious and sexy way. Based on the true story of how 1920s Chicago became mesmerized by female murderers, Chicago takes the Jazz Age and gives it an incredible narrative.
Roxie Hart murders her lover after he admits he’s been cheating on her and is taken to the Cook County jail. There, she meets a group of female murderers who all claim their crimes were justified. The show follows Roxie as she attempts to sell herself to the press as a sweet girl who killed for self-defense, and how the trials change as Roxie’s new “friends” attempt to sabotage her. Chicago is currently the longest-running American musical still on Broadway for a reason, as it keeps you tapping and on your toes at the same time.
8 Come from Away
Even though 2001 doesn’t exactly sound like ancient history, the infamous 9/11 attacks are the foundation of this musical. Come from Away focuses on the true story of how the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland, became overwhelmed by over 7,000 travelers at the time of the attacks.
Gander was home to about 10,000 residents and a perfectly positioned airport for planes flying to the United States from Europe. So when the orders came in that all flights coming to America needed to land, suddenly, this small town was home to thousands of strangers from all over the world. The characters in the musical are based on real-life residents of Gander as well as the travelers who spent time there. They not only must deal with the impact of the 9/11 attacks but also the experience of being in a foreign country while completely alone.
A musical about 9/11 is definitely not something that sounds appealing to someone looking for a good time, but this musical is surprisingly feel-good. Rather than centering on the grief and sadness in Gander, Come from Away focuses on what the residents did to make everyone feel at home. Parties, songs, prayers, and jokes surround this musical with an aura of admiration for how good humanity can be even in the worst of times.
7 Bonnie and Clyde
Iconic crime duo Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow have their stories told yet again in Frank Wildhorn’s musical rendition of their lives. True to the time and hometowns of our two main anti-heroes, the music combines rockabilly, blues, and gospel music. The musical first opened in 2009 in La Jolla, California, with a few other runs through 2011. However, it recently saw a revival open in April 2022 a the Arts Theatre in London’s West End.
The show does a great job of showing the Depression-Era couple as products of their time. Clyde idolizes Al Capone and Billy the Kid and wants nothing more than to be as rich and famous as them. Just as ambitious as her beau, Bonnie is an aspiring movie star whose dreams get sidetracked when Clyde introduces her to the world of crime. Bonnie and Clyde doesn’t make any particularly intellectual comments about the American jail system or anything like that, but it sure does have some great tunes and recounts the exploits of these famous Americans in a new and interesting way.
Just like Hamilton, 1776 focuses on the years surrounding the creation of the United States and the founding fathers’ roles in it. John Adams is the main character of this show, and we follow him as he desperately tries to convince the Second Continental Congress that they need to completely separate from England. Obviously, we know how this story ends, which takes a little of the suspense out of it, but the music and characterization of historical people keep the audience engaged.
Originally played on Broadway by William Daniels (Mr. Feeny from Boy Meets World), John Adams goes around Philadelphia in the scorching summer of the titular year, looking for ways to convince the Congress that independence is worth the risk. With some humorous quips from Benjamin Franklin and some inspirational quotes from Thomas Jefferson, 1776 takes some artistic and dramatic liberties in order to tell the classic story of American independence.
First performed on Broadway in 1969, it saw a 1997 revival and a 1972 film.
Love, sex, prostitutes, and Nazis. What else could you want from a show? Cabaret is a classic musical based on Christopher Isherwood’s book Goodbye to Berlin, which focuses on a couple of characters in 1930s Berlin. What starts as an odd romance between cabaret performer Sally Bowles and writer Cliff Bradshaw gets lost in the bigger picture of Germany entering World War II.
Cabaret is constantly breaking the fourth wall, as the emcee of the show makes crude sexual jokes at the audience while also providing valuable insight into the world of performers at this time. The combination of humor and sorrow makes this show especially poignant, as it’s easy to get sucked into the smaller storylines of love and heartbreak before remembering that in the next couple of years, everything will change.
Like The Twilight Zone, there are a couple of astonishingly surprising twists. The show starts you off laughing and ends up with you crying on more than one occasion. It is an incredible blend of melancholy and wit. Cabaret has seen numerous stage time since its initial Broadway run in 1966, including numerous U.S. and UK tours, Broadway revivals, and West End revivals—the most recent in 2021. There was also a 1972 film version of Cabaret, directed by Bob Fosse and starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey.
Based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel of the same name, Ragtime is an intricate and spellbinding musical that combines fictional and real stories in turn-of-the-century America. There are several plots that overlap in the show, some true, some fabricated. Real-life characters include radical anarchist Emma Goldman, vaudeville star Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and the famous magician Harry Houdini. Ragtime was first performed in Toronto in 1996 and on Broadway in 1998, later winning the Tony Award for Best Musical Score.
The overarching storyline of Ragtime involves an affluent white family in New Rochelle and their encounter with a Jewish immigrant escaping from the city and the family’s involvement with Coalhouse Walker. He fights for African American rights with violence. It’s honestly difficult to explain what goes on in this show, but every scene is reminiscent of early America, back when the era of ragtime music was beginning.
Based on a true story, Parade dramatizes the trial and imprisonment of Leo Frank, a Jewish man accused of raping and killing a thirteen-year-old girl in 1913 Atlanta. While this sounds like a pretty dreary tale (and it is), the show does a great job of depicting racism and anti-Semitism in the post-Civil War American South. With music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Parade first enjoyed a Broadway run in 1998, also winning a Tony Award for Best Score.
The tricky thing about Parade is that no one knows if Leo Frank is guilty. The musical has a clear bias toward him, painting the picture as though Frank was only accused because he was the singular Jew in town. While history does show that anti-Semitism played a role in the trial, there is a definite chance that Frank did commit the crime. The show tells the story from Frank’s point of view but still keeps it ambiguous if he is guilty or not. Heartbreaking and intriguing, Parade shows a different side of America than some others on this list.
2 Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Hamilton is often praised for the way it took rap music, a distinctly modern phenomenon, and applied it to American history. While Hamilton is the first large-scale historical rap musical, it is not the first musical to tell the story of the founding fathers in a new medium. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson focuses on the life of our seventh president while portraying Jackson as an emo rock star. It opened in 2008 in Los Angeles with a Broadway run in 2010, seeing several regional and international productions since then.
The musical is extremely comedic, and the music is reminiscent of early 2000s Green Day, but that doesn’t stop it from tugging at the heartstrings. We watch Jackson deal with the death of his parents, his wife, and the unusual adoption of his Native American son. As one of our most controversial presidents, the show portrays Jackson both as a villain and a hero of the country. Not only incredibly outlandish but also the true story of the founding of the Democratic Party, the Indian Removal Act, and Jackson’s life in general, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is uniquely outrageous, unconventional, and hilarious.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (also known for West Side Story, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and countless other iconic musicals), how could this show not be a hit? It probably had something to do with the audience originally interpreting it as a love letter to a bunch of murderers.
Assassins is a surreal revue-style musical that details the stories of nine people who have attempted to assassinate the president. This includes those who succeeded (John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald) and ones the audience has definitely never heard of (Giuseppe Zangara and Sam Byck).
The musical crosses the boundaries of time and space, having men from the 1880s flirt with a woman who wasn’t born until fifty years later. The music cleverly corresponds to each assassin’s time period, with John Wilkes Booth’s song taking the form of a classic American folk song and Reagan-era John Hinckley Jr. singing an ’80s pop ballad to Jodie Foster.
But the show doesn’t just tell the stories of these assassins and would-be assassins; it argues that their stories have been lost to history, and that’s not fair to them. The audience hears John Wilkes Booth state his case for why Lincoln deserved to die and listens to young Americans blinded by the American Dream do what they feel they have to in order to succeed. When you watch/listen to Assassins, you aren’t just learning about a couple of misfits throughout America’s history. You’re hearing the stories of people who were written off as crazy but may have a spark of sanity in their narrative.