Circumstances of the battlefield often creates heroes, the men and women who put their life on the line to ensure the safety and security of the people and nations for whom they are fighting. Likewise, stories set against a backdrop of war creates some of the most dynamic and relatable characters in theatre. The choices of these characters are never easy and we often witness an internal struggle as tumultuous as the setting. In the end, the complexity of war shapes these characters into honest depictions that cause us to reflect on ourselves, our values and the truths that may not be self-evident.
Nellie Forbush, South Pacific (1949)
When the musical premiered in 1949, it had only been four short years since the end of World War II. No doubt the show's ability to resonate with audiences led South Pacific to its win as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — one of the few musicals to have achieved this distinction. U.S. Navy Nurse Nellie Forbush captured the hearts of audiences as the naïve, yet forthright, "cockeyed optimist." But it was this optimism that theatregoers of the time truly needed. Combine that with her romantic conflict over Emile du Becque (Should she wash that man right out of her hair or succumb to the love of a wonderful guy?), and you get one relatable leading lady.
Claude Hooper Bukowski, Hair (1968)
The boys of 1776 (1969)
1776 created a transformative moment — moreso than any individual character — with its song "Mama Look Sharp." The number is an examination of communal and individual sacrifice. Sung by a young courier in the American Revolution, the boy anguishes in his emotional account of watching his two best friends die on the same day. He recounts the story of the two boys, bleeding to death and calling for their mothers. It is chilling to be transported to their final moments and witness these heroes, merely teenagers, realization that their short lives have been taken. It's an effect only music can impart on an audience.
Ever since Pippin vowed to find his corner of the sky, theatregoers have been inspired to look inward and discover their truest self. But it's easy to forget that Pippin's self-discovery began with his father's war. The first-born son of Charlemagne, Pippin returns home after many years of being away at school. Determined to find his purpose in life, he decides on a trial-by-error approach. Thinking that war might be his calling, Pippin joins his father’s army and learns about the emotional detachment and pragmatism required to plan a war through the song “War is a Science.” “Glory”, an elaborate choreography piece originally staged by Bob Fosse, shows the brutal carnage of war. We all know that Pippin concludes that battle is not for him, but his quest to find what's real in a world bereft with hostility incites seatfillers to look a little closer at our own priorities.
Charlie Anderson, Shenandoah (1975)
The Civil War pitted brother against brother in a bloody exchange that resulted in more American casualties than any other war. The musicalShenandoah commemorated these approximately 625,000 lost lives. The story follows Charlie Anderson, a widow and father of six sons and a daughter. Living in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Charlie commits to keeping his family out of the war, but to no avail. His boys are forced to fight for the Confederate Army. Yet Charlie's courage and determination empowers him to reunite his family. It's this unbending love in the face of unimaginable conflict that endears Charlie to audiences.
The revolutionaries, Les Miserables (1987-Broadway)
Les Miserables is perhaps one of the best examples of musical theatre creating a entire ensemble of compelling characters through the vehicle of political rebellion. During the 1832 Paris uprising, young men and women fell on the barricade in the fight to end corruption in the French leadership and privileged class. We feel a loss of innocence as Gavroche collapses. Marius tugs at our heartstrings when he first debates following his love versus uniting with his brothers in their battlecry. But it's his soliloquy "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," that fills us with the emptiness of post-battle loss. What do you do when you've lost everyone important to you? When your life fills haunted? But if you can't relate to Marius' wavering, you'll find solace in Enjolras' conviction — his commitment to a cause that will inevitably lead to his death. He teaches us that it can be better to die with your values, than live in a corrupt world. After all, this was the landmark production that gave us the ultimate band-together anthem "Do You Hear the People Sing?"
Chris, Kim and Ellen, Miss Saigon (1991-Broadway)
Hair may have explored the effects of the Vietnam War on the home front, but Miss Saigon took audiences to the heart of the conflict. The Vietnam-set story reveals not only the effects of war on our soldiers, but on the natives caught in the crossfire. American soldier Chris falls in love with and marries the young prostitute Kim before the cataclysmic fall of Saigon. The two are separated when the city is evacuated and Kim is left behind, and unbeknownst to Chris, pregnant with his child. Time jumps ahead, and Chris, assuming he will never see Kim again, has married an American woman named Ellen. Miss Saigon gifted us with a duo of compelling narratives in Kim and Chris — if not a trio with the addition of Ellen in Act Two. The man torn between two worlds, the woman left behind and the wife trying desperately to connect her husband to their here-and-now.
Tunny, American Idiot (2010)
Named for the 2004 Green Day concept album, the rock opera tells the story of three aimless young men in search of meaning and freedom. Tunny eventually enlists, but the harshness of battle seeps in. He is then shot and wounded and lands in an army hospital. Haunted by the things he’s seen, the lives he has taken, and the way the war has ravaged his body, Tunny suffers hallucinations, including an angel who helps him find new hope and a way forward. American Idiot forced us to witness war as a current problem. Progressing from Miss Saigon where we watch the emotional interpersonal fallout of a soldier returned home, American Idiot spotlights the ugly truth about the psychological toll of war. It's this harsh truth that penetrated audiences and left a mark after the curtain fell.
Sammy Kimura, Allegiance (2015)
The bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese created a panic which led to the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in internment camps by the federal government. This most recent wartime musical tells the story of a family, the Kimuras, forced into relocation at one of these prisons. Despite the degradation and emotional torture he and his family endure, Sammy rallies to fight as a soldier on behalf of the United States and enlists in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Made up entirely of American born Japanese Americans, the unit is deployed to Europe, and Sammy proves himself a valuable and allegiant soldier. At a time when xenophobia threatens to re-emerge, Sammy's loyalty during that wartime reaches out to us and reminds us that the beauty of American lies in its diversity and our faith in others.