When news came of the theatre community’s untimely loss of Michael Friedman, it made me consider his legacy. Without his best known work, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, we most assuredly would not have seen the most recent work about another famous early American now making waves around the world.
That Hamilton owes something of its DNA to Friedman’s work is nothing new or surprising. That the former work made it into the mainstream at all is remarkable, as Broadway has rarely been kind to works based on historical events.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson examines the life of one of the most controversial presidents through an emo-infused lens. Friedman imagined the seventh president as an angst-ridden rockstar. The musical was well-received in its Off-Broadway run at The Public Theatre, but did not fare as well in its transfer to Broadway. In hindsight, the cynicism of the piece was likely difficult for Broadway audiences to digest, but it was a work of genius.
Another amazing piece of recent musical theatre is The Scottsboro Boys. Written by one of the all-time greatest teams in musical theatre history, John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago), the musical takes the form of a classic minstrel show presenting the trial of nine men wrongfully accused of rape. Similar to Bloody Bloody, there’s a hard-nosed cynicism in Scottsboro that challenges audiences. While tonally similar to Cabaret, a perennial Broadway favorite, The Scottsboro Boys simply might have been too self-reflective or immediate for audiences to embrace in the same way. It currently holds the record for the greatest number of Tony Award nominations without a win.
Prior to The Scottsboro Boys, another group of misfits had their say Off-Broadway with Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical Assassins. The musical weaves together the stories of the men and women who have successfully or attempted to assassinate various presidents of the United States. Fresh on the heels of Into the Woods, Assassins was a radical shift in Sondheim’s work, featuring a revue-like structure where each assassin’s story is share. Assassins didn’t make it to Broadway until 14 years after its Off-Broadway premiere.
The pattern seems to echo throughout Broadway history. Musicals like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Ben Franklin in Paris didn’t seem to take hold on Broadway.
There are a couple of exceptions that prove the rule, perhaps. Fiorello!, written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock (Fiddler on the Roof) with book by Jerome Weidman, John Weidman’s father, won both the Tony Award for Best Musical and Pulitzer Prize in 1960. It tells the story of the mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia, and ran 795 performances. It was one of producer Hal Prince’s biggest early hits.
Probably no historically themed piece had greater impact upon the Broadway stage than 1776. Running for 1,217 performances, it won a Tony for best musical. The play presented the events leading up to the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence in a dramatized, but fairly straightforward way. The brilliance of the musical resides in the understanding that the history itself is enough to create dramatic tension. By the time intermission rolls around, an audience is questioning whether the Declaration was signed at all.
History presented on stage has the ability to change the history it depicts. Right now, popular consciousness imagines Alexander Hamilton to be similar to Lin-Manuel Miranda while the actual historical record is far more complicated than can be depicted in three hours. The same thing can be said of Shakespeare’s depictions of British Monarchs. His Richard III was only vaguely similar to the historical record, but which one remains locked in the minds of most people who know him at all: The Bard overcomes history.
That is why there is a responsibility implicit in writing plays based on true stories and real people. A successful piece may eventually replace the history it was based upon. It may outlive us all, just as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson now outlives its composer.
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