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Broadway's Almost-True Stories, Part II

Date: Dec 01, 2010


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Welcome to Part 2 of our two-part look at how Broadway is currently staging history. Today, we talk to Broadway artists about their responsibility to historical facts.


James Monroe is suddenly big on Broadway, making an appearance in three separate shows in a season that's heavy with history. None of the productions are kind to our fifth president: He's an ineffectual character in A Free Man of Color,John Guare’s look at New Orleans in the early 1800’s; the butt of a semi-racy joke in Colin Quinn's solo show Long Story Short: A History of The World in 75 Minutes; and a lascivious fop in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. (In the latter, a rock musical about Jackson's rise to power, Monroe at least fares better than Martin Van Buren, who is depicted as a two-faced conniver eating a Twinkie.)

Monroe's unexpected prominence is just part of the current history craze. Some half-dozen Broadway shows are rooted in the past, as are several Off-Broadway productions.

Of course, no one should confuse "history on stage" with "actual history." Even a straightforward piece like Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters, which follows a group of British miners who become renowned artists, adjusts the truth to suit the needs of the stage, and edgier productions like Bloody giddily twist facts to suit their particular aesthetic vision.

But is it a playwright’s responsibility to be factually accurate? When is it permissible to bend or change the known history? Are there limits to artistic license?

“I don’t think it’s any artist’s responsibility to be only historically accurate; I don’t think this is possible,” says Ann Cattaneo, the dramaturg for Lincoln Center's production of a A Free Man of Color, which presents scores of invented characters but also includes Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon.  “I think the play is historically accurate, but many things are added to the fabric that are imaginary: Napoleon did not say that in the future he would hate Mick Jagger.”

Cattaneo distinguishes between a moment like that, which is an obvious embellishment of the imagination, and works of “falsified history” such as D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation.

Still, she says, “the job of John Guare is not to write a history of the Louisiana Purchase, but to use that history to explore the larger concern about America’s present and how we got here.”  

“A playwright's responsibility to the facts is surely different for every author and every play,” says Alex Timbers, who directs Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and wrote the book.  He says that he and composer Michael Friedman were committed to “depicting what we see as the essential nature of each historical character.”

This differs from a historian’s commitment to the facts; the musical was never intended to be straight biography. “Our show changes perspectives in an almost cubist manner and that governs the point of view of each individual scene," Timbers explains. At the beginning of the musical, for example, when Andrew Jackson is a child (albeit played by the adult actor Benjamin Walker), “the world is being bent and distorted as it’s viewed through the eyes of an angry young child, so there is a vigorous mix of fact and fiction, as any child's hazy memory tends to remember certain events clearly and simplify others.”

Some theatregoers have objected to this approach. A group of Native Americans who saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson when it played at the Public Theater earlier this year complained about the way Indians were depicted, and in particular about the portrayal of a historical figure named Black Hawk (1767 – 1838).  In the Off-Broadway version, Black Hawk betrayed many Indian nations on Jackson’s behalf and was appointed Jackson’s “Deputy of Indian Affairs/Presidential Weed Envoy.” None of this was true of the actual tribal leader, a war chief who fought to reclaim tribal lands taken by the United States and became something of a 19th-century celebrity, the first Native American to have an autobiography published in the United States. He did meet Andrew Jackson, but only briefly, before being imprisoned
To address this concern, Timbers and Friedman renamed the character Black Fox for the Broadway run.

“None of the historical figures depicted in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson have their biographies followed to the letter,” Timbers says of the change. “We felt this was permissible with the white Founding Fathers because there's some knowledge in this country of whom Calhoun, Clay, Monroe and Van Buren really were. But there isn't a widespread knowledge base for the Native American figures depicted in our show, so we felt like it would be irresponsible to give characters the names of real Native Americans if they weren't 100 percent the same people we were portraying onstage.”

Broadway's history is of course filled with the struggle to portray historical figures artistically, from  Fela! and Jersey Boys currently on the boards, to Evita, The Elephant Man, Titanic… the list is long.

Discussing The Crucible's roots in the Salem witch trials, the late Arthur Miller told me during the play's 2002 revival that it shouldn't be viewed only as history. “It’s something more," he said. "It's an imaginary reconstruction. It wouldn't be a document you would turn to for absolute historical truth, if there is such a thing. If you are writing a work of literature, it's literally impossible to avoid changing what people are like.”

Jonathan Mandell covers New York theatre for  The Faster Times and is on Twitter as  New York Theater