One thing that can be hard to notice is that musicals can teach you about history without you even realizing. There are two musicals that come to mind when I think of musicals dealing with some kind of actual history. Those two musicals would be Newsies and Les Mis.
Les Mis takes place during 19th century France during the aftermath of the French Revolution, which leads up to the June Rebellion of 1832. Due to being obsessed with Les Mis, I really got to know how turbulent times were during that time period. There was a very weak government who hardly cared about the poor. Women were treated very unfairly and children were living in the streets of Paris without parents to support them. Prisoners were forced to do hard labor.
Fantine represents just how unfairly women were treated. Just because she had an illegitimate child, she was fired from Valjean’s factory and at the time period, women were left with very little options when it comes to work. As a result, she had no choice but to become a prostitute in order to care for her daughter.
Through the opening scene of Les Mis, you get an idea of the kind of hard labor prisoners were forced to deal with and you can see just how much it hardened Valjean. You can clearly see just poor the government was through the second “Look Down”.
This is when we start to learn about the students and we discover that General Lamarque, the only man left in the government, who seemed to care for the poor was dying from cholera. The students planned the uprising to go up against the weak government. Gavorche, the street urchin, shows that children sometimes had to fend for themselves on the streets. So Les Mis does teach you about that time period in France and it lead me to researching more about the actual time period.
Newsies is actually based off a true event, which is the paperboy strike of 1899. The Newsies were these young teenagers and children who had to sell newspapers on the street in order to fend for themselves. That was how they made a living and most of them were either homeless, runaways, or orphans. Whatever paper they didn’t sell, they had to purchase the papers. Before the strike, the price of papers was fifty cents per one hundred papers. But when Pulitzer raised the price to sixty cents per one hundred, it was so unfair to the Newsies. They had to sell more papers in order to make a living. So they went on strike and stood up against Pulitzer and Hearst.
I am not a big fan of history at all. I am more interested in culture than the events that happened. But through these two musicals, I was able to find time periods that I actually was interested in learning about. By knowing more about the time period especially in Les Mis, it made me understand the time period more, which strengthened my knowledge of those two musicals.
Linked below is a post where the June Rebellion is described more in detail.
What other time periods in history has musicals taught you about? What are some standout historical events that take place during musicals?