Who Tells Your Story
Looking for some more historical musicals? Here are 20 filmed live musicals, most of which are available to view online or on DVD, that are based on true events and real people. Listed in approximate historical time period order.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Perhaps a bit contentious to some to call this “history” (my husband Aaron calls this one “interpretive dance history”), but it’s certainly historically driven and a story about one of the most famous people in history. There are currently two filmed live productions of JCS in the database — the 2012 arena tour starring Tim Minchin (Judas), Melanie C (Mary), and Ben Forster (Jesus), and NBC’s 2018 live for TV version (one of the best TV Live! musical events of recent times) that featured a starry, and multiracial, cast including John Legend (Jesus), Sara Bareilles (Mary), Alice Cooper (King Herod), Norm Lewis (Caiaphas), and Brandon Victor Dixon (Judas). The arena tour is widely available online, and the NBC production is available on DVD.
Your Arms Too Short to Box with God
Written by Vinnette Carroll (the first female African American director on Broadway), with music by Alex Bradford and Micki Grant, this musical tells the story of Jesus as told through the Book of Matthew. The musical was performed on Broadway three times between 1976 and 1982. It was most recently performed by Florida’s Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, where it was filmed live during a run that was cut short by the COVID-19 shutdown. The recording was released online for a limited time, but is not currently available to view.
Produced in 2018 by Southwark Playhouse, this original “documentary rock musical” tells the stories of Brontë siblings, Anne, Emily, Charlotte, and Bramwell. An excellent archival recording of Wasted was released online for free as a result of the pandemic, and is available to view via Southwark Playhouse.
Based on Victor Hugo’s historical novel of the same name, Les Miserables is not set during the French Revolution, but is based on the uprisings that took place a few decades later (as brilliantly described by Forbidden Broadway). Although the stories and characters in Les Mis are fiction, they are drawn from Hugo’s close observations of Paris life. The musical has been filmed live three times, the 10th anniversary concert, 25th anniversary concert, and, most recently, last year’s West End staged concert. All three versions are available on DVD, and the 25th anniversary and staged concert are available online.
Sondheim’s 1976 concept musical is set around Commodore Perry’s first visit to Japan in 1853. The musical was filmed live for Japanese television during its original Broadway run. The film has not been officially released since its initial television airing.
The King and I
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sumptuous musical is based on the true story of Anna Leonowens, a Western woman who was invited by the King of Siam to Bangkok to tutor the King’s children. The 2015 Lincoln Center revival directed by Bartlett Sher, and starring Kelli O’Hara, Ken Watanabe, and Ruthie Ann Miles, was filmed during its West End transfer at the London Palladium, and is available to watch on BroadwayHD.
Newsies is loosely based on the real-life events of the newsboy strikes of 1899 in New York City. The 1992 movie musical directed by Kenny Ortega and starring Christian Bale was a cult classic, and in 2011 Disney adapted the title into a stage musical. Although originally not intended to be a Broadway musical, the show also became an audience favorite, playing just over 1000 shows on Broadway before embarking on a national tour. The tour was filmed live in Los Angeles, and is now available to view on Disney+.
Based on E.L. Doctorow’s historical fiction novel, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s epic musical is about the United States coming into its own, told through the stories of three different families in New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. The International Festival of Musical Theatre production was filmed by the BBC in 2002, but is unfortunately not available to view.
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
This multimedia musical that tells the story of Brooklyn-based avante-garde composer/artist/mom who finds inspiration in the early 20th century explorer, leader, and hero Ernest Shackleton. Filmed live during its off-Broadway run at Second Stage and is available on BroadwayHD.
Another biographical musical, Funny Girl is a slightly-fictionalized account of real-life vaudeville star Fanny Brice. With music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, and book by Isobel Lennart. Barbara Streisand created the lead role on Broadway, and starred in the 1968 film adaptation. The acclaimed Menier Chocolate Factory production starring Sheridan Smith was filmed live during its run at the Manchester Palace Theatre in 2017 and is available on Digital Theatre and BroadwayHD.
Golden Bricks and Ruby Shoes
Still in development, this original song cycle by British writers Gillian Pencavel and Patrick Moore, was inspired by a news report about the FBI assisting in the recovery a pair of stolen ruby slippers made famous for their appearance in The Wizard of Oz. The song cycle was performed at a scratch night at Belfast’s Accidental Theatre and streamed live.
Actor George Takei was reportedly moved to tell his own story after watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony Award winning musical (and Broadway debut), In the Heights. As a child, Takei and his family were among the 120,000 Japanese-American citizens incarcerated in camps on American soil during World War II. Although Allegiance is told through fictionalized characters, the events and stories are inspired by true events. Allegiance was briefly available to stream on Broadway on Demand in June this year, and is also available on a collector’s edition DVD.
V for Victory
Still in development, V for Victory explores the lives of a group of friends in the resistance against the German occupation of Jersey during World War II. The plot and characters are an amalgam of true stories and events which writer Dries Janssens wanted to share after learning of Jersey’s little-known part in the war. V for Victory was performed at the Stockwell Playhouse in 2018, and is currently available to view on YouTube.
The Rat Pack: Live from Las Vegas
This British musical recreates a performance featuring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr, at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in the early 1960s. The Rat Pack was filmed live during its West End run and is available on DVD (region 1 & 2).
Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic novel/autobiography of the same, Fun Home is a re-telling of Alison’s grappling of her own self-realization as a lesbian in relation to her father’s not-so-secret, though unspoken, homosexuality. With a book by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, the Broadway production was the first to win a Tony Award for Best Original Score with an all-female writing team. Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago released an archival recording of their 2017 production during the COVID-19 shutdown for a limited time.
Set during the New Romantic period in 1980s England, Taboo interweaves autobiographical elements from the lives of Australian artist Leigh Bowery, and music sensation Boy George. The original London production was filmed live in 2003 and is available on region 2 DVD.
Fela! was based on the biography Fela: This Bitch of a Life! by Carlos Moore. Fela Kuti was an influential Nigerian musician who created Afrobeat, politically and socially driven music that blended African harmonies and rhythms with jazz and funk. Sahr Ngaujah originated the title role on Broadway, and reprised his role for the London transfer at the National Theatre. Fela! was filmed live and broadcast in cinemas as part of NT: Live in 2011. It is not currently available to view.
Keating! the Musical
This satirical Australian musical follows the political rise and fall of “the Placido Domingo of Australian politics,” of Paul Keating, who was Prime Minister of Australia from 1991 to 1996. Filmed live at the Seymour Centre in Sydney, the musical is available on DVD.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
Inspired by the BBC documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie tells the story of a gay teenager who lives in a Yorkshire council estate and dreams of becoming a drag queen. The musical was filmed live on the West End and broadcast in cinemas. It is not currently available to watch.
Passion Project in Concert
Composed by performer and songwriter Angela Sclafani, Passion Project is a song cycle about twelve unsung women from history who sing to their great loves, the object of their careers. The women represented include an aviator singing to her airplane, an acrobat to her tightrope, and an astronomer to her comet. Filmed live at NYC’s Green Room 42, Passion Project is available to view on Facebook.
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