Obviously, your plans over July 4th involve a Broadway singalong, right? Musical theater is an original American art form–a Jewish one at that–and what better way to express your patriotism than with one of our greatest cultural exports?
Any other year, the obvious show choice would be 1776, and now that it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s world and we’re all just living in it, you’d think of Hamilton. But both musicals, while nuanced and touching, ultimately believe in America as a means for allowing the downtrodden to rise up and make history. What about shows that don’t necessarily subscribe to that theory?
Here is a list of a few musicals for this July 4th, listed by the year of their Broadway premieres, that showcase the underside of the American dream. In order for some people to succeed, they suggest, a price must be paid through the oppression of others.
After all, we live in fraught times. They merit some fraught culture.
1. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. May I interest you in another genre-crossover retelling of the life of an American historical figure? Instead of Hamilton’s hip-hop, try emo rock, and instead of Alexander Hamilton, try President Andrew Jackson.
The underrated 2010 musical examines the dark side of populism, and questions whether or not you really want to let the people rule, and what happens when a populist leader breaks free of their reins.
It’s rather appropriate, given our current political year.
Sample lyric: “So we’ll ruin the bank, and we’ll cripple the courts/And we’ll take on the world for America’s sake/And we’ll take all the land, and we’ll take back the country/We’ll take, and we’ll take, and we’ll take and we’ll take!/And this country I’m making cannot be divided/The will of the people won’t stand in my way/How can I tell you how deeply I’ll make them all bleed?”
2. Ragtime. This 1998 adaptation of the E. L. Doctorow novel brings to life the early twentieth century as a time of excitement and possibility, and shows us how arbitrary the fates of the hopeful could be. Some, like the musical’s Jewish immigrant character, succeed with luck and ingenuity despite great hardship. Others, like a black musician facing discrimination and loss, ultimately suffer. There’s a careful examination of power structures, especially the big three (gender, race, and class).
Plus, Emma Goldman is a major character. How can you not want to listen?
Sample lyric: “Two men meeting/For a moment in the darkness/One turning from/One waking to/America!/Two men finding/For a moment in the darkness/They’re the same.”
3. Rags. You want a Jewish musical? You’ve got a Jewish musical.
Not to be confused with Ragtime, this 1986 Broadway show examines the lives of several Jewish Ellis Island immigrants and follows them in their new land. For these characters, this often means sacrificing their ideals in order to get ahead, such as betraying labor unions to gain favor with Tammany Hall. And integrity won’t save you; one character dies in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, perishing as a result of her own ambition to work.
Sample lyric: “Oh, papa, was it so necessary/To cram us onto that stinking ferry/And drag us here to become/American/Rags?”
4. Assassins. This Stephen Sondheim musical premiered on Broadway in 2004 because it was pushed back after 9/11; it wasn’t a good time to stage a show about historical presidential assassins (and some of those who attempted and failed).
The show’s thesis, ultimately, is that America has made promises to its people: big, outlandish promises that you can pull yourself by your bootstraps into whatever wild dream occupies your fantasies. These men and women have their own dreams, but they’ve been so failed by the system that these dreams turn violent. And what better symbol to lash out against than the President, the person of ultimate privilege any American can aspire to become?
Also, while her appearance doesn’t measure up to her role in Ragtime, Emma Goldman is in this musical, too!
Sample lyric: “There’s another national anthem, folks/For those who never win/For the suckers, for the pikers/For the ones who might have been.”
5. The Cradle Will Rock. This 1937 musical is a satirical look at American capitalism. It’s a condemnation of not only the 1%, but of those who facilitate even the smallest injustices. The real villains in the piece are the journalists who print what the establishment wants, the academics who stifle free speech on campus, and the artists who cater solely to the rich while eschewing politics as risky.
The musical was so controversial that its opening night was cancelled, and composer Marc Blitzstein instead opted to play the score for an audience. In support, the actors spontaneously performed the show as a concert from the crowd. Truth to power, indeed.
There’s also a 1999 film about the legendary theatrical event, so you can watch that on July 4th if the show’s intentionally atonal score doesn’t make your feet tap.
Sample lyric: “One big question inside of me cries/How many fakers, peace under-takers/Paid strike-breakers/How many toiling, ailing, dying, piled up bodies/Brother, does it take to make you wise?”
6. Caroline, or Change. This poignant 2004 musical is actually a semi-autobiographical work of Tony Kushner, and it primarily examines the relationship between a Jewish boy in 1963 Louisiana and his family’s black maid.
The story involves a Jewish family gaining power in America, and wrestling with sophisticated questions, like: What do Jews do with social and economic power? What does it mean for leftist ideologues who now have a degree of comfort? And should they feel guilty for having an African American maid?
Meanwhile, the black characters are participating in or reacting to the Civil Rights Movement, and the show supports the notion that while the “arc of the universe bends towards justice,” it’s a very gradual process.
Sample lyric: “I been waiting since the 30s/Selling goddam hats for Macys/Waiting for the revolution/For the fight against oppression/For the worker to take over/For the poor to rise in fury/Now the Negro leads the way!/Comes at last the freedom day!/But this martyr business is a ruse!”