Research has found that the human brain remembers language better if learned through singing. Suddenly, the advent of those “Schoolhouse Rock” videos makes complete sense. It’s no surprise, then, that musical theatre fans picked up, and retained, factoids embedded in the lyrics and plots of Broadway shows. History has its eyes on theatre, or, perhaps, the other way around. For history nerds, these shows are a fun intersection of two passions, but for those of us who struggle to remember significant historical dates and notable names, these shows taught more history than we could have absorbed from the classroom.
FACT: Before FDR, Herbert Hoover was the President of the United States.
WHERE WE LEARNED IT: Annie, 1977
The 1977 Broadway musical Annie, based on the depression-era comic strip Little Orphan Annie, is one of the most beloved family musicals ever. Little Orphan Annie travels to a Hooverville after escaping Miss Hannigan’s orphanage, where the homeless sing the sarcastic “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover” about how they hold outgoing President Herbert Hoover responsible for their impoverishment. Later on in the show, Annie visits Hoover’s successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his cabinet and plucks up their spirits with a reprise of “Tomorrow.” Her optimism leads Roosevelt to have a rosier outlook on the nation’s future, and Annie ends up inspiring “The New Deal,” a program enacted by Roosevelt and Congress that worked to end The Great Depression through relief (for the unemployed and destitute), recovery (of the economy) and reform (to prevent another depression). The tuneful inspiration is of course fiction, but Hoovervilles and “The New Deal” are historical facts!
FACT: Eva Perón was a First Lady of Argentina
WHERE WE LEARNED IT: Evita, 1979
Evita tells the story of Eva Perón’s life from her rural upbringing in Los Toldos to becoming First Lady of Argentina, to her untimely death from cervical cancer in 1952. The musical is filled with real-life historical events, locations and people. She sings the iconic “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” to a crowd of supporters following her husband’s election to Argentina’s Presidency on the balcony of the Casa Rosada, the real-life executive mansion and office of the President of Argentina—they filmed this scene at the actual location when making the 1996 film adaptation starring Madonna. The tango singer who brings her to Buenos Aires in the musical, Agustín Magaldi, was a real singer whose recordings you can still find, but it turns out the rumors of their romantic relationship and journey to Buenos Aires may be more legend than fact. However, one of the most bizarre elements of Eva’s story discussed in the show (in the final line of dialogue)—how her body was embalmed and intended to be displayed in perpetuity only to go missing until 1971—is completely true.
FACT: There was that “other” French revolution.
WHERE WE LEARNED IT: Les Misérables, 1987
“General Larmarque is dead!” shouts little Gavroche in the middle of “Red and Black,” after which the song climaxes into a call to action for the young students. Though many incorrectly think this revolution is The French Revolution, the barricade depicted in Les Misérables went up in 1832, 43 years after the Bastille was stormed. It nevertheless is a fictionalized account of a real event that happened June 5 that year. Activists, pushed to the edge by the death of friend to the poor General Jean Maximilien Lamarque, took about half of Paris with many individual barricades throughout the city. Victor Hugo, author of the novel on which the musical is based, was in Paris at the time and witnessed it first-hand. Three decades later, he turned his experience into Les Misérables, immortalizing the 1832 revolution forever.
FACT: Emma Goldman was a premiere voice in the anarchist political movement.
WHERE WE LEARNED IT: Ragtime, 1998
Anarchist Emma Goldman is one of a handful historical figures (along with Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington) featured in Ragtime, the 1998 Broadway musical with book by Terrence McNally, and music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Based on the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name, the show intermingles the fictional stories of three groups of people in early 20th Century New York: new Jewish immigrants, African-Americans, and a family of well-to-do whites in New Rochelle. Mother’s Younger Brother, of the New Rochelle family, is enamored of the vaudeville performer Evelyn Nesbit, whose own love triangle did, in fact, provide the nation with one of its first scandals of the century, musicalized here in “Crime of the Century.” Nesbit rejects Mother’s Younger Brother but when he finds himself present for “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square” her oration convinces him to join the fight of the Socialist Party and striking laborers. The speech ends with a riot in Union Square. True to life, Emma Goldman was arrested several times for "inciting to riot" at her many public speeches promoting labor forces to take action against the bourgeois class and “was eventually deported.”
FACT: Leo Frank was the first Jew to be lynched in the U.S.
WHERE WE LEARNED IT: Parade, 1998
Leo Max Frank was raised primarily in New York but moved to Atlanta in 1908, where he became a superintendent at a pencil factory. As a Jewish man in the mostly-Christian south, Frank was perceived by many as an outsider and quickly became the primary suspect when a 13-year-old employee of his factory was found murdered. He was found guilty, though when it received nationwide press many raised concerns of antisemitism in the prosecution, particularly because their case rested primarily on the testimony of Jim Conley with little physical evidence to back up the story. After a series of unsuccessful appeals, Georgia Governor, John M. Slaton, personally re-evaluated the case (including evidence that hadn’t been presented at trial) and commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison, where he had previously been scheduled for execution. A few months later, an angry and armed mob of men kidnapped Frank from his prison cell and lynched him. Most historians now believe it was Conley himself who committed the murder, especially after Frank’s former office boy told a newspaper in 1982 that he’d seen Jim Conley carrying the girl’s body by himself the day of the murder. Frank was posthumously pardoned by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1986.
FACT: John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald are far from being the only Presidential Assassins in U.S. history.
WHERE WE LEARNED IT: Assassins, 2004
As far as musical theatre history lessons go, it doesn’t get much more educational than Assassins, which tells the story of nine men and women who attempted (some successfully) to assassinate an American President. The show bookends with the most famous of the assassins, John Wilkes Booth (who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865) and Lee Harvey Oswald (who assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963), but it also tells the lesser-known stories of Charles Guiteau, a writer with delusions of grandeur who assassinated President James Garfield in 1881; Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901; Giuseppe Zangara, an anti-capitalist who assassinated Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and attempted to shoot President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933; Samuel Byk, who attempted to hijack a plane in an unsuccessful plan to assassinate President Richard Nixon in 1974; John Hinckley, whose obsession with Jodie Foster drove him to an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981; Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a Manson family member, who attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975, and Sara Jane Moore, who also attempted to assassinate Ford just three weeks after Fromme. Just for good measure, Emma Goldman (an anarchist and activist who interacted with Leon Czolgosz a few times) appears, as well. The musical dramatizes many events that actually happened, but also imagines some fictitious scenes for dramatic reasons, like the park bench meeting of “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore.
FACT: An unjust trial leads the way to the civil rights movement.
WHERE WE LEARNED IT: The Scottsboro Boys, 2010
Using the construct of a minstrel show, The Scottsboro Boys tells the true story of the nine black teenage boys who were arrested, tried and convicted for raping two white women on a train in 1931 Alabama. Thanks to “Commencing in Chattanooga,” we all remember where the fateful ride began. The cases were repeatedly appealed, advancing to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulting in landmark decisions regarding racism and right to a fair trial. Charges were finally dismissed against the four youngest boys after six years in prison, but despite the fact that one of the women even recanted her accusations, five of the nine boys received sentences ranging from 75 years in prison to death. The last musical number finds boys in blackface, each stepping forward to tell the audience how their story ended, but when the Interlocutor, the only white actor in the show, calls for them to do "The Cakewalk," each boy refuses and fades into the background. In 2013, the state of Alabama granted posthumous pardons to the final three boys who had not yet been pardoned or had their convictions overturned. The musical ends with Rosa Parks taking her seat on the bus.
FACT: The U.S. government interned its own Japanese-American citizens during WWII.
WHERE WE LEARNED IT: Allegiance, 2015
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the relocation of 120,000 people of Japanese descent to internment camps in the United States. This swept-over dark moment in American history was brought to life onstage in Allegiance, inspired by the family history of star George Takei. The musical follows the fictional Kimura family as they are moved from their home in California to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming during World War II. To prove that he is a loyal American citizen—against his father’s wishes, Sammy Kimura—joins the Japanese American Citizens League to aid the U.S. government in identifying disloyal Japanese Americans. The league lobbies in Washington for permission for Japanese Americans to enlist. Sammy’s combat military service further estranges him from his family, who had refused to swear unqualified allegiance to the U.S. The critical response to Allegiance was mixed, but most reviews noted the importance of telling this oft unsung story.
FACT: The life story of a founding father is more than just his death.
WHERE WE LEARNED IT: Hamilton, 2016
Most students learn in school (or from a “Got Milk” campaign) that Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. But the Broadway juggernaut tells the life story of the from his own orphanhood in the Caribbean to his legacy carried out by his widow Eliza in the creation of New York City’s first private orphanage. In his 47-year life, Hamilton fought in the American Revolution, serving as General Washington’s right hand man; wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers, a collection of essays in favor of the new Constitution; held the office of the first Secretary of the Treasury, creating the U.S. financial system; and even divulged his own sex-scandal in The Reynolds Pamphlet to save his political career. The final song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” points to Eliza, but the answer for Hamilton is clearly Lin-Manuel Miranda.