American Musicals in Context: From the American Revolution to the 21st Century

Greenwood. Mar. 2021. 319p. ISBN 9781440865404. $97. REF
Greenfield (emeritus, English, SUNY Geneseo; Broadway: An Encyclopedia of Theater and American Culture) explores U.S. history through musicals that have shone a spotlight on everything from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the Civil War, from the newsboys strike of 1899 to the rise of the cosmetics industry. Greenfield examines 20 musicals in exhaustive detail, with historical context, background on the production’s development, a plot synopsis, critical reactions, and a thorough accounting of the show’s historical accuracy. The country’s early years are depicted in the hits 1776 and Hamilton, along with the more obscure Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Ben Franklin in Paris, and Rodgers and Hart’s Dearest Enemy. Greenfield writes that social injustices dominate the plots of many shows: Allegiance was inspired by the experiences of actor George Takei, who as a child was imprisoned in a concentration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II; The Scottsboro Boys tackles the imprisonment of nine Black men who were falsely accused of rape. Other productions examine identity, Greenfield writes: Falsettos distinguished itself from shows that depicted LGBTQ+ identity as a source of conflict, and instead offered a matter-of-fact portrayal of queer relationships.
VERDICT Capitalizing on the immense popularity of Hamilton, Greenfield introduces musical theater buffs and students of history to potentially lesser-known productions that form an accessible time line of U.S. history, exploring war, racial and gender inequality, capitalism, and generational discord.
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