Hitting the Right Notes When Setting History To Song

A lot of history is happening in American musical theater right now. (Sorry, last “Hamilton” joke, we promise.) On Broadway, “Paradise Square,” which was just nominated for 10 Tony Awards, tells the story of a mixed Irish and Black community in Lower Manhattan in the 1860s that’s torn apart by the Civil War draft riots. Downtown, at the Public Theater, the sold-out “Suffs” depicts the women’s suffrage movement in the years leading up to the passage of the 19th Amendment.

And coming to Broadway in September (now in previews in Cambridge, Mass.), Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page’s revival of “1776” revisits the debate over the Declaration of Independence, with a cast of women, nonbinary and trans actors as the founding “fathers.”

This is American history with a capital H — shows that aim to illuminate who we are, who we were, who we want to be. Those questions have only gotten more complicated in the years since 2015, when “Hamilton” took the culture by storm. We’ve been through two elections (and an insurrection), a pandemic, and a broad reckoning on race and racism, including in American theater. All this has changed how we see — and stage — the past.

We asked The New York Times critics Jesse Green and Maya Phillips to discuss the phenomenon alongside Paulus, a 2013 Tony winner; Claire Bond Potter, a professor of history at the New School and co-editor of the essay collection “Historians on Hamilton”; and Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a professor of history at Rutgers University and a co-executive producer of HBO’s “The Gilded Age.” Jennifer Schuessler, who covers intellectual life for the Times (and wrote about the creation of “Suffs”), led the conversation. Edited excerpts follow.

During its development, “Suffs” came to explore how Black women were marginalized in the movement for women’s suffrage.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

JENNIFER SCHUESSLER What strikes you all about the ways American history is being depicted and invoked onstage right now? Is something new happening?

JESSE GREEN Theater, particularly musical theater, has often abetted the distortion and flat-out erasure of inconvenient histories. Now it’s trying to do a better job. That’s a good thing. But you can’t fix the past with broken shows. History may be dramatic but it isn’t necessarily theatrical — and that’s the pitfall. How do you make facts sing?

MAYA PHILLIPS There is built-in tension: does one prioritize the narrative of the past or the politics of the present? I’m not saying these necessarily have to be in opposition, but it’s a delicate balance. You don’t want a show with a story that feels squeezed into the frame of our present in a way that’s too obvious or didactic, which was a problem with both “Suffs” and “Paradise Square.”

DIANE PAULUS Artists, especially right now, are interested in shifting the gaze — looking to tell stories that need to be told, stories that have not had their due. I also think producers, and we can’t forget that it is the producers who determine what gets on stage, are looking to play their role in how to expand the stories that audiences are exposed to.

SCHUESSLER OK, historians: Do you see this as an exciting moment? A frustrating one?

CLARE BOND POTTER I think Americans are hungrier for historical explanations, in part because so many historically unprecedented things have occurred in the past 15 years. The first Black president, and the failure to elect the first woman president — twice! Then the Trump presidency, which exploded the idea of what politics is. Americans are digging into the past to find answers for questions about why politics seems to be both producing radically new dynamics — and reproducing old ones.

ERICA ARMSTRONG DUNBAR It’s more than political — it’s creative and it responds to the feelings and needs of the public. It reminds me of the moment that [the television mini-series] “Roots” first aired, in 1977. The history wasn’t perfect, and it was overdramatized, but it was new and important and people, Black people in particular, were immediately invested in this new kind of storytelling. The same thing is happening with musical theater.

GREEN The opportunities are huge and the stakes are high; popular history has a way of replacing the real kind. (Check out “The King and I,” a gorgeously crafted and hugely influential show that’s almost completely untrue.) Which is why representation is so important. Erica, you work on “The Gilded Age,” which I feel sure is providing, for white people anyway, the first we’ve really heard about the Black middle class of that era, a story somehow omitted from our education and consciousness. But I think you’re saying that it’s not just about “fixing” history but also about artists finding stories that compel them.

DUNBAR Exactly! I don’t think any of us go to the theater for a history lesson. We want to be entertained, we want to fall in love, be angry, and learn a bit if we can.

SCHUESSLER Wow, a historian saying we don’t go to the theater for a history lesson — you’re really playing against type, Erica!

Diane, what you would say from the perspective of an artist? What appealed to you about reviving “1776” — a very familiar history with a very familiar set of (white, male) characters. And how do you see the show as speaking to the present?

Crystal Lucas-Perry, center, as John Adams with castmates in a new revival of the musical “1776” that features women, trans and nonbinary actors.Credit…Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made

PAULUS I really agree that audiences are interested in looking back to our history to understand the present moment. The theater is uniquely positioned to do this in a way that taps into our imaginations, into empathy, and what I love about the theater is that it can only happen in the presence of an audience. In “1776,” I have been excited to build this production with my co-director and choreographer, Jeffrey L. Page, in a way that actively poses questions to the audience: How can we hold history as a predicament, versus an affirming myth?

SCHUESSLER Can you say a little bit about your and Jeffrey’s broader intentions in doing this show with a diverse cast of women, nonbinary and trans actors? Why is that gender-flip interesting to you?

PAULUS When taking on a revival, I am always interested in how to make the production speak to a contemporary audience, while respecting the authors’ original intentions. “1776” was written in the late ’60s, during the civil rights movement and at the height of the Vietnam War. There is a critique of our country built into the bones of this musical. Our casting bridges the realities of the past and the present, from who was excluded from Independence Hall to an aspirational vision of an inclusive society.

The “1776” revival is co-directed by Diane Paulus, right, and Jeffrey L. Page, who is also the show’s choreographer.Credit…Matthew Murphy

SCHUESSLER This brings up the question of how to balance the historical record with the needs of the present. It’s different with a show like “1776,” where everyone already knows the basic story, versus shows like “Suffs” and “Paradise Square,” where many people will not know the history at all. How should shows confront the ugliest, messiest realities of the past, versus giving us a more uplifting version?

POTTER It’s important to emphasize that theater — go back to Shakespeare — has never been historically accurate. It always speaks to questions of the moment. But when we say stories are not well known, I would say the story of the Draft Riots is well known to Black Americans. And the depiction in “Paradise Square” — which ends with a multiracial community coming back together — is emphatically not what occurred. True, “Paradise Square” also presents this moment as a “future yet to be realized” — a turning point where people have choices, and that is an important story to tell about racial division in this country. But Kaitlyn Greenidge’s recent novel “Libertie” frames this event differently, as a 19th century 9/11, where Black New Yorkers flee to Brooklyn, traumatized and covered with ash, and are taken in by the Black residents of Weeksville. Greenidge’s account is also fiction, but better history, in that it conveys what a catastrophe this was for African Americans in New York City.

SCHUESSLER Erica, your scholarship has been about free Black women in the urban North before the Civil War. What do you think about the history in “Paradise Square”?

Joaquina Kalukango, center, plays a bar owner with a key role in “Paradise Square,” a storytelling choice one historian praises as “powerful.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

DUNBAR I think “Paradise Square” attempted to tell the story of trauma and resistance, and strength within the context of 19th century history. Was it completely accurate? Probably not, and I’m not sure that any show always gets the history right. But once again, it’s about more than facts and figures. It’s about moving people into the center of narratives who have never been there for the public to see. To center a story about the draft riots around a Black woman is fresh, and powerful.

PAULUS I completely agree, Erica. In “1776,” some of the most moving parts of the musical are the scenes with the courier — not a founding father. Franklin, Jefferson and Adams are the famous historical characters. The courier, who delivers the dispatches from the battlefield to the Continental Congress, is literally nameless. But this character, who has the least power in the room, gets one of the most powerful songs — “Momma, Look Sharp.”

SCHUESSLER Jesse, you were less than enthusiastic about “Paradise Square.” And Maya, I gather you felt similarly. How well do you think that recentering worked?

GREEN As an approach, I’m all for what we’re calling recentering. The problem with “Paradise Square” isn’t the perspective from which it is told, but that in attempting to pile the whole history of a community (even the made-up parts) onto a few fictional figures who represent elements of the conflict, the authors created stick people who couldn’t bear the burden. This leaves you with the false impression, as musicals by nature tend to, that there’s one hero and one villain. Only because Joaquina Kalukango was so phenomenal in the leading role was anything richer conveyed. There’s history, and then there’s craft.

PHILLIPS Well-put, Jesse. The question of scope is always a tricky one to navigate in these history shows — how large is our lens? In my review of “Suffs,” I argued that a show can’t be everything to everyone; an attempt to do that will end up sacrificing story and character.

SCHUESSLER “Suffs” drew a lot of comparisons with “Hamilton,” but there was something fundamentally different about it, starting with its title. It was about a movement, not an individual — which may be truer to history, but also a lot harder to dramatize. Claire, what did you think of how “Suffs” handled the history?

POTTER Much like “Hamilton,” “Suffs” tended to reduce both the successes and the flaws of the campaign for the 19th amendment to the personality of one person, Alice Paul. And while I appreciated the elevation of Paul, Ida B. Wells, and others to the status of male “founders,” the risk is simply refocusing on personalities rather than some of the movement’s broader themes: for example, its racist dynamics, tactical differences and generational divides.

I also want to speak to Jesse’s point about the reductionism of “Paradise Square.” He’s right, but then the musical also, in a way, addresses the question of contemporary populism: are poor white people entirely to blame when they lash out at women, people of color and the state? How are anti-democratic dynamics promoted and provoked by others — in the case of “Paradise Square,” a Copperhead politician [as those northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War and supported a negotiated peace with the South were called]?

SCHUESSLER Suggesting the draft riots (or the Civil War itself!) were driven mainly by the machinations of elite capital is … a strange interpretation. But I think it also connects with the show’s efforts to resonate with today’s politics (and the way people view America’s recent wars). More broadly, do these shows fall into a trap of trying to provide a comfortable, “relatable” place for the audience (especially the white audience)? That was one of the criticisms of “Hamilton” from historians, including some who were huge fans: that by exaggerating (some might say inventing) his credentials as an abolitionist, the show gave us a founding father it was “safe” to like.

GREEN The audience can handle the dissonance! It’s white authors’ comfort that seems to be at stake. They come off as terrified of failing to check off every box on the sensitivity list. That’s no way to make a musical.

SCHUESSLER When I interviewed the creators of “Suffs,” they talked about how the events of 2020 — the George Floyd protests, and the roiling conversation around the We See You White American Theater letter prompted a big conversation among the company. They ended up expanding the role of Ida B. Wells, along with other changes. Diane, was there a similar conversation among the “1776” team?

PAULUS The process of making theater feels very different to me now. We are centering antiracism as a core value, we make community agreements as a collective across the entire company for how we want to exist together. All of this is a process we are learning from every day.

SCHUESSLER Erica, you started working on “The Gilded Age” back in 2019. How has the summer of 2020 affected things?

Louisa Jacobson and Denee Benton, right, in the HBO series “The Gilded Age,” which includes a storyline about the Black middle class.Credit…Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

DUNBAR I’d like to circle back quickly to Jesse’s comment. Jesse mentioned “terrified white authors” or something like that — and how fear has pushed creatives to think more about sensitivity. Well, fear can be a great motivator! And sometimes, it’s for the best. When I began consulting with “The Gilded Age” I was working with an entirely white creative team. A great team, but entirely white and male. There must be diversity in the creative process to produce authentic and powerful entertainment. While there were conversations before the summer of 2020, I believe that moment moved the needle. While I am infuriated that it takes the murder of Black people to move the needle, well, that’s what happened. Because of the changes and additions, we produced a better show.

POTTER I’d like to return to the topic of flattering the audience: It is something theater producers must do, to some extent, and it’s something good historians can’t do — and look at the outcomes when we don’t! The massive attack on the 1619 Project is in part a massive refusal of a past that challenges both progressive and patriotic narratives held dear by many white Americans.

What even flawed shows like “Suffs” and “Paradise Square” can do, much like historical fiction, is get people interested enough to do their own research and reading. History is a series of choices. People are self-interested, stubborn, brilliant, irritating — they don’t always make the right ones. And that is an important historical dynamic to understand.

GREEN True sensitivity comes from deep knowledge and empathy. It welcomes the audience to accept complexity so that characters aren’t just saints or signposts. I’m thinking especially of Arthur Scott, the hard-to-like father of the Black heroine in “The Gilded Age.” What I find unhelpful is signaling one’s sensitivity so vividly that it’s the only thing the audience can see. In a way it defeats the purpose of recentering the narrative.

DUNBAR Ultimately, this is about authentic storytelling (which if it’s a period piece must rely on accurate history). When done correctly, it doesn’t feel two-dimensional and we are able to see the complexity of characters.

SCHUESSLER I wonder if this isn’t easier in long-form television, or even in straight plays, than in musicals. Maya, you mentioned the other day that you thought “Wedding Band,” the new (old!) play by Alice Childress that recently ended a run in New York, may be a better depiction of history than some of these capital-H History shows. Can you say more?

PHILLIPS Writing in the early 1960s, Childress uses a few fictional relationships to tell the story of race in America at the time. It’s an interracial love story that takes place in 1918 South Carolina, and we find Black people — especially Black women — of different means and situations. It’s not just about the rift between whites and Blacks but also the class divides among Blacks. The play isn’t trying to be a history lesson; history is simply happening in and around the story and the characters. And the play doesn’t need to prove to us that it’s relevant. We can read our present racial politics into it.

SCHUESSLER “History is happening around the story”: I love that. We talk about “living through history” when something big happens, but we’re always living through history.

Maya’s recommendation of “Wedding Band” leads me to ask all of you to speak to a moment of dramatized history — either a show/movie/whatever — that you really loved?

POTTER I am practically the only person I know who is digging Showtime’s “The First Lady.”

SCHUESSLER OMG! You are canceled.


POTTER I know! But I think it demonstrates the limits and possibilities of gender at different moments in time, but also the ways that First Ladies stretched the limits of what it meant to be a woman in politics at each moment.

DUNBAR I’m going to be very liberal with the term dramatized history — meaning history is something that happened yesterday. Sooo …. I think one of the most incredible shows on television right now is “Atlanta.” While it is a show that takes place today (or for this answer, yesterday) it is fresh, brave, and really creative in the ways that it engages everyday life for Black people.

PAULUS I recently rewatched [the 2018 film] “The Favourite,” which I think did a brilliant job of taking Queen Anne’s reign and making that history feel raw and immediate. For more recent “history,” I thought [the Hulu mini-series] “Dopesick” was devastating in its examination of the opioid crisis.

GREEN The musical that best reframed history for modern audiences this season was “Six” — the “Tudors Got Talent” competition about the women who were married to Henry VIII. The facts were right enough, the characters were hilariously contemporized and, perhaps most important, the tunes were catchy. A song always cuts deeper than a sermon.