Favorite Musicals about America
Theatre is in an uncertain time. With the recent announcement of Broadway postponing their shows for all of 2020, I miss seeing a live performance. My next best thing is to listen to cast recordings to get by until I can see live theatre again. However, we are in luck that Hamilton is coming to Disney Plus! With Hamilton premiering on July 3rd (and Independence Day this Saturday), I wanted to highlight some of my favorite musicals about America.
Let's start with the behemoth that is Hamilton. Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, aka the 'ten-dollar Founding Father'. This musical tells the highlights of Hamilton's life from his first meeting with Aaron Burr to their infamous duel that resulted in Hamilton's death (spoiler alert). This production really kicked off thanks to not only word of mouth, but also because of social media. The musical itself is told almost entirely in songs, so don't expect much dialogue in this show.
I was fortunate enough to see a production of Hamilton in March 2017 in Chicago with Wayne Brady as Aaron Burr and Karen Olivo as Angelica Schuyler. I also got to meet Miguel Cervantes at the stage door after the show, whom I saw a few years earlier in If/Then when it was on Broadway in New York. If you get the chance to see Hamilton in-person, I highly recommend it.
I believe Ragtime is an underrated musical. Ragtime tells the story of America during the 1910s from three different groups of Americans: African Americans (represented by Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a Harlem musician) upper-class suburbanites in New Rochelle, NY (represented by Mother, the matriarch of the family), and immigrants who just arrived in America (represented by Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia). I've seen Ragtime twice: one production at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre in 2017 and one production at Marriott Theatre in 2019.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Before Hamilton, Andrew Jackson had his own musical about his life story. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson tells the story of Andrew Jackson, one of the most controversial presidents of the United States, as an Emo rock star. An easy way to describe it is combining "American Idiot" with "Hamilton". The musical is not shy about telling Jackson's dark history as president and his dislike of Native Americans; there is even a line that says he could be considered an American Hitler. It's one of the shorter musicals on this list; it's only 90 minutes and doesn't even have an intermission. Aside from the controversy, it has strong music and some great one-liners. There are some moments that are in the musical that would be considered cringe-worthy in 2020, but with some tweaking, I would love to see it revived on Broadway in the future.
Caroline or Change
I first heard about Caroline or Change from a documentary about Broadway shows in 2004: Wicked, Taboo, Avenue Q, and Caroline or Change. In 2015, I found out Grand Rapids Civic Theatre was going to produce it and I signed on to volunteer for the production as an Assistant Stage Manager. Caroline or Change tells the story of an African-American maid in Louisiana in 1963 that shows her life as a single mother of four working for a Jewish family that recently lost the matriarch due to cancer and the husband remarries. Caroline and the other characters go through political, social, and even pocket change. Like Hamilton, the story is told entirely through music and songs rather than dialogue. The score is absolutely gorgeous and combines several different genres of music: soul, jazz, gospel, and traditional Jewish music. It was scheduled to revive on Broadway in 2020 at the Roundabout Theatre, but due to COVID the production has been postponed.