It nearly impossible to turn on the television, radio, or computer without being bombarded with politics these days, which isn’t a bad thing since the outcome of politics, all over the world, affects us all. While some of us take to Facebook and Twitter to scream our opinions, others have a more artistic way of telling political tales.
For centuries, artists have been using political themes for their work. Look at popular films like Forest Gump or The American President. You don’t only have to look to movies, songs in the 1960s that spoke about political unrest dominated some radio stations and novels like Olive Twist were written to shine the spotlight on politically funded organizations that were failing miserably.
We would like to take a moment to look at some rather influential political musicals of our time.
(Cover photo is a shot of the Spanish drama Punishment Without Revenge – learn more about it here.)
1. Les Misérables
We write about this musical quite a bit, mostly because it fits a great deal of the themes our lists are geared towards. This list is no different. While so much time, when writing these blog posts, has been focused on the life of poor Fantine, not enough has been said about the setting of the second half of the story, which is dominated by the French Revolution.
The plot does not surround the historical revolution of the destitute in France, but focuses on one particular battle called the Paris Uprising of 1832. This musical was based on the novel by the same title that is thought to be one of the paramount texts of the 19th century. When recalling the scene when Marius, Éponine, Enjolras and many other rebels set up barricades getting ready to fight the royal army.
Just as in the book and the musical, this didn’t battle did not work in the revolutionaries’ best interest, and the insurgents had few men left alive to carry on the fight. We listen to the cast sing “One Day More” and know, that even though it begins about a bittersweet love triangle, the tune morphs into a fight song for the rebellion, and serves as an inspiration for them to take to the barricades.
Of course, “Do You Hear the People Sing” cannot be construed as anything other than a call to arms and revolution. Yep, Les Mis moves us on so many levels it’s difficult for us to write about it without getting goosebumps.
2. Clinton: The Musical
There is no denying that the presidency of Bill Clinton was game changing in the sense of catching a man of power with his pants down. Clinton served as President of the United States for two terms, which covered the majority of the 1990s and, no matter what accomplishments and/or failures he may have had, his legacy will always be synonymous with Monica Lewinski and cigars. Of course, comedy writers can’t leave a juicy political scandal to die with dignity, and thus Clinton: The Musical was born.
Based on the idea that Bill Clinton has dual personalities, there are two actors who fulfill the role of the United States’ 42nd President. Paul Hodge wrote the music and the book along with Michael Hodge and this political musical first opened in 2012 as a one-act show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world. That year it won the festival’s award for Best New Musical.
The next year, Clinton opened as a two-act work in London at the King’s Head Theatre for three shows. In 2014 it was staged at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where it was extended due to selling out every night. In 2015, another production of Clinton was premiered at the New World Stages, an Off-Broadway theater, where it is still in production today.
Last year the Black Swan State Theatre Company produced their own production of this political musical for the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia. So, it seems, that no matter where you are in the world, if you know the story of Bill Clinton, you can only imagine the type a satirical comedy this musical provides.
3. Oh, What a Lovely War!
This next political musical was first a stage production and then made into a film. On the suggestion of Gerry Raffles, after he listened to a broadcast of Charles Chilton’s radio musical The Long Long Trail, Joan Littlewood and the other members of the Theatre Workshop created this political musical around songs from that broadcast. At first Littlewood was opposed to the idea since she despised war and didn’t want to promote its ideologies. Yet, when Chilton played his songs for her she decided to move forward with the project but was insistent that the message of the musical would be anti-war.
Premiering on March 19, 1963 at the Theatre Royal Stratford East Oh, What a Lovely War! was an instant hit despite the mixed reviews. After Princess Margaret watched the musical the official censor transferred Oh, What a Lovely War! to the Wyndham’s Theatre on London’s West End where it did extremely well and was produced for the BBC more than once. The West End production included main players from the original production including Victor Spinetti, Glynn Edwards, and Brian Murphy.
From there it moved on to Broadway and opened on September 30th, 1964 at the Broadhurst Theatre, with originator Littlewood in the director’s chair. Even though it only ran until January of the next year, with a total of 125 shows including previews, this production was nominated for several Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Direction. Victor Spinetti won the Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical and the Theatre World Award.
4. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Written by the legendary Leonard Bernstein, this political musical was also the composers last original composition for Broadway. Opening during the United States bicentennial in 1976, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on May 8th and then closed after twenty shows. The concept behind the story was to take a closer look at the institution in the most important residence in the United States.
It fixated mostly on racial issues and highlighted the trend of slave owners having sexual relations with their slaves, even men in high seats like the White House. When the idea for the musical first came about it was designed to have key players interact with the audience to speak about the plot and civil rights issues. Yet, when it moved through previews, this idea was cut out.
Bernstein took the failure of this musical rather hard and refused to have a recording made, even though the critics raved about his score, yet trashed the book written by Alan Jay Lerner. IT wasn’t until the composer passed on that the songs were recorded as a concert under the title A White House Cantata. The recording is so different from the way the songs were meant to be sung, in the context of a story, that has given this political the status of “lost masterpiece” by experts in musical history.
Since the opening production, several revivals have been staged including one by the Indiana University Opera Theatre in 1992, which used the original version with characters speaking directly to the audience, and one at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. that same year.
Stand up for your rights! Stand up against injustice and corruption! And enjoy Zora and her courageous troupe fight in Elisabeth Naske’s opera Die Rote Zora!