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Musicals for People Who Love History

Updated on August 25, 2013

Best Stage Musicals for History Buffs

Many musicals take their inspiration from past people, events, and eras, from ancient Roman times to the June Rebellion to World War II Germany to 1950s America. The musicals may even incorporate the music from the era--marches, cakewalks, ragtime--to add to their storyline. If you love history and are willing to overlook a little historical inaccuracy, then these musicals will be great entertainment for you!

Read on for musicals that history buffs will love.

A Scene from Assassins


Stephen Sondheim's edgy Assassins uses some controversial subject matter--would-be and actual assassins of United States Presidents--and turns their stories into a musical (taking liberties along the way, of course).

The musical starts in a carnival shooting gallery, and each of the featured assassins gets his/her song detailing her motivations for attempting to assassinate a president--from John Wilkes Booth to Charles Guiteau to Lynne "Squeaky" Frome, among others.

The story culminates with Lee Harvey Oswald, about to assassinate President Kennedy and urged on by the assassins that went before him.

Disturbing and dark, and at times darkly humorous, Assassins may make you uncomfortable--but if you don't know much about its subject matter, you'll learn something along the way.

A Scene from Ragtime


Ragtime is set in the early twentieth century in America, a time of great change in morals, goods production, lifestyles, and the demographic make-up of the country. The story itself, though it focuses on the tragedy of Coalhouse and Sarah, the emotional awakening of Mother, and the success of Tateh, weaves historical figures in and out of its storyline.

Famous figures include Evelyn Nesbitt, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and more.

It's an entertaining musical with beautiful music and a strong message, but it's also a tribute to an amazing time of change and innovation in American history.

A Scene from 1776


1776 is a musical that relates (and fictionalizes) the signing of the Declaration of Independence, including John Adams' passionate persuasion to get others to sign and fight for freedom. If you love American history and are particularly interested in the birth of our nation, 1776 will be the musical for you!

Though John Adams is the main character, other historical luminaries, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas and Martha Jefferson, and Abigail Adams, appear as well.

A Scene from Titanic


The tragedy of the Titanic, the unsinkable ship which hit an iceberg and sank in 1912, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,500, doesn't particularly seem like the perfect subject for a musical--yet the show premiered in 1997 and sent on to win several Tonys.

The first act of the musical covers the various classes on the ship--those in first class, those in second class who long for first class--and also brings in an eloping couple and the captain and the owner of the ship. It's all a build-up to the tragic second act, where chaos reigns and the ship begins to sink.

It's not exactly a feel-good musical, but if you are interested in the Titanic you'll probably enjoy it.

A Scene from The King and I

The King and I

The King and I is a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on the experiences of Anna Leonowens, who traveled to Siam in the 1860s to serve as a governess to the King of Siam's children. Anna was a British schoolteacher, picked by the King because he wanted to bring his country into the "modern" era and keep his land as an independent nation, rather than becoming a pawn to be used by one of the emerging Western powers.

The musical focuses on the culture clash between Anna and the King, as well was the bonds she forms with his children; it also develops a romance between Anna and the King, which neither can acknowledge.

Though fictionalized, The King and I is still a great musical, and even more fascinating if you begin to look at the real-life figures behind it.

Other Musicals Based in History

If you enjoyed these musicals and are interested in other musicals that were inspired by historical events or figures, you may also enjoy:

  • Camelot
  • Evita
  • Funny Girl
  • The Boy from Oz
  • Gypsy
  • Annie Get Your Gun
  • Les Miserables

What's your favorite musical set in history or based upon a historical figure?


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