Musical Theater Brings Old Stories New Life


Ashley Doherty and John Driscoll

The art of telling stories through song has persisted for thousands of years, from ancient oral tradition to opera and all the way to today’s modern musical theater. 

Every medium has its strengths: Movies are perfect for visual storytelling, and books allow readers to get inside a character’s head, but what is it specifically about musical theatre that allows young people to connect with old stories that they would have never cared about before? Les Miserables, Hamilton, and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812–these stories should not be as captivating or popular as they are considering they are based on old stories, but something about them still strikes a chord with audiences.

For those unfamiliar with these shows, Les Miserables is based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name and is a sprawling story set in France’s revolutionary period, primarily following Jean Valjean on his journey to redemption. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (often just shortened to Great Comet) is based on a 75-page section of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a novel famous for its intimidating length and complicated plot stretching over many years in early nineteenth-century Russia. Finally, for those who have just awoken from a 7+ year-long coma and haven’t heard of Hamilton yet, it is the story of America’s Founding Fathers during and after the Revolutionary War.

These plays and books are incredible pieces of art that weave beautiful narratives of a time gone by, but why do these plays attract a much younger demographic than many of the books they are derived from? Les Miserables and War and Peace are considered some of the greatest novels of the 19th Century, of all time even, and yet in modern times, many are more focused on their musical counterparts. 

We reached out to a fellow SHS sophomore, Elsa Fever, to ask for her opinion as a fan of Great Comet, which then inspired her to start reading the novel it was based on, War and Peace. Regarding the topic, she said, “It introduced me to War and Peace the novel, so it sort of just pulled me down a rabbit hole.”

Fever is of Russian descent, so she heard of the novel before due to her parents’ recommendation. Claiming she would’ve never actually read it if the musical didn’t serve as a bridge for her to get into it, Fever commented, “It’s a big book–that’s what scared me.”

In addition, while Hamilton’s reputation is less positive than it once was, the impact it had on American society should not be understated: The play single-handedly made bored history students not just aware of Alexander Hamilton and his life, but genuinely interested and emotionally invested in his story. According to SHS English teacher Robin Dean, “Lin Manuel-Miranda took a character in history who either wasn’t known by people or just had negative feelings about him or just whatever feelings about him and made him known and cared about.” Overnight, Hamilton went from a footnote in American history to being someone everyone was talking about, and why could that be?

Hamilton and Great Comet have a key component in common: Music. More standard shows such as Les Miserables remain popular because they’re classics, but they don’t have many dedicated fans outside of the musical theatre groupies. However, Hamilton and Great Comet largely forgo the standard musical theatre sound–instead, they take from what is popular in music today: for Hamilton, that’s rap and hip-hop, and for Great Comet, that’s electropop, EDM, and indie rock (among other genres). The combination of these archaic stories and modern music created something special that was able to reach new audiences. “That’s the power of musical theatre in general, it takes everything about the story out of the pages,” claimed Dean.

Compare Hamilton to another well-known musical, 1776. This musical and Hamilton sound similar on paper, and both are successful, Tony-winning musicals focusing on similar time periods in American history (although most of Hamilton is set a little later); however, only one made teenagers and young adults interested in American history. Only one became an inescapable pop culture phenomenon, and only one reached audiences outside of the typical theater-going demographic.

1776 is a good musical–but far from groundbreaking, preventing it from becoming anything truly remarkable.“I’m not really a fan of 1776, and I feel like part of that is I don’t really enjoy the music,” commented Gates Middle School drama teacher, Lindsy Warwick.

Hamilton acted as a cultural stepping stone for many, representing their first exposure to theatre, and it was able to achieve this status through the music, which put old history into a new language. According to Dean, “[Lin Manuel-Miranda] showed us that when you take content and put it in something that’s accessible like hip-hop, we as a culture really value hip-hop at this current moment, and so then we value the story that it tells.”

Music has always been an incredibly important part of human culture, with different styles emerging at different times and locations throughout history. No matter what it sounds like, music is always a critical piece of a society’s culture that tells an important story. The music of today is different from the music of yesterday and the music of tomorrow, and it serves as a way to ground a foreign story into our modern culture. We may not be Russian countesses or Founding Fathers, but the core emotions of their narratives remain and connect with people, allowing these stories to endure.

Dean stated, “Most of the time when something’s a classic it’s because the themes carry over, and so when we talk about that, it is easier to connect with, but I do think the language of older works can feel very disconnected and can kind of be an immediate turn off for students.”

By replacing old and outdated language with music that people are familiar with, these themes can be adapted from the page and brought to an entirely new audience. Art has always been transformed and adapted–from Shakespeare adapting history into emotional narratives to movie directors adapting Shakespeare into their own stories. It is a natural process that will continue as long as civilization does, and the musical is just one small plot on the long timeline of history.