Hamilton has emerged one of the hits of the 2015-16 Broadway season, inspired by a biography on the famous forefather Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. While the hip-hop musical features many unique and inventive aspects, real-life stories of inspiring or controversial people being adapted into Broadway musicals is not a new phenomenon — in fact, there have been a handful of bio-musicals that have found success on The Great White Way over the years. Larger-than-life characters with compelling stories are the basis for most musicals, so it stands to reason that the art form would lend itself particularly well to telling the stories of actual people who compel us through their strength and vision, as well as their very human flaws.
What has been true in most of the cases where the stories of people have been adapted for the musical stage is that the final product rarely tells a completely accurate story. For dramatic reasons, narratives have been altered, embellished and shaped to create more exciting stories. In general, most musical biographies have captured the spirit and personalities of the people they bring to life, even when such liberties are taken.
Margaret Landon wrote the novel "Anna and the King of Siam" in 1944, weaving fact with fiction to tell the story of the British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, who was hired by King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand) to instruct his children and wives in the ways of Western learning. The novel, which was loosely based on Leanowens's memoirs "The English Governess at the Siamese Court" (1870), would become the basis for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I (1951). Though many of the basic facts of Leonowens' memoirs are kept, Landon's novel and the stage musical itself take liberties with how the Siamese king is portrayed. Painted as a barbarian who needs Western civilization to civilize him, as well as inferring a possible romantic interest in Anna, neither was actually the case. Mongkut was known to be a fairly kind ruler, a progressive leader and he had a predominantly respectful, professional relationship with Leonowens. The King and I was banned by the Thai government who considered it insulting and ethnocentric. In the United States, The King and I continues to be a respected and beloved musical, though it only meets the most basic qualifications of a biography due to the dramatic flourishes of fiction throughout.
Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't stop with The King and I. Their next big hit was also loosely based on a real person's life. Maria Augusta Trapp, the real-life singing nun turned governess had her story adapted from "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers" (1949) and a subsequent 1956 German film to become The Sound of Music (1959). Again, there was some deviation from the facts to tell her tale, including the changes in the names of the children, their ages and the order of the timeline of the real story. The von Trapp's dramatic evacuation to Switzerland at the end of the film was complete fiction, and the family instead fled the country by train, landing in Italy before moving on to England and then the United States.
In 1979, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice used the story of Argentine actress Eva Duarte and her social climb to success, manipulating and marrying the politically upward mobile leader Juan Peron, to great musical effect with Evita. Eva Peron was a controversial and polarizing figure in Argentina during the 1940s and 50s, hailed by many as a saint, yet scorned by others who felt she was corrupt. The musical doesn't shy away from telling a balanced story, showing the complicated Eva in a human light, flawed yet sympathetic, greedy yet generous. Webber and Rice refuse to point to any particular biography as the basis for Evita, but certain aspects seem to have been at least inspired by Mary Main's "Evita: Woman with the Whip" and a made-for-television film about Eva Peron called "Queen of Hearts," both of which Tim Rice was familiar with and served in igniting the genesis of the project.
Composer Jule Styne was responsible for the scores of two of the biggest hit musical biographies: Gypsy and Funny Girl. Based on "Gypsy: The Memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee," the life of the famous burlesque stripper and the story of her domineering stage mother, was adapted by Styne (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book) into one of the most ardently admired showbiz musicals: Gypsy. Some tinkering was done with the story and characterizations, but most of Gypsy was a fair representation of Lee's memoirs. Funny Girl is the story of vaudevillian Fanny Brice, with music again by Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, featuring a book by Isobel Lennart. The show was assembled using taped recordings of the late star telling her life story. Funny Girl was more troublesome to construct, as it wasn't working from a story with an arc, but instead from a series of vignettes that then needed to be strung together as a story with a through line. In an effort to do so, episodes and events in Brice's life were restructured or fabricated for dramatic effect.
Watch Gypsy Rose Lee perform below.
Cy Coleman provided the music for two show business biographies. In 1980, collaborating with lyricist Michael Stewart and book writer Mark Bramble, he brought the musical Barnum to Broadway. Based on the life of the famous circus impresario P.T. Barnum, the musical explored, through the conceit of circus acts, the story of the famous flimflam man, from his humble beginnings to his conjuring of the "Greatest Show on Earth." Coleman's other bio-musical project found him working with Betty Comden, Adolph Green (lyrics) and book writer Peter Stone to create The Will Rogers Follies. Similar to Barnum in structure, famous radio personality, humorist and star of stage and screen Will Rogers' life was told in the format of a Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza. Light on historical content, but full of humor indicative of Rogers, the musical was more a celebration of the man than it was his life story. Still, important moments in his life including his birth, his career, his marriage and his death in a plane crash are all there, making it a bare-bones biography that used music to comment on the major events.
Another musical that is semi-autobiographical is A Chorus Line. Though it is a stretch to call it a biography in the truest sense of the word, it is, in fact, a collage of true stories assembled by Michael Bennett from a recording session of dancers who told their personal and professional ups and downs as they related to their passion for dance. In the musical, the trials and tribulations of working in show business unfold as each dancer steps forward at an audition and bares their soul. Names were changed and sometimes the true stories were shifted to a different character from the one who originally shared them, but what was created was a fictional tale rooted mostly in fact. In many ways, the stories in A Chorus Line are truer than what is to be found in most musical biographies. The power of its honesty and the brightness with which it illuminates the world of the dancer makes it arguably the most authentic of all showbiz stories. A Chorus Line resonated with audiences for a decade and a half and 6,137 performances in its initial run. In many ways, it became a symbolic biography of the everyman. Everyone, at one time or another, has put themselves "on the line" for something that they wanted and people saw that piece of themselves in A Chorus Line.
Biographical musicals give audiences a chance to connect with real-life people, perhaps heightening their experience by offering them an opportunity to intimately revel in the true stories of movers, shakers and celebrities. There is an electric thrill in knowing that something as exciting as the story behind a Broadway musical actually happened. Even though audiences are aware that these stories didn't happen with too much singing and dancing involved, the musical format serves to augment the experience so we can believe that Eva Peron sang "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" while looking over the crowd below the balcony of the Casa Rosada. They delight in thinking that Maria von Trapp and family hiked up the Alps to freedom with a choir of nuns encouraging "Climb Every Mountain." Audiences love to imagine that Anna and the King polkaed around the ballroom with more than just education and world politics on their minds. Creators of musical biographies utilize these additions as a kind of theatrical magic, not only to bring the stories dramatically to life, but to connect their subjects with the people who want both a musical and an exhilarating, true-life story.