Reality on Display: History in Theatre

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There’s something exciting about entertainment that makes you learn something.  It allows you to fully immerse yourself in the context of your favourite book, film or TV show, and more recently, your favourite stage show or musical.  In the last couple of years, shows like Hamilton and Six have used the musical format to teach audiences about real historical figures – of course with an entertaining twist that’s much more engaging than your GCSE History class.  And it works – nobody could have predicted that there would be entire internet fandoms dedicated to the wives of Henry VIII or the American founding fathers.  But what is it that makes us fall in love with these shows?

It’s a genre that for many years has been limited by historical accuracy, but more and more writers are taking creative liberties to bring these productions up to the same artistic level of fictional shows.  Purely fictional shows like The Lion King and Cats have no limit to how they tell the story.  Most people never cry during a history class, but somehow Hamilton has the power to turn the spectator into an emotional mess.  The real power of these productions is their ability to take real historical events and turn them into a work of art.

Of course, we can’t forget that the most successful historical productions are the musicals. The craze started with Les Miserables, set in post-revolutionary France, and although the characters are fictional, they represent the impoverished people who suffered at the time.   More recently, Hamilton has stolen our hearts.  All those years ago when Lin-Manuel Miranda approached the world of musical theatre with a hip-hop-inspired retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton, it was rightfully met with laughter – now you’re lucky to get a ticket.  Founding fathers rapping is a concept just bizarre enough to work.  This musical revolution has created a space for other productions like Six to teach the world about Henry VIII’s wives in the context of a pop concert.  A decade ago this would have been unimaginable, but these are the shows that are dominating the scene.

Mixing history with unlikely musical genres is a trend that everyone wants to try their hand at.  Compare it with a more balanced musical: American Idiot.  It’s one of my favourites, a punk rock opera set in the early 2000s DIY punk scene.  It makes perfect sense and means a whole lot to me but is nowhere near as successful as productions that take a step back from convention and remove all musical limitations.  Modern genres are more engaging because they are more accessible to the modern audience, using contemporary musical trends to tell old stories.

But these shows aren’t just entertaining; they also hold a powerful social significance that makes audiences fall in love.  Lin-Manuel Miranda rejected limitations of who could play historical figures by casting people of colour in all of the leading roles.  This not only acts as representation for minorities in leading theatrical roles, but also allows people of colour to ‘reclaim history’, making it all the more significant to the modern audience.  Alternatively, Six puts more underrepresented historical figures at the forefront – the woman who were previously only thought of as wives.  In this way, theatre has become a platform to diversify history and challenge the audience’s ideas.

The question on everybody’s mind now is, where do we go from here?  Will these historical shows become outdated and repetitive, or will they continue to entertain long into the future, until people are queuing up to see the hit new Brexit musical?  For as long as artists use these platforms to educate, empower and push the boundaries of what we imagine theatre to be, they will always play a significant part in modern culture.

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Records Editor 2019/2020. Second year French and Spanish student. Always going through some kind of music-based phase, frequently crying about The Cure.

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