Regarding recent events, and I think you all know what I am talking about, I got to thinking about a subject in musical theatre which people thought wasn’t really touched upon until Hamilton came along: Politics in Musicals.
It would always be a hard line to toe: how do you represent political figures or events, some despised, some loved, through song, in a way which would entertain audiences rather than make them feel as if they were watching their History teacher attempt to be ‘cool’. But, many musicals do it. Of course, most musicals are about large social-political issues underneath all of the glitter and dance numbers, but the following I am about to talk about are the ones which, in my opinion, do it best.
Of course, it would be rude to start this list without mentioning the 2015 cultural phenomenon that is Hamilton. Most likely, you know about it, but in case you don’t: Hamilton is essentially a musical theatre biography of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. Written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, it uses rap as its main genre of music, something which has only started to be experimented with in recent years. The show is a huge success, and has been a catalyst for young people becoming more interested in US history, despite the show deviating from the truth at times for dramatic purposes. The production shows that history can be entertaining and fun, especially if you take a pre-existing story most US citizens will know and modifying it to become something to be cared about through song and dance.
Favourite Songs: ‘Schuyler Sisters’, and ‘My Shot’
One of my favourite musicals, Billy Elliot is a musical adapted from the 2000 film, with music by Elton John. The story follows young Northern Billy, who discovers his talent for dancing. However, his father and brother do not appreciate his love for dance, considering it for “poofters”, and would prefer him to do something more “manly”, such as boxing. All of this is happening during the mining strikes in North-East England in the ’80s, opposing prime minister Margaret Thatcher. What is really striking about this show is the choreography – how do you translate brutal strikes onto the stage? The answer is simple: choreography. Peter Darling’s choreography is imaginative: during the song ‘Solidarity’, we see both children in ballet classes and policemen at the strikes mingling together in a number which sums up the entire feel of the show, and the North at the time it is set. There’s also a fantstic act two number titled “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher”, which includes profanities about the late PM as well as a giant inflatable of her on stage (it’s a joy to watch).
Favourite Songs: ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Electricity’
Les Mis is set in revolutionary France, and more specifically in act two during students’ strikes. One of the individual strands of the story sees students Enjorlas and Marius heading the strike, creating a barricade, and fighting. The song which best sums up this entire feeling of revolution captured in the show is ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’, which accompanied by a red waving flag, immediately makes the audience feel as if they want to get up and “join in our crusade”.
Favourite Songs: ‘At the End of the Day’ and ‘On My Own’
I guess it’s not necessarily about political figures as such, but RENT looks at the communities which are forgotten or ignored, grouped together in this musical as the “Bohemians” – young artists struggling in NYC. This group includes people of a variety of races, ethnicities, and LGBTQ+. It charts the story of this group of people, together, struggling to live, some with HIV/AIDs and the way others treat them.
Favourite Songs: ‘Seasons of Love’, ‘Take Me or Leave Me’, and ‘La Vie Boheme’
1967’s rock musical Hair is one of the most experimental pieces of musical theatre of all time. Taking inspiration from the “hippie” movement of the sixties, it charts the story of young political activists fighting against conscription and the Vietnam War. After the lifting of stage censorship in 1968, the musical opened in London (after a year of sell-out performances in NYC), and showed audiences a new way of performing which wasn’t confined to a set of rules and regulations. The show consisted of a racially-integrated cast, audience participation, drug-taking (fake, but according to Elaine Paige, a member of the original West End cast, the cast did ‘dabble’ outside of the theatre), and a nude scene which upset many audiences. The scene, of course, was used to make the point that audiences don’t care about violence or killing on stage (as was usual in many Shakespeare plays), but care about something as natural as nudity, which was not even presented in a sexual way.
Favourite Songs: ‘Aquarius’ and ‘I Got Life’
Speaking of the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon is a tale of this period from a very different perspective: those who lived in Saigon, and those in the US Army. The show, based on the opera ‘Madame Butterfly’, looks at Kim, a Vietnamese girl, who is left by her US Army lover, Chris. It includes songs from both sides of the world, as well as tapping into the idea of the “American Dream” which the Engineer has.
Favourite Songs: ‘The Heat is on in Saigon’ and ‘Maybe’
Of course, there are plenty of other fantastic musicals concerning politics, and lots I’m yet to discover! These include Urinetown, Fun Home, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and 1776, just to name a couple. Let me know of any others I should check out or you would recommend!
But finally, a song which seems to accurately describe most people’s reaction to the recent US election on my social media themes: