Considering that musical theater is one of this country’s most vibrant art forms, why not celebrate the Fourth of July with one of the many musicals that reflect and explore its history from both patriotic and critical angles?
Below are a few recommended titles.
There's no better musical for the occasion than “1776,” which depicts John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson urging the Second Continental Congress to declare the colonies’ independence from Great Britain, culminating in the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The 1972 film preserves virtually the entire score and script. If you’d prefer to see it live, 54 Below will offer a concert production on Thursday and Saturday featuring cast members from the 1997 Broadway revival and 2009 Paper Mill Playhouse production.
The Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, which essentially ushered in the musical’s golden age, arrived on Broadway during World War II and, through its deceptively simple plot, reflects the democratic spirit and turn of the century optimism. As the lyric goes, “We know we belong to the land and the land we belong to is grand.” The excellent 1955 film version was just released on Blu-ray and the 1999 London revival with Hugh Jackman is available on DVD.
'On the Town'
This breezy musical comedy, which depicts three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York City, might not offer much of a history lesson, but it’s certainly a tribute to the sacrifices made by men and women during World War II. When the leads wistfully sing “we’ll catch up some other time,” they really didn't know if they would be coming back from battle. A Broadway revival is set for this fall. There’s also the Gene Kelly-Frank Sinatra film which excised most of Bernstein’s score.
'In the Heights'
Lin Manuel-Miranda’s exciting hip-hop musical about the contemporary population of Washington Heights literally takes place on July 4th weekend. It even has a fireworks sequence at the end of act one. Its cast album is a must-have.
More than any other musical, “Ragtime” shows America as a diverse melting pot of nationalities and classes. It is also full of prominent figures from the turn of the century like Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, JP Morgan and Henry Ford. Its majestic score was beautifully preserved on its two-disc original cast album.
In their own unique way, the hippies depicted in this extraordinary rock musical are patriots, protesting against what they believe to be society’s hypocrisy and corruption. Beware that the Milos Forman film version is extremely different than the show. Go instead with any of its numerous cast albums.
'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson'
For those who’d prefer something less traditional, this experimental emo-rock musical, which briefly played Broadway after a hit run at the Public Theater, boldly examines the presidency of Andrew Jackson and its emphasis on populist appeal. Its cast album is short, sweet and highly addictive.