If you are a theatre fan who is interested the American Revolution, you may have realized how few shows exist on the subject. While “American theater has seldom been kindly to history plays of any sort,” the Revolution in particular is hardly remembered through theater. There may not be many of pieces of theatre about the American Revolution, but the handful that can be found are diverse and illuminating. The following list of shows is by no means complete; it gives only a glimpse into the various ways the American Revolution is remembered through theatre in the hopes of sparking further interest of the relationship between history and theatre.
1 // Hamilton
Debuted in 2015, the new hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has become a cultural phenomenon, winning a Grammy, the Pulitzer Prize, and many other awards. Its popularity continues to grow to monumental heights for musical theatre of any genre; the show is sold out months in advance, and thousands of people enter a daily lottery for tickets.
Told through hip-hop, Hamilton is current, attracting people who might never otherwise listen to or experience musical theatre. The songs are full of references to both rap and musical theatre, bridging the gap between two genres traditionally deemed unrelated. Miranda’s lyrics are as informative as they are entertaining and catchy, with songs concerning the Battle of Yorktown, duel etiquette, and Lafayette’s involvement and aid. Miranda describes Hamilton as “a story about America then told by America now;” the cast is multicultural, rather than staying true to the races and nationalities of the historical figures they portray, reflecting “America now.” Miranda has also discussed his openness to non-gender-specific casting.
Visual aesthetics are dynamic and equally contribute to the connection between the Revolution and the present. While costumes and set are inspired by the late eighteenth-century, they have modern nuances. The ensemble wears white clothes – corsets and pants for women, and vests and pants for men – that serve as a blank slate to the various roles they play. The set has many moving parts, including a turntable on the floor, which constantly shifts to the needs to the scene. Lighting is very theatrical and colorful, in patriotic tones of red, white, and blue.
Hamilton is making an impact beyond the show itself by introducing a new generation to what history can be, not only educating but serving as a social commentary on today’s issues and as historical memory and legacy. Its impact can especially be seen through “The Eliza Project,” started by Philippa Soo, the actress who plays Elizabeth Schuyler, to benefit the orphanage created by Schuyler upon the death of Hamilton and her son. Hamilton finds success in its ability to make history relevant to everyone by reflecting “America now” and extending its impact beyond the theatre. (Click here to read a full review by JAR contributor James Kirby Martin).
2 // 1776
1776, written at the Bicentennial by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards, is very true to the event of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Consisting of a cast of all white males and two women, it accurately reflects the racial make-up of the Continental Congress, conveying and celebrating the patriarchal society, and is, in Andrew Schocket’s words, an “essentialist” interpretation of the Revolutionary era. The set replicates the interior of the Pennsylvania State House, and costumes and hair remain true to late eighteenth-century fashion. Historical accuracy and venerating the Founding Fathers concerned the authors, who stated that nothing “has done anything to alter the historical truth of the characters, the times, or the events of American independence.”
Reviews for the actual show, although it ran for over 1,000 shows on Broadway, were quite mixed. One review from 1988 declares, “What a peculiar musical “1776” is … at its most entertaining – that is, when someone remembered that this was, after all, intended to be a musical – all matter of silly, sentimental concessions to musical comedy convention are hauled to perk things up, and from time to time they do.” 1776 gives us perhaps the closest account of Continental Congress that one could experience, but in doing so, lacks relevancy, as there’s nothing relatable about it. This show seems to have two poles – the educational reenactment of congressional proceedings, and the silly songs and dances that break it up, providing greater entertainment value.
Despite conflicting reviews, 1776 won a Tony Award in 1969, and because of its success on Broadway, producers decided to turn it into a movie. While the musical did not transitional well to film, the show itself preserves and showcases the proceedings of the making of the Declaration of Independence in an overall educational and engaging way, succeeding in its intention to be true to history.
3 // The Ruckus at Machias
The Ruckus at Machias, written by Richard Sewell and debuted in 1976, portrays local rather than national history. Centered on one of the first naval battles of the Revolutionary War, The Ruckus at Machias follows both “Tory and Rebel factions” as they navigate June 1775 and the effects of the beginnings of the Revolution in rural Machias, Maine. The action centers on Hannah Weston, whose husband Josiah Weston goes against her wishes to fight the Tories and capture British soldiers aboard a ship docked in harbor, the HMS Margaretta. To help, she melts the pewter spoons from her wedding for ammunition and treks twenty miles through the forest to bring them to Josiah. As a thank you, “the community presents Hannah with a red dress – and presents the Continental Congress with its first captured war-vessel.” Its language, setting, and action remain very true to the time, while more abstract, artistic moments weave in and out, making for a balanced, interesting, and informative piece.
Richard Sewell wrote the play between 1968 and 1973 while he was teaching Theatre and English at Coburn Classical Institute, when one of his colleagues “mourned a lack of interesting material to bring Maine’s part in the Revolution and growth of the U.S. to life.” While the Battle of Machias is true, Hannah Weston’s role is a folk tradition that Machias keeps alive even today. Each year, beginning in 1998, Machias celebrates Margaretta Days, a three-day long festival “[commemorating] the role of Machias settlers in the first naval engagement of the Revolutionary War on June 12, 1775,” complete with re-enactors, a parade, a liberty pole, a Hannah Weston Pageant, and in 2006, a performance of The Ruckus at Machias.
This play has been produced locally around Maine, including at the Margaretta Days Festival, and won California’s Fremont Centre Theater Contest in 2004 “not just as a play about New England but as one about the history of a nation.” Ruckus, which is “a play about individuals – as a history of democracy should be,” serves to educate illuminate local history and tell a story that might not otherwise be told.
The American Revolution is one of the most fundamental stories we, as Americans, tell ourselves about ourselves. While theatre and history may not always go hand in hand, these shows are proof that the American Revolution and theatre can coexist and produce educational, entertaining, culturally relevant, and influential pieces of work. Now that the world knows that history truly can be made current, interesting, and for everyone because of Hamilton’s “[redefinition of] what an American musical can look and sound like,” maybe this will spark a new wave in the future of historical dramatization.
 Isabel Friedman, “Questions about Ruckus.” E-mail to Richard Sewell.
 Edward Delman, “How Lin-Manuel Miranda Shapes History,” The Atlantic, September 29, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/09/lin-manuel-miranda-hamilton/408019/, accessed May 10, 2016.
 Andrew M. Schocket, Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution (New York City: NYU Press, 2015).
 Sherman Edwards, and Peter Stone, 1776: A Musical Play (New York: Viking Press, 1970).
 Alvin Klein, “A ‘1776’ With Grand Moments,” New York Times, November 20, 1988, http://www.nytimes.com/1988/11/20/nyregion/theater-a-1776-with-grand-moments.html.
 Richard Sewell, The Ruckus at Machias, play manuscript.
 Sewell, The Ruckus at Machias.
 Isabel Friedman, “Questions about Ruckus.” E-mail to Richard Sewell.
 Katherine Cassidy, “Margaretta Days on Tap in Machias; Second Annual Event Celebrates 231 Years since Capture of British Ship,” Bangor Daily News, May 13, 2006, http://archive.bangordailynews.com/2006/05/13/margaretta-days-on-tap-in-machias-second-annual-event-celebrates-231-years-since-capture-of-british-ship/.
 Erik Piepenburg, “Why ‘Hamilton’ Has Heat,” The New York Times, 2015, accessed May 10, 2016.
 Clifford Geertz, The interpretation of cultures: selected essays by Clifford Geertz (New York City: Basic Books, 1973).
 Richard Sewell, The Ruckus at Machias.
I disagree that 1776 didn’t transition well to film, but then again that film is a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s no great film and it drags in places, but it also has many enjoyable moments and has just the right level of camp.
Critic Vincent Canby of the New York Times actually thought it was much more entertaining on the big screen than it was on Broadway, as he wrote in 1972:
“The music is resolutely unmemorable. The lyrics sound as if they’d been written by someone high on root beer, and the book is familiar history — compressed here, stretched there — that has been gagged up and paced to Broadway’s not inspiring standards. Yet Peter H. Hunt’s screen version of 1776 … insists on being so entertaining and, at times, even moving, that you might as well stop resisting it.
It is interesting to see that one thing never changes, the practice of creative license. Has there ever been a show that didn’t deviate from historical accuracy? Sometimes the transgressions are irritating, but as writers, we know that a proper story arc must take precedence over the facts.
Here are two other musicals that are somewhat forgotten. “Dearest Enemy” was the first complete musical score written by the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The show was based on the legend of Mary Lindley Murray. It opened in 1925 and played over 280 performances, an impressive run for the time. “Ben Franklin in Paris” appeared on Broadway in 1964, starring Robert Preston, late of “Music Man” fame. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a long run (theater was moving away from traditionally structured shows).
Hunt up the cast albums (a revival for “Enemy,” the original for “Ben”) and add them to “1776” and “Hamilton.” It is interesting to hear how history “sounds” throughout the growth of American theater. The Revolution moves from operetta to traditional show tunes to hip hop. But they are all a patriotic joy to hear!
I love “1776,” and although the movie wasn’t a hit, it had a remarkable cast. It included Blythe Danner (Gwynneth Paltrow’s mom, who’s far more sexier than Gwynneth); Howard Da Silva, who was blacklisted by right-wing Republican extremists during the McCarthy era; Ken Howard, who went on to fame as “The White Shadow”; and John Cullum, who went on to fame in “Northern Exposure.”
The songs themselves were great and memorable, including the chilling “Molasses to rum to slaves.”
The producers of the 1776 film made a point of hiring as many cast members from the Broadway version as possible. Instead of hiring a Hollywood cast who might require dubbing. That greatly helped. Hope Lin-Manuel Miranda is taking notes for the eventual filmed Hamilton.
Go back to the NYC of 1798 for Andre: A Tragedy in Five Acts by William Dunlap. Was it the first treatment of a Revolutionary topic on stage? Some of the audience protested for reasons having to do with the current political scene. Dunlap repackaged parts of the play into The Glory of Columbia, Her Yeomanry & did well…
The General from America by Richard Nelson about Benedict Arnold is a powerful play.