Playwrights, musical theater composers, librettists, and their creative partners are always looking for inspiration for their work. One time-tested source of inspiration is history. Shakespeare wrote ten plays based on British history and at least five of his tragedies are derived from classical history. Shakespeare took a lot of license with historical events in these plays and many scholars suggest that Shakespeare wasn’t so much interested in depicting history as he was in using history to comment on the politics of his own time.
History can be a lens through which we look back in time in order to get a clearer view of what’s happening today. This is certainly what Aaron Posner is up to in JQA. This perspective also characterizes many of the other notable plays and musicals that have focused on historical U.S. figures and events. Some were hits, some were misses, but all of them have endeavored to use history to help us see something about ourselves as Americans.
The Tony Award winning musical, 1776, tells the story of John Adams and his efforts to convince other Founding Fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence. Premiering in 1969, a time of great turmoil in American life, it endeavored to make audience members simply feel good about America’s founding ideals.
The lesser-known 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, from 1976, was the last Broadway project that famed composer and conductor Leonard Bernsteinwrote. Alan Jay Lerner wrote the book. Bernstein and Lerner set out to tell the story of the first 100 years of the White House. The central characters are the Presidents and their First Ladies, as well as several generations of a dynasty of White House servants, all of whom were black. It was savaged by critics for taking a stark view of race relations in America. It closed after one week and has never had a significant revival.
Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins originated Off-Broadway in 1990 and won a Tony Award as a revival on Broadway in 2004. The show is a series of vignettes about assassins and would-be assassins of U.S. Presidents and it is tinged with irony. In a review of a 2017 Off-Broadway revival, New York Times critic Jesse Green called it “the most shocking mainstream musical ever written.”
Peter Morgan’s 2007 play Frost/Nixon uses the 1977 television interviews of disgraced President Richard Nixon by British Journalist David Frost to explore Nixon’s dark psyche. Frank Langella won a Tony for Best Actor playing Nixon and was later nominated for an Oscar for the film version of the play. Part of the function of the play is to help us to never forget what can happen when a man becomes corrupted by power.
2010 offered the controversial Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a musical which chronicles Jackson’s life and legacy, including the legacy of imperialism and Jackson’s inhumane treatment of Native Americans. The musical critiques the past so that we all might ponder the impact of this troubling legacy on the present.
Robert Schenkkan’s 2014 play, All the Way, focuses on President Lyndon Johnson and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, depicting the scorched-earth politics that Johnson was renowned for. The playwright described it as a play about “the morality of politics and power. Where do you draw the line in terms of intentions and action? How much leeway does a good intention give you to violate the law?" A film version of the play is available on HBO with Bryan Cranston in the lead. Cranston won a Tony Award for best actor in the Broadway production.
And, of course, there is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical, the biggest Broadway sensation in recent memory. Rousing, thrilling, highly theatrical, and deeply moving, the musical uses a hip-hop score and color-conscious casting to invite all of today’s Americans to see ourselves in the stories of our Founding Fathers and Mothers.
JQA is the latest in a line of theatrical works that invite us to look to history in order to reimagine the present. Aaron Posner’s casting requirements asked for actors of differing races and ages to play JQA throughout his lifetime as well as many other instrumental leaders from our country’s origin. We hope you enjoy it!