The genre of musical comedy is a truly uniquely American invention — one that has it’s start just after the Civil War, when the United States was learning how to live in the aftermath of self-inflicted destruction. The first modern Broadway musical, The Black Crook, was a five-and-a-half hour long production dealing with magic and love . . . and ended with the bad guy getting dragged into the open maw of Hell.
After that first Broadway hit, topics became increasingly more varied. From H.M.S. Pinnafore to El Capitan, the military community became a well of intrigue, excitement, and valor for the American stage. Here are eight modern musicals that tell the stories of the military community:
The smash hit of 2016 is not just a story about an immigrant who came to America and joined the Revolution. It’s about the military itself. The first act is set on a backdrop of the Revolutionary War with scenes that include the Battle of Yorktown and General George Washington’s quarters and characters from our military past like the Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, Aaron Burr, and Hercules Mulligan. And don’t forget, Alexander Hamilton was an aide de camp to Washington and also led a midnight raid on the British during Yorktown.
2. Miss Saigon
Set during the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon is a modern take on Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly. Chris, an American GI, falls in love (or lust) with a Vietnamese bargirl, Kim. When Saigon falls to the Viet Cong, Chris is forced to leave Kim behind– even though he’s promised to take her to America with him. The rest of the musical deals with the aftermath of their love affair and the destruction left in Vietnam.
3. South Pacific
Taking place during World War II, South Pacific romanticizes the life and loves of a group of US sailors and nurses and French Polynesians living on a tiny, peaceful island in the Pacific Theater. It’s one of the most beloved musicals ever staged, with a film adaptation and numerous revivals in the 70 years since its original production. South Pacific is an adaptation of James Michener’s book, Tales of the South Pacific, which won a Pulitzer Prize.
Allegiance tells the story of an Asian American family, forced from their home into an internment camp during World War II. Sam Kimura, a main character, struggles to prove his patriotism in the internment camps and eventually is able to enlist in the Army–despite being previously disqualified by racist policies. Sam joins the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and completes near-suicide missions while his family is degraded by their experiences in Wyoming.
5. Bye Bye Birdie
Loosely based on media circus surrounding Elvis Presley’s drafting in the 1950’s, Bye Bye Birdie, follows the comedic escapades of a family whose daughter is chosen to kiss a rock ‘n’ roll star for a publicity stunt. Conrad Birdie is headed into the Army, but before he leaves, he’ll sing a parting song and kiss one lucky teen on national TV. As you can imagine, things never go as planned and the town erupts in hilarious mayhem as the sexy singer turns everything upside-down.
6. White Christmas
First a movie and then a musical, White Christmas is a beloved story with deep roots in World War II. The main characters, Bob and Phil, who have their own vaudeville act, follow a performing sister duo to a Vermont lodge to put on a Christmas show. Bob and Phil are old war buddies and it just so happens that the owner of the lodge is their former commanding officer. White Christmas is known for a variety of famous standards including the military-themed, “What Can You Do With a General?”
7. On the Town
What happens when three sailors have just 24 hours in New York City? You’ll have to follow Ozzie, Chip, and Gabey’s hijinx which includes chasing girls, falling in and out of love with girls, and more than one run-in with the cops. On the Town‘s first Broadway run in 1944 included a racially diverse cast with Asian American and African American dancers and an African American pit orchestra conductor.
8. American Idiot
Written by Green Day, American Idiot tells the story of a group of friends in suburban America. Each character tries to make their way in the world. Tunny, one of the friends, enlists in the Army as a way to feel less disaffected. He is sent overseas, is wounded in combat, and falls in love with his nurse. He eventually returns to his friends as an amputee.
J.G. Noll is the Editor of Military One Click and a veteran’s spouse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.