Some say that truth is stranger than fiction, while others claim that real life couldn’t be as interesting as a creative narrative. We say, to achieve the first, you need the second.
The following musicals, be them successful or not, were all based around true stories. Yet, it took the mastery of the creative writers and composers to take a true occurrence and write an entertaining musical.
Here are six musicals that were written around happenings that can be found in history books.
This first musical on our list is based on one of the most loved entertainers in American history, Al Jolson. This work, which could be considered a jukebox musical, because of the Tin Pan Alley songs, that were made popular by Jolson.
Jolson covers his career and takes a look at the man on stage and off. This musical lets the audience enjoy in his achievements while giving them insight to his personal struggles. Mostly, this musical highlights the relationships Jolson had with his wife, Ruby Keeler and Louis Epstein, his agent and friend.
Opening on October 26, 1995 at the Victoria Palace Theater on London’s West End, Jolson had a decent run lasting for a year and five months. This musical won Best New Musical at the American Express Awards. Also, Brian Conley, who played Al Jolson, was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical and John Bennett, who played Epstein, was nominated for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical.
2. Kinky Boots
With music and lyrics written by the self-proclaimed “unusual” pop singer and songwriter our next musical Kinky Boots was also based on true life events.
The plot surrounds Charlie Price, after he is left the deed to his father’s shoe factory. In comes Lola, a drag queen who performs in a cabaret show. Together they come up with an idea to manufacture a series of high heeled boots and while doing so they both learn a great deal about each other.
Kinky Boots premiered in Chicago at the Bank of America Theatre in 2012. From there it moved on to Broadway, opening at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on April 4, 2013. Two years and twenty-two days later the case performed for the one-thousandth time.
A cast in Toronto opened their production of this musical in the summer of 2015 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre while a production at the Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End opened in September of that same year.
As for the Broadway production, Kinky Boots was nominated for thirteen Tony awards and walked away with six of them. This wins include Best Musical and Best Score. This was the first time Cyndi Lauper tried to write songs for a Broadway Musical and her reward was not only to win the Tony, she was the first woman to ever win Best Score working alone.
Find tickets for Broadway’s Kinky Boots here!
3. Dream Girls
Some believe this story was based on the true to life story of The Supremes, still the creators have never made the direct reference themselves. Still, there are certain instances in the story line that mirror true to life happenings with the singers of the Supremes and Barry Gordy, Jr, who was the head of Motown at the time.
This tale follows a trio of female singers from Chicago as they begin their rise to the top. Effie, with the stronger voice, is heavy and Deena, who is more commercially viable, is also more marketable with her looks. Effie begins dating their manager, who still chooses to put Deena up front in the spotlight. Jealousy and rivalry replace friendships in this musical.
Opening at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway on December 20, 1981, this cast gave an astounding fifteen hundred and twenty-one performances before closing on August 11, 1985. Dreamgirls toured the US in 1983, had a revival on Broadway at the – in 1987, and toured a second time in 1997.
These are just a few of the many revivals and tours this musical has garnered. Some other notable tour locations are South Africa, Colombia, Australia, and London.
In 2006 Dreamgirls the film was released with Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, and Jennifer Hudson, which was her film debut. The performance Hudson gave as Effie won her an Oscar and Golden Globe that year for Best Supporting Actress.
The original Broadway production was nominated for seven Tony Awards. They took home Best Book of a Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical, Best Choreography, and Best Lighting Design.
Dreamgirls will be returning still in this year, this time at West End’s Savoy Theatre! Check out here for more details.
4. The Sound of Music
This classic tale, which we can safely assume most of our readers have heard of if not seen, was originally written for the stage not the silver screen. This musical was written by the infamous lyrical duo Rodgers and Hammerstein.
It is based on the true life love story of Maria von Trapp and her husband Captain von Trapp who had seven children from a previous marriage. The real family barely escaped the Nazi regime as they took over Austria. The family also sang in real life.
Utilizing Maria’s memoir, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, Rodgers and Hammerstein, penned a musical that has become the story of legend in itself. The songs are recognizable by most people, old and young. With tunes like “Edelweiss”, “Do-Re-Mi”, and the title track “The Sound of Music” this musical is the text book version of a classic.
The original Broadway production of this musical premiered at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1959 and moved one time to the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1962, after giving nearly fifteen hundred performances.
That year The Sound of Music received Tony Awards for Best Actress in a Musical, Best Featured Actress, Best Scenic Design, and Best Musical Direction. This production also tied for Best Musical with Fiorello!. The young actors and actresses who played the von Trapp children were nominated for Best Featured Actress category, even though two of them were not girls.
Our next musical based on true life events also has its story roots in Austria. This one is written about, Elisabeth, the wife of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria.
The live of an Empress is not all that it seems when looking at the life of Elisabeth. Her mother-in-law, would not let her raise her own children. She lost an infant daughter and her health suffered dramatically when she gave birth to her son Rudolf.
Rudolf and his mistress would eventually die in a suicide pact and Elisabeth suffered mentally. Eventually she was assassinated by Luigi Lucheni for no other reason than she was the next royal person he came across.
The musical version of this tragic tale is centered around Elisabeth’s rocky relationship with Death. This show premiered in Vienna, Austria at the Theater an der Wien on September 3, 1992. It took a brief hiatus in 1997 but reopened to continue performances until finally closing on April 25, 1998.
In 2002 a miniseries production for the tenth anniversary was held at Vienna’s Wiener Konzerthaus. A revival of the Vienna production premiered in October of 2003 and ran for a little more than two years.
Elisabeth has been revived multiple times in many countries around the world. Some notable productions were featured in Japan, Hungary, Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Finland, Switzerland, South Korea, and China.
This true to life musical is set against the First Opium War between the United Kingdom and the Qing Empire of China. Poppy is a satire on the happenings during this war and the effects of British Imperialism. It opened in 1982 at the Royal Shakespeare Company and won Best New Musical in the Laurence Olivier Awards that same year.
In 1983 the production relocated to the Adelphi Theatre until it closed in February of 1984. There were revivals given in 1988, 1998, and 2005 by the Half Moon Theatre, the Chelsea Players, and the Italia Conti Academy respectively.
The unique thing about Poppy opposed to the other musicals on our list is that this show utilizes the art of pantomime. Drugs, insincerity, and racism are the themes that take us through the lives of Lady Dodo, her son Sir Dick Whittington, his manservant Jack Idle, and Idle’s girlfriend Sally, who secretly loves Whittington.
The men set out to London in search of wealth and meet Obadiah Upward, who tells them their best bet for earning wealth is to sell poppies. With Lady Dodo and Sally along the group sets out for China via India.
The Emperor of China, angry with Queen Victoria for not cooperating in his attempts to stop the trade of poppies appoints Commissioner Lin to defeat the drug dealers. This doesn’t scare Upward. Dick searches for more customers on the coast.
In 2011, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 50th celebration included a version of Poppy on July 9th 2011. This musical production was directed by Mark Ravenhill.