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History on Broadway An overview of musicals that coincide with historical events High School General Music Created by: Mr. Wolff

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history on broadway

History on Broadway

An overview of musicals that coincide with historical events

High School General Music

Created by: Mr. Wolff

Musicals have been entertaining audiences for over a century. In that time, there have been shows that not only reflect the environment, but the times of its creation as well as the ideals and attitudes of America

Sometimes musicals integrate actual events into their shows, allowing the audience to understand how life may have been during a particular era

south pacific
South Pacific

Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, wrote “South Pacific” in 1949, four years after World War II

This musical was based on a book called “Tales of the South Pacific” by James A. Michener

The plot of “South Pacific” is derived from two chapters which revolve around two love affairs while still offering lessons in human understanding

south pacific4
South Pacific

“South Pacific” went against the stereotype of most musicals by not having a choreographer

Without having any choreographed songs, it enhanced the shows realism

Hammerstein’s lyrics made the show racial, poetic, and tragic

Michener’s stories were dramatic, real and contemporary, which portrayed life in the South Pacific during World War II

The show was more about telling the story and less about the music of the show, which is why it won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama

south pacific5
South Pacific

The characters’ main problems integrate race, age and class

Nellie, a nurse from Arkansas, meets Emile, an older French man

‘Some Enchanted Evening’ is sung by Emile, at the end of his first date with Nellie

The song begins appropriately and poetically and is about forgetting everything, such as age and race, while being in love

In the meantime, Lt. Joe Cable, who has met a native girl of his own, is on a mission to monitor the Japanese and needs help from Emile

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South Pacific

At first, Emile declines, but when Nellie refuses to marry him, knowing that he has children of another decent, Emile decides to risk his life to help Lt. Cable

Emile sings ‘This Nearly was Mine,’ which is the soul of the record and was the substitute for the reprise of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’

‘Honey Bun’ helps add musical comedy to the show with its drag act and subtle dancing

The photograph of Nellie dressed as a sailor in white became on of the signature pictures for the show


With music by Galt MacDermot and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, “Hair” was the first ‘rock-opera’ ever written

It is subtitled as the “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical”

The musical questions ethics and ideals of individualism, violence, morality, sexuality, racism, drug use, religion and social acceptance


The music was unfamiliar to most theater-goers

The rock-style format went against what traditional musicals in America had been.

The director thought of it as being a revival to Broadway, which he considered to be theatrically dead

“Hair” started a trend for musicals, adding new themes, styles and an opportunity for more rock-operas


The story line was adapted by actual events from friends the lyricists met on the streets of Greenwich Village

The plot revolves around Claude and the group of hippies he meets while sight seeing in New York City, before he goes to basic training for the Vietnam War

In the 60’s, hippies were always on the streets, demonstrating their idea of non-conformism and to protest against the war

The show contains popular songs, including ‘Aquarius’ as the opener and ‘Let the Sun Shine’ as the closer as well as other songs about the hippies addictions and personalities

“Hair” broke boundaries and led the way for more rock-operas like “Godspell” & “Jesus Christ Superstar”

miss saigon
Miss Saigon

Claude-Michel Schonberg & Alain Boublil originally premiered the show in London before bringing the score and story to America in 1988

The show is a remake of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” yet reinstated during the Vietnam War

“Miss Saigon” is an intense and personal story of the losses we suffer and the sacrifices we make in a world gone mad

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Miss Saigon

Schonberg & Boublil started designing the show in their minds, when they saw a picture of a Vietnamese girl leaving her mother to join her father, an ex-GI, who she had never seen

The creators saw the mother’s silence and the child’s tears as a condemnation of all wars that shatter the lives of people who love each other

miss saigon12
This is an epic and daring musical that is universal in its emotional power even as it deals with controversial, contemporary issues

It is a sung-through, pop-inflected score that gives all members of the cast an opportunity to shine

“Miss Saigon” includes a cinematic structure, giving the directors and designers a field day

The technically complex show requires 266 to work behind the scenes, while only 47 cast members appear on stage

Miss Saigon
miss saigon13
Miss Saigon

“Miss Saigon” tells the story of a romance between a strong Vietnamese woman, Kim, and an American soldier, Chris.

The couple sing ‘Last Night of the World’ where they express their love for one another before Chris invites Kim to return home to America together

Unaware of Kim being pregnant, Chris is forced to retreat without Kim, during the fall of Saigon. Chris returns home and eventually marries

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Miss Saigon

Three year later, Chris comes back to Saigon with his wife to find Kim, who is determined to make Chris take their son back to the America

Their struggles to find each other ends in tragedy for Kim and a fighting chance for the child Chris never knew was born


“Rent” was composed by Jonathan Larson, who spent seven years making a modern rock-opera version of the classic opera “La Boheme” by Puccini

The show is inspired by “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar”

Larson wanted “Rent” to be ‘a Hair for the 90’s’


“Rent” ended up being a reflection of the way Larson lived his life

His mission was to celebrate art and art-makers

He was intensely passionate about living life, creating music and changing his part of the world, which was Broadway and musical theater

Larson wanted to combine Broadway’s traditional music and lyrics with rock by marrying the MTV generation with theater

Unlike all musicals, “Rent” is not accompanied by an orchestra, but instead by a rock n roll band

The show became so popular, that it had groupies known as ‘Rent-Heads’


The story of “Rent” is Larson’s own singular vision and drive

He kept the plot closely related to Puccini’s of “La Boheme”

Instead of the characters dying from Tuberculosis in Paris, their disease is AIDS and is set in New York’s East Village, a popular bohemian area

All of the characters are faced with

situations happening in the 90’s,

especially life

The musical is not about death, it is

more so about the celebration of life


Larson makes “Rent” so unique by translating his love for his friends in to the music. He wanted the audience to feel the way he felt about his friends. A few of the characters are named after his friends that have died from AIDS

It is ironic that Larson died the night before his show, about life, premiered with such huge success

The show ends with the cast singing ‘No Day but Today’ which was Larson’s main theme for his life and the musical


Cook, Anita M. "Why Music?." Triad November 2004: 1.

Ganzl, Kurt. The MusicalA Concise History. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Larson, Allan S. Rent by Jonathan Larson. New York: Rob Weisbach Books, 1997

Lynch, Richard Chigley. Musicals! A Complete Selection Guide for Local Productions. Chicago: American Library Association, 1994.

Michener, James A. Tales of the South Pacific. New York: The Curtis Publishing Company, 1947.

Mordden, Ethan. Beautiful Mornin’: The Broadway Musical in the 1940’s. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1999.