’Being found out is the scariest,’ a quote by Neil Diamond, captures a profound truth that many people, especially public figures, grapple with. It uncovers a fear of vulnerability, the apprehension of their inner self being exposed for the public to dissect, analyze, and judge. In many ways, biographical musicals are a big reveal, an open window into the lives of their subjects, exposing personal sides rarely seen by the public.
Biographical musicals on Broadway strip down the lives of legendary public figures, often bearing their burdens, joys, trials, fears, and insecurities for all to see. These narratives, presented in a blend of dialogue, song, and dance, do not just entertain but also humanize the subjects in ways that tabloid headlines and paparazzi snapshots fail to deliver. It brings to the audience an understanding that these larger-than-life figures are indeed human, fallible, relatable, and real.
Today, Broadway is home to a variety of dynamic biographical musicals that music, theater, and history enthusiasts will surely appreciate. At center stage, we have captivating stories like MJ, A Beautiful Noise, and Harmony.
MJ is a thrilling tribute to the life and journey of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. This bio-musical centers around his preparations for the Dangerous World Tour. Audiences can expect to be treated not just to a journey through Jackson's life but also to his immense catalog of music, from Jackson 5 classics to his greatest solo hits. The production offers a view into the musician’s world – the burden of fame, his innovative vision, and his quest for privacy amidst global superstardom, all punctuated by iconic choreography and unforgettable music.
A Beautiful Noise - The Neil Diamond Musical examines the life and career of another iconic singer-songwriter, Neil Diamond. Co-written by Anthony McCarten, a four-time Oscar-nominated writer, the musical is more than a mixtape of Diamond's hits. Set amidst fictional therapy sessions, the story explores his struggles, touching on themes of identity, the road to fame, and depression.
Harmony, a new musical about the Comedian Harmonists, tells the true story of a group of six young men in 1920s Germany who rode the wave of the new sound of close six-part harmony to become an international sensation. In the face of ominous rising tides in their country, they showed the world that disparate voices can come together to create something beautiful.
Through stirring song and dance, these musicals unveil the human aspect of these remarkable artists, reminding us that beneath the stardom, they, too, had their fair share of fears and dreams. Although biographical shows are far from a new addition to the Broadway stage, in the past couple of years, their numbers have been growing exponentially. Broadway has recently been home to a slew of biographical shows that have made their mark in the theatre scene.
Good Night, Oscar, starring Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant, is a gripping look at the highs and lows of the legendary concert pianist, composer, and actor. The play encapsulated Levant's raw humor, sharp wit, and struggles with dependency, received positively by audiences who got a grasp of the man behind the multiplicity of talents.
Funny Girl is an iconic show that recently enjoyed a successful revival. It tells the story of the pioneering female comedian Fanny Brice, a woman who broke barriers in a male-dominated industry. The lighthearted musical, enriched with biographical facts, resonates powerfully with audiences, who have come to appreciate Brice's tireless pursuit of success in the face of adversity.
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical is a riveting exploration of Tina Turner's life and career. The powerful rendition of Turner's phenomenal life story and ultimate transformation received high praise from audiences and critics alike, demonstrating the enduring appeal of these real-life narratives.
Translating real lives into theatrical narratives is an art as sophisticated as it is delicate. The process is anything but simple as it navigates a labyrinth of unique challenges you wouldn't typically encounter in other genres of theatre. First, the task of compressing a lifetime into a matter of hours mandates close scrutiny. The challenge is to capture the essence of the individual and narrate their life story in a compelling, respectful, and accurate manner.
Second, there's the formidable task of obtaining legal permissions- handling the legalities of showing a real person's life on stage often calls for securing rights, risking legal disputes over defamation, and fact-checking narratives to the finest detail.
Third, there's an overriding responsibility to represent the artist's life truthfully to ensure it isn’t perceived as exploitative or sensationalized. This demands a fine balance - satisfying the audience's curiosity while maintaining the dignity and privacy of the artists and their families.
However, despite the challenges, the creative rewards reaped from biographical theatre are innumerable. For one, it allows for a richer, more grounded narrative - filled with the highs and lows, the triumphs and tribulations of real-life experiences. It does not just entertain but also moves, enlightens, and teaches valuable lessons. Moreover, it presents a creative opportunity to explore the complexities of a celebrated figure, to shed light on their struggles, achievements, humanity, and contribution to society.
Last, biographical musicals harness a ready, eager audience, particularly fans of the artists featured. Engaging this existing fanbase through a fresh, theatrical retelling of the artist's life certainly has its advantages.
The influence of the artists or their respective estates on the production process of a Broadway biographical musical cannot be understated. Often, they serve as valuable resources, offering firsthand insight into the artist's life, experiences, and artistic processes. This involvement can significantly shape the narrative and direction of the production as they can provide personal anecdotes, crucial approvals, and potentially even access to unpublished works.
The Cher Show, which opened on Broadway in 2018, pays tribute to the life, career, and indomitable spirit of the entertainment icon. Initially, Cher herself expressed misgivings about the show. In its early stages, she publicly noted that the show ‘needs some work.’ However, as the show progressed, her tune changed dramatically. After attending several performances, Cher endorsed the show with enthusiasm. She was particularly taken with the intricate narrative structure, which split her character into three parts, each one standing for different eras of her life.
A Beautiful Noise - The Neil Diamond Musical stands as a testament to the invaluable input that artists can have in the creation of their own biographical portrayals. A central figure in the development process, Neil Diamond was an active participant in crafting the narrative, ensuring it depicted a genuine and truthful depiction of his life journey, filled with ups and downs, victories, and losses. The legendary singer-songwriter didn’t shy away from showing his life ‘warts and all.’ He expressed a desire for the musical to reflect his life truthfully, capturing the essence of his journey without sugar-coating or sidestepping around the troublesome episodes.
While the extent of the artist's influence can vary from production to production, their involvement often infuses the narrative with credibility and authenticity. It bridges the gap between life and art, ensuring that the production stays true to the spirit of the artist while also providing substance and context to the storytelling.
Creating biographical musicals requires an acute sense of ethical responsibility toward the source material - the lives of real people. This responsibility is a hallmark of creative work that entails the sensitive handling and portrayal of real-life figures, particularly in instances where the subject or their family members are alive and can witness the representation of themselves on stage.
One crucial ethical aspect involves the depiction of controversial or painful parts of the subjects' lives. These instances must be handled with a deep level of empathy, sensitivity, and respect, acknowledging the potential impact that this public airing of personal affairs can have on the individuals involved.
Taking creative liberties with biographical material is a common, often necessary tool employed by creators to adapt an entire life story into a cohesive, engaging two-hour stage performance. This process may involve the consolidation of events, the creation of composite characters, or the condensing of timelines. However, these liberties must serve the narrative without sacrificing the truth or distorting the legacy of the individual.
The current phase of an artist's career also plays a critical role in shaping the narrative of a biographical musical. For those who are still in the limelight, their ongoing work can continue to inform and evolve the storyline. For artists who are no longer performing, their complete body of work and life story can offer a rich, comprehensive narrative to draw from, as seen in MJ and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.
The future of biographical shows on Broadway looks promising. With an abundance of stories left untold, there remain countless artists whose lives provide endless inspiration for compelling narratives. Couple this with the fact that audiences consistently gravitate toward these intimate portrayals of beloved figures, it's clear that the genre's appeal is vast and enduring.
The allure of biographical musicals is undeniable. Artistically challenging, historically engaging, and emotionally resonating, they are a genre that celebrates life, legacy, and the enduring magic of music. Each new production is not merely a new show on Broadway but a deft stroke in the grand canvas of theatre - preserving legacies, teaching lessons, and inspiring generations to come.