From bio-musicals about New York City mayors and $10 Founding Fathers to dramatizations of what life inside the White House must be like (there’s more than one show on this), from famous American figureheads to the less proud moments for the United States, theatre has always been a much more entertaining way to learn American history than hitting the lecture hall.
Did you know all of these musicals and plays? How much history have you learned from Broadway?
(The following list is in alphabetical order.)
1. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Opened May 4, 1976, at the Mark Hellinger Theatre
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book and Lyrics Alan Jay Lerner
Lasting only seven Broadway performances, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was Leonard Bernstein’s last score written for Broadway. The story of the White House occupants from 1800–1900, Ken Howard starred as the all of the President and Patricia Routledge as all of his First Ladies. The story focused on race relations, including Jefferson’s affair with a slave, the post-Civil War era, and Andrew Jackson’s impeachment.
Opened March 16, 1969, at the 46th Street Theatre
Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Book by Peter Stone
Starring William Daniels as John Adams, Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin, Ken Howard (again) as Thomas Jefferson, and a young Betty Buckley in her Broadway debut as Martha Jefferson, 1776 told the story of Adams’ quest to convince the Founding Fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence. It was nominated for five Tony Awards and won Best Musical in 1969.
3. All the Way
Opened March 6, 2014, at the Neil Simon Theatre
Written by Robert Schenkkan
Bryan Cranston made his Broadway debut (and won his first Tony Award) starring in this story about President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Taking its name from Johnson’s campaign slogan (“All the Way with LBJ”), Schenkkan’s play dramatizes LBJ’s efforts to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964, swaying congressional members and working with Civil Rights leaders. The play won Best Play in 2014 and was later adapted into a movie for HBO.
Opened November 8, 2015, at the Longacre Theatre
Music and lyrics by Jay Kuo
Book by Mark Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione
Star Trek’s George Takei and Tony winner Lea Salonga starred in this new musical set during the Japanese internment of World War II. Following Pearl Harbor, numerous Japanese American families were forced to relocate and were incarcerated in mass internment camps on U.S. soil. The fictional story of the Kimura family in Allegiance was inspired by Takei’s real life.
5. Amazing Grace
Opened July 16, 2015, at the Nederlander Theatre
Music and lyrics by Christopher Smith
Book by Arthur Giron and Christopher Smith
The new musical focused on the life of John Newton, who wrote the titular American hymn. Newton was a slave trader who reformed to become an abolitionist. Tony nominee Josh Young (Jesus Christ Superstar) starred as Newton; Tony winner Chuck Cooper starred as the Newton family’s slave Pakuteh aka Thomas.
6. Annie Get Your Gun
Opened May 16, 1946, at the Imperial Theatre
Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Dorothy Fields, Herbert Fields, and Peter Stone
The great Ethel Merman originated the role of Annie Oakley in 1946 (a role she reprised in the 1966 revival) and Bernadette Peters in the 1999 revival. (Reba McEntire and Susan Lucci were among her replacements.) Annie Get Your Gun musicalizes the life story of real-life American sharpshooter Annie Oakley and her romance with competitor Frank Butler of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West traveling show. The show was produced by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and Jerome Kern was originally slated to write the music. While writing the score, Kern passed away. But the Berlin score includes such staples as “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Opened April 22, 2004, at Studio 54
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
The revue-like musical weaves vignettes about the men and women who assassinated and attempted to assassinate U.S. Presidents. The original Broadway production was nominated for seven Tony Awards and won five, including Best Revival of a Musical (as it had debuted Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1990.) That Off-Broadway production starred the likes of Victor Garber, Terrence Mann, Debra Monk, and Lee Wilkof. In the 2004 Broadway production, Neil Patrick Harris starred as The Balladeer (the narrator) and Lee Harvey Oswald, with Michael Cerveris as John Wilkes Booth, Denis O’Hare as Charles Guiteau, Becky Ann Baker as Sara Jane Moore, and others.
8. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Opened October 13, 2010, at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre
Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman
Book by Alex Timbers
Starring Benjamin Walker as the titular President and face of the $20 bill, the musical transferred to Broadway after a successful run at the Public Theater. It chronicled the full life of the controversial Jackson from childhood to Presidency to his legacy. Nominated for two Tony Awards including Best Book, the show portrays the rise of populism and the founding of the Democratic party, while also highlighting the immorality of Jackson’s imperialism and his barbaric treatment of the Native American population, all set to a pop rock score.
Opened April 26, 2017, at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre
Music by Richard Oberacker
Book and lyrics by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor
Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand marked an historic theatrical milestone: It is the first piece of theatre ever to be certified by Got Your 6 for its authenticity in the portrayal of the military. The story followed Donny Novitski, a piano prodigy returned home from World War II, who gathers a band of veterans to win a nationwide bandstand competition. Things get complicated when he meet his war buddy’s widow, a singer named Julia, and the two begin to fall for each other as they write music for and perform with their Donny Nova Band; but the story focuses on PTSD, how America treats its veterans, and how these men home from the war struggled to return to “just like it was before.” Nominated for two Tony Awards, the production won Best Choreography for Blankenbuehler.
10. Bonnie and Clyde
Opened December 1, 2011, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
Music by Frank Wildhorn
Lyrics by Don Black
Book by Ivan Menchell
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were lovers and outlaws who roamed the country robbing stores, gas stations, and banks during the Great Depression. But thievery soon turned to murder, and the pair were on the run—topping the Public Enemy list. In real life, Bonnie and Clyde were members of a larger gang. Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan originated the roles of the titular couple. And while the show was short-lived, it did earn Tony nominations for Best Score and Best Actress.
11. Call Me Madam
Opened October 12, 1950, at the Imperial Theatre
Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay
In Call Me Madam, the character Sally Adams stands in for Perle Mesta, a Washington, D.C., socialite during the Truman era and was appointed as Ambassador to Luxembourg in 1949. Though, at the time, parallels to any real-life person were denied. Adams (played by Ethel Merman) was the Ambassador to the fictional Lichtenburg and falls for government official Cosmo Constantine, while her chief of staff loses his heart to Princess Maria. The score includes notables like “The Hostess With The Mostes’ on the Ball” and “It’s a Lovely Day Today.”
12. The Civil War
Opened April 22, 1999, at the St. James Theatre
Music by Frank Wildhorn
Lyrics by Jack Murphy
Book by Gregory Boyd and Frank Wildhorn
As the title suggests, the musical depicted the American Civil War (1861-1865) from the perspectives of Union and Confederate soldiers as well as slaves. The original cast included notables like Capathia Jenkins and Beth Leavel. Though not well-received by the critics, the production did earn two Tony nominations for Best Score and Best Musical.
Opened November 23, 1959, at the Broadhurst Theatre
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott
One of the few musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Fiorello! told the story of New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia from his days as a lawyer who took on the major political organization known as Tammany Hall to win a seat in Congress. He served in Congress from 1916–1918 and again from 1922–1930 before becoming mayor of New York City for three terms from 1934–1945. Though he was a Republican, he supported Democratic president FDR in his New Deal. He unified the NHYC transit system, directed the building of low-cost public housing, public playgrounds, and parks, constructed airports, reorganized the police force, and is largely regarded for his legacy as a dynamic political changemaker.
Opened April 22, 2007, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
Written by Peter Morgan
In 1977, former President Richard Nixon granted a series of interview to British broadcast journalist David Frost, digging into his presidency and the Watergate scandal. Morgan’s play dramatized the interviews themselves, as well as the psyches of both men and the events surrounding the days of the interviews. Directed by Michael Grandage, the play starred Michael Sheen and Frank Langella as Frost and Nixon and was adapted by Ron Howard into a film of the same name. Langella won a Tony Award for his work and was nominated for an Oscar for his film performance.
Opened April 29, 1968, at the Biltmore Theatre
Music by Galt MacDermot
Book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni
Officially Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical bowed on Broadway as a manifestation hippie culture, the sexual revolution, and the anti-Vietnam War movement. The tribe captured a political and culture moment in the U.S. as they protested war and expressed free love, despite their conservative parents. In the end, Claude must decide whether to accept his role in the war machine or burn his draft card, and calls the audience to question the human lives lost. Hair was nominated for Best Musical and was most recently revived in 2011.
Opened August 6, 2015, at the Richard Rodger Theatre
Music, lyrics, and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Likely the first show that comes to mind when you think of musicals based on American history, Hamilton chronicles the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton from his emigration from the island of Nevis to his university study’s at King’s College (now Columbia University) to his work as an official for General George Washington—and later President Washington—to his founding of the national treasury and his ultimate assassination by Aaron Burr in a duel. Told through a score the blends hip-hop and musical theatre, Hamilton quickly expanded to national touring productions as well as production in Chicago and London. It was nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards and won 11, including Best Musical as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
17. Louisiana Purchase
Opened May 28, 1940, at the Imperial Theatre
Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Morrie Ryskind
A U.S. Senator goes to Louisiana to investigate rumors of corruption in the Louisiana Purchase Company. The Company’s lawyer tries to distract him with two beautiful women, which only half works. The Senator does marry one of the women, but still manages to complete his investigation. The musical satirizes Louisiana Governor Huey Long’s reign in New Orleans.
Opened March 31, 1943, at the St. James Theatre
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
One of the most famous musicals on this list, Oklahoma! has been revived five times on Broadway, including the 2019 re-envisioning by director Daniel Fish. The musical bowed before the Tony Awards were invented, but needless to say it’s a defining work of the canon. While the events of the musical are not historic, the backdrop is. Oklahoma! is set just outside of Native American territory in Oklahoma Territory during 1906 as the two territories were on the verge to become one state, which happened in 1907.
Opened December 17, 1998, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Alfred Uhry
Jason Robert Brown made his Broadway debut (and won his first Tony Award for Best Score) with the true story of Lucille and Leo Frank. Leo was the superintendent of a local pencil factory. When the young Mary Phagan was found raped and murdered, Leo Frank was accused of the crime and put on trial in 1913 in Atlanta, Georgia. The trial was laden with anti-Semitism and though Frank was found guilty, the Governor of Georgia commuted his death sentence to life in prison. But, a mob kidnapped him from jail and lynched him. The trial attracted national media attention and is largely credited with the revival of the KKK and, in response, the ADL.
Opened January 18, 1998, at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Terrence McNally
Though the main characters (Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Sarah, Mother, Father, and Tateh) were fictitious and based on the novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime depicted numerous true historic events at the turn of the 20th century, including “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square” and Emma Goldman’s famous speech encouraging the unemployed to take action, as well as historic figures like Booker T. Washington, Evelyn Nesbit, and Harry Houdini. The musical is a fraught and moving portrait of America beginning in 1905, highlighting race relations between black and white communities, the fight for labor rights, the influx of immigrants, celebrity crime, and the evolution of ragtime and jazz music. Nominated for 12 Tony Awards, it won Best Book, Best Score, Best Orchestrations, as well as Best Featured Actress for Audra McDonald. The musical also starred Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, Mark Jacoby, and Peter Friedman.
21. The Scottsboro Boys
Opened October 31, 2010, at the Lyceum Theatre
Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Inspired by another ugly moment in American history, The Scottsboro Boys told the story of nine black teens (age 13–20) falsely accused of raping two white women on the train from Chattanooga to Memphis in 1931 and the ensuing trials and appeals. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, the musical was structured as a minstrel show to further demonstrate the injustice of the Jim Crow era. The musical closed prematurely in the fall, but still earned 10 Tony Award nominations that spring. In 2013, the final three men were pardoned, meaning all nine had convictions overturned or were pardoned.
Opened January 7, 1975, at the Alvin Theatre
Music by Gary Geld
Lyrics by Peter Udell
Book by James Lee Barrett, Philip Rose, and Peter Udell
Shenandoah is another musical set during the American Civil War, though it does not chronicle one particular true story. Charlie Anderson wants to stay out of the war until his eldest son is kidnapped by Union solders. The show explores the tensions between the North and South and its effects on American families at home.
23. Teddy & Alice
Opened November 12, 1987, at the Minskoff Theatre
Music by Richard Kapp (with songs by John Philip Sousa)
Lyrics by Hal Hackady
Book by Jerome Alden
The titular characters refer to President Theodore Roosevelt and his daughter Alice, as the show explores the father-daughter relationship during his Presidency. Alice was known for her rebellious ways (at least for the time). She was independent and vocal about foreign policyies during her father’s administration. But things got complicated when she began seeing Congressman Nicholas Longworth. Len Cariou starred as Roosevelt with Nancy Hume as Alice. The cast also included Ron Raines as Longworth and a young Richard H. Blake as Archie Roosevelt.
24. South Pacific
Opened April 7, 1949, at the Majestic Theatre
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Though set in the South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic follows the stories of two Americans abroad: nurse Nellie Forbush and Lieutenant Joe Cable. As Nellie falls for French plantation owner Emile de Becque, she struggles to accept his mixed race children; Cable falls in love with a local woman but fears the social repercussions if he married her. The romance at the center of the musical is, of course, fictitious, but captures the true setting and aura of World War II in Asia.