As elemental as song and dance are to human nature, so to is the quest for power, control of resources, and control over one another. Today marks 104 years since the armistice between the Allied Forces and Germany after four bloody years of war was declared. Now known as Remembrance Day, or Veterans Day in the US, it is a day to reflect upon the sacrifice of war, and honor the men and women who have served their countries through the military.
Sadly, war continues to be an ever-present reality for many people in the world. I had the honor of interviewing Alex Borovenskiy, the founder and executive director of the Ukrainian ProEnglish Theatre and Drama School in Kyiv. Literally amidst falling bombs, power cuts, and continued Russian aggression, Alex and his colleagues are creating new work that speaks to the times and broadcasting it to the world beyond the Ukraine’s borders. The 2022 PRO.ACT Festival, with the theme “Unbreakable,” is available to stream for free on Scenesaver. The episode will be available next week.
Other podcast episodes looking at musicals about war include Allegiance with composer and producer Jay Kuo going behind the scenes of the musical about the incarceration of Japanese-American citizens on American soil during WWII, Pieces of String with composer Gus Gowland talking about his musical inspired by the untold stories of gay men in the military, and Pacific Overtures with theatre historian Margaret Hall delving into the history of Sondheim’s musical about the forcible opening of Japan to the West.
Below is a list of stage musicals you can watch from home which tell the stories of war across history, and from across the world.
Allegiance is loosely based on the events of actor George Takei’s life. During World War II, Takei and his family, along with 120,000 Japanese-American citizens were incarcerated in camps within the United States. Filmed live on Broadway in 2016, and released in cinemas in December of that year. It briefly held the record as Fathom Events’ highest grossing Broadway film. Click here for streaming options.
An American in Paris
Using the music of George and Ira Gerswhin, this romanticized musical tells the story of an American GI who falls in love with a Parisian woman in the days following the end of WWII. Adapted from the MGM movie of the same name, the stage production was filmed live in the West End in 2017. Click here for streaming options.
Filmed live on Broadway in 2017, this swing musical tells the story of a musician who returns from fighting in Europe during WWII, traumatized but with the desire to re-build his life following the death of his best friend. Although the musical was the first theatrical production to be certified by Get Your 6 for its authentic portrayal of the military, Bandstand was criticized for its lack of characters or actors of color. Released in cinemas in 2018, the musical was briefly available to stream on Playbill and Broadway on Demand earlier this year. Click here for streaming options.
From Here to Eternity
British musical From Here to Eternity is based on James Jones’ novel of the same name. With music by Stuart Brayson, lyrics by Sir Tim Rice, and a book by Bill Oakes, the musical depicts the affairs of US soldiers stationed in Hawaii in the lead-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was filmed live during its West End run in 2014. Click here for streaming options.
A much lauded hip hop musical following the trials and tribulations of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton depicts battles from the Revolutionary War, along with the battles of the cabinet. Click here for streaming options.
A fictionalized re-telling of true events, Imagine This is set in the Warsaw Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust. With departure to a camp imminent, a local theatre troupe are encouraged by their director to stage a musical about Masada (where a group of 960 Jewish refugees in the year 70 attempted to evade Roman soldiers before committing mass suicide). The musical had a short-lived run on the West End in 2008 where it was filmed live. Now available on DVD. Click here for purchasing options.
Based on Victor Hugo’s historical novel of the same name, Les Miserables is not set during the French Revolution, during the uprisings that took place a few decades later. Although the stories and characters in Les Mis are fiction, they are drawn from Hugo’s close observations of Paris life. The musical has to date been filmed live three times, the 10th anniversary concert, 25th anniversary concert, and, most recently, last year’s West End staged concert. Click on each title for streaming options.
Love at Times
A two-act play with music and movement filmed at the ProEnglish Theatre in Kyiv during the Russian invasion in 2022. Part 1 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” sees two gay soldiers from the Territorial Defense of Kyiv discussing their romantic relationship. In part 2, “Katie and Frank,” the title couple argues over the old adage “you never listen to me.” Available for free with registration on Scenesaver. The ProEnglish Theatre’s one-woman play The Book of Sirens, a contemporary adaptation of The Book Thief set in Kyiv, is also worth a watch.
A modernized re-telling of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon. The musical tells the ill-fated love story of Kim, a young woman in Saigon, and an American G.I., Chris. The 25th anniversary gala production was filmed live in the West End in 2016. Click here for streaming options.
Only the Brave
Based on true stories, this British musical follows Captain John Howard and Lieutenant Denholm Brotheridge, and their wives Joy and Maggie, as the soldiers prepare for the D-Day landings. The 2016 production at the Wales Millennium Centre featured a real-life vet playing the role of John Howard Senior. Only the Brave was filmed live for archival purposes in 2016. Click here for streaming options.
Self-described by composer Stephen Sondheim as “the most bizarre and unusual musical ever to be seen in a commercial setting,” Pacific Overtures is a concept musical set around Commodore Perry’s first visit to Japan in 1853. It was filmed live during its original Broadway run for distribution on Japanese television. Click here for streaming options.
Pieces of String
Set in 1940 and the present day, British musical Pieces of String was inspired by a BBC documentary that briefly mentioned gay relationships in the armed forces during World War II, and modern day stories of gay men being unable to donate blood. Composer Gus Gowland sought to widen the scope for the way gay male characters are portrayed in musical theatre (a topic which he later explored in his PhD dissertation), and attempted to ensure women were also equally represented in the musical. The musical was filmed live during its run at Mercury Theatre Colchester in 2018. Click here for streaming options.
Based on the short story collection Tales of the South Pacific, the now classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was ground breaking musical for its exploration of racism, war, and interracial relationships. There are currently two filmed live productions of South Pacific in the database - the 2010 Lincoln Center revival and the 2005 Carnegie Hall concert starring Reba McIntyre and Brian Stokes Mitchell. The latter is available on DVD. Click here for purchasing options.
A Tale of Two Cities
Set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities is based on Charles Dickens’ novel of the same name. The musical had a brief run on Broadway in 2008, and has received concert stagings in London, Paris, and Brighton. The concert performances were compiled into a special which was broadcast on PBS and is now available on DVD (this is an affiliate link and as an associate I may earn income from qualifying purchases).
Tyneham: No Small Sacrifice
This British musical tells the story of the residents of Tyneham, who were told to leave their homes in 1942 as the bequest of the British military. Although the residents were promised their homes would be returned, Tyneham remains military property to this day. Performed by amateur theatre company Generations Apart in 2013, the musical is currently available to view on YouTube.
V for Victory
This still-in-development British musical explores the lives of a group of friends in the resistance against the German occupation of Jersey during World War II. A concert version was performed at the Stockwell Playhouse in 2018 and was filmed live. Click here for streaming options.
Waiting for the Ship to Sail
Produced by Chickenshed in the UK, this timely musical is an artistic response to the urgent and pressing questions of global migration, and investigates the concepts of national and personal identity. It is currently available on YouTube.
The off-Broadway musical YANK! tells the story of soldiers falling in love, and depicts the gay scene that “thrived just beneath the surface of the US Army in the 1940s.” The musical was a hit of the NY Musical Theatre Festival in 2005, and had a successful off-Broadway run in 2010. Below 54 hosted a 10th anniversary concert in early 2020, and the video is currently available on YouTube.
How will you be honoring those whose lives have been lost in war, and those who have devoted their lives to service today?