State Theatre New Jersey


Musicals Based on Real-Life Events

By now, most of us expect to leave a theater having learned some valuable life lessons, but depending on the show, you could be leaving with a history lesson as well. While some may be more obvious than others, so many musicals have historical roots that will completely change the way you see them, so check out these four musicals based on real-life events! They’ll be more interesting than any class or book, we promise! 

Turning tragedies into a stage-ready, catchy musical seems like an impossible feat, but for Stephen Sondheim, it was a challenge he was ready to face. First opening off-Broadway in 1990, his musical Assassins tells the stories of the historical figures who attempted to assassinate Presidents of the United States, whether or not they were successful. Set as a sinister carnival game and featuring a variety of popular music styles from each respective era, Assassins provides the audience with a unique perspective of these bits of American history, and, despite mixed reviews after its initial opening, scored five Tony® Awards after its revival in 2004. To learn more about Stephen Sondheim’s ability to create these musical masterpieces, be sure to check out Six by Sondheim the documentary!

Stream it now on HBO: Six by Sondheim »

Many people are familiar with the story of Bonnie and Clyde, the infamous lovers and outlaws known for their bank robberies in the central United States during the Great Depression, but not as many are aware that their story was adapted into a musical. This couple was out of the ordinary and experienced the adventure of a lifetime. Interested in some quirky things you may not have known about this classic couple? Here, "10 Things You May Not Know About Bonnie and Clyde," you can read some fun facts about the couple which made them so unique! With music and lyrics by Frank Wildhorn and Don Black, Bonnie & Clyde opened on Broadway in 2011 starring Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan as the leading couple. If you’re fascinated by the outlaw lifestyle or enjoy listening to blues and gospel music, you’ll want to check out Bonnie & Clyde. Although the musical may not be running anymore, you still can check out the 1967 movie on HBO which follows the same story! Based on a true story, this musical will expand your knowledge on the way the world was at the time of the Great Depression, Americans' experiences and how they risked their lives in order to survive. 

Stream it now on HBO: Bonnie and Clyde »

Before audiences were stunned with Hamilton’s modern approach to portraying American history, Sherman Edward’s musical 1776 told the story of the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. After opening in 1969, people were shocked to see that the musical appealed to audiences of all political beliefs, but this made it no surprise when it won the Tony® for Best Musical the same year and later was adapted into film. 1776 retold the story of John Adams fighting for the independence of the nation by encouraging the 13 colonies to sign the Declaration of Independance. The audience follows him on his journey. Although this is based on a true story, like many other shows, there are always added scenes for dramatic effect. To understand which parts of the show were exaggerated and which were based off of facts, this article "Presenting the Facts: 1776" differentiates those important scenes from one another! Overall, this musicaltakes you into the past where you can watch firsthand how America became the independent America we know today. 

Stream it now on Amazon Prime: 1776 »
Casual Broadway fans have probably heard of Chicago, but even this show takes on a whole new meaning when you realize it was based on a true story. In 1924, Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner were both accused and put on trial for murdering their respective lovers. After meeting on ‘Murderesses Row’ in the Cook County Jail, both women were acquitted of all charges. Maurine Dallas Watkins, the reporter originally assigned to cover the cases, used these stories to inspire the characters of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, creating her own play that would eventually become a musical in 1975. Make sure to check out this Pinterest board — 20+ Best Chicago Memes and All That Jazz — to have a good laugh at the historical plot!

Stream it now on HBO: Chicago »

These few musicals are just a couple of the many shows that stem from a historical background. Like many more, these performances give the public an opportunity to truly understand what life was like during various historical events or time periods. These are experiences that are both educational, informative, and captivating. The musicals mentioned above barely scratch the surface of theater shows that originate from real-world events, so when theaters begin to reopen, make sure you keep an eye out for any history you can learn along the way!

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