Musicals Featuring Famous Women from History
Stage Musicals Featuring Famous Women
Many musicals take their inspiration from history--and many in particular fictionalize the lives of famous historical women. Choosing a woman from history to base a story around gives the composer and lyricist several built-in advantages; they have a role for a powerhouse female singer, and more than likely a compelling framework for a story is already in place--it just has to be musicalized.
Read on to learn more about the best musicals featuring strong women from history.
A Scene from Evita
One of the most famous musicals centering around a real-life historical figure is Andrew Lloyd Weber's Evita. It started as a concept album, then moved to the London stage, and then debuted on Broadway in 1979, starring Patti Lupone in the title role and Mandy Patinkin as Che.
The storyline begins with 15-year-old Eva, already scheming for more than she has, in a small town. She sleeps with a tango singer and blackmails him into taking her to Buenos Aires, where she's determined to become a star--but she's not content with mere fame. She also wants power, which she achieves by marrying Colonel Peron; together, and mainly as a product of Eva's tenacity and political savvy, they rise to power. Che narrates her rise and eventual fall, alternating between angry, mocking, sorrowful, and sympathetic.
While sometimes the music is a little repetitive and strident, Evita is an entertaining musical about a real-life historical figure who led a very interesting life.
A Scene from Funny Girl
Another of the most famous (and beloved) musicals about a historical woman is Funny Girl, based on the life of the comedienne Fanny Brice. The stage production starred Barbra Streisand, and she also won an Oscar for her role in the subsequent film.
The musical starts with Fanny as an aspiring star; she's not dissuaded by the fact that no one thinks she's pretty enough to make it, and she soon lands her first vaudeville job--unexpectedly stealing the show with humor.
She rises to the top while doing things her way, from a naive young girl to a confident performer and woman, and along the way she falls in love with the dashing Nicky Arnstein, a professional gambler. As her professional life soars, her love life begins to fail, and the story ends with her a star--but heartbroken.
The songs are great, Fanny is a loveable and funny character, and the romance is poignant--though it's fictionalized, it still brings alive a famous woman from history who might otherwise be unknown to modern audiences.
A Scene from Annie Get Your Gun
Annie Get Your Gun
Annie Get Your Gun is a 1946 musical fictionalizing the life of Annie Oakley, more specifically her time as a sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and her romance with fellow sharpshooter Frank.
As the musical starts, Frank challenges the residents of a town where the Wild West Show is touring to a sharpshooting contest--and is surprised when Annie beats him. Annie, who met Frank before the contest and didn't know who he was, has already fallen in love with him, despite the fact that he dismisses her for being a little too rough around the edges. Eventually, Frank falls in love with her too--and though their romance is a little rocky, true love prevails in the end (that, and Annie's willingness to cater toward Frank's ego).
Annie Get Your Gun is a romp--and while it's highly fictionalized, it was inspired by a pretty awesome woman in American history.
A Scene from Gypsy
Gypsy, which many critics have called the greatest American musical, draws its inspiration from the memoir of burlesque dancer (read: stripper) Gypsy Rose Lee. The original production opened in 1959 and was nominated for eight Tony Awards.
The musical begins with Rose pushing her two daughters to perform--Dainty June is already a vaudeville sensation, while the shy Louise hasn't taken to the stage. Rose is determined to make them all a better life through success on the stage, but her dream is ruined when June elopes and turns her back on performing. Left with just Louise, Rose is determined to make her a star--though eventually Louise makes it on her own terms, renaming herself Gypsy Rose Lee.
Rose ends up alone, her ruthless ambition having driven away the man she loves and who loves her; Louise is also embittered at their relationship, though the end does promise some hope for redemption.
Though based on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy is really Rose's story--the picture of a woman who does desperate things out of a misguided belief that she's doing what's best for her and for her daughters. Many of the songs are classic standards now, and the emotional heart of the story stands true.
Other Stage Musicals Featuring Famous Women from History
The lives of famous women from history seem made for the Broadway stage, and they've given more than a few performers their start on the Great White Way. If you enjoyed the musicals in this list, you may also like:
- The King & I
- Teddy and Alice
- The Unsinkable Molly Brown
- Funny Lady
What's your favorite musical with a strong, historical female lead?