Whether under the lights of Broadway or in the grand old theaters of London's Leicester Square, history comes alive on the stage in many of our favorite modern productions. Rollicking musicals, Shakespearean tragedies and glittering operas all provide the history buff an opportunity to experience the sights and sounds of a past era (not to mention provide a perfect opportunity to don some historical duds and spend a night on the town).
In addition, the tradition of theater-going is itself a pasttime with deep historical roots. The ancient Greeks and Romans attended live plays--tragedies and comedies by playwrights such as Thespis, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides--held in hillside ampitheaters. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the theatrical tradition was kept alive in the performances of roving bands of jongleurs: itinerant street players, jugglers, acrobats and animal trainers. In addition, the Church linked its own religious holidays with seasonal festivals, and began to use dramatic form to illustrate Biblical stories to a largely illiterate congregation. The Renaissance and Protestant Reformation ushered in a rebirth of theater, and William Shakespeare's works--which were often performed in open air arenas--transformed the art during that period. Finally, the 18th and 19th centuries brought an increasing commercialization of the art, accompanied by technological innovations, the introduction of serious critical review, expansion of the subject matters portrayed, and an emphasis on more natural forms of acting. Theater, which had been dominated by the Church for centuries, and then by the tastes of monarchs for more than two centuries, became accessible to merchants, industrialists, the bourgeoise and then the masses. This year, we invite you to keep the tradition alive... make a date to see one of our favorite plays set in a bygone period.
Set in ancient Egypt, Disney's hit musical "Aida" relates the story of a love triangle among Radames, the Captain of the Egyptian Army, Amneris (the Egyptian Princess he's betrothed to), and a nubian slave girl (Aida). Based on Verdi's opera, "Aida" is an epic and classic tale of love, loyalty, betrayal, and courage, with an exhilarating Tony and Grammy award-winning score by Elton John and Tim Rice, in their first collaboration since writing the music for Disney's animated feature, "The Lion King." "Aida" opened on Broadway in March of 2000 and featured Heather Headley, who won the Tony award for her performance. Perhaps the most well-known of the "Aida" songs is "Written In the Stars," which was recorded and popularized by Elton John and Leann Rimes.
Beauty and the Beast
Disney's musical production of "Beauty and the Beast" tells the love story of Belle, a bookish young woman living in France, and a prince transformed by a spell into a Beast. The show features Cogsworth the Clock, Lumiere the Candelabra, Mrs. Potts the Teapot, adorable little Chip the teacup, and the rest of the castle's whimsical servants from the movie version, as well as renditions of the film's classic songs by such as "Be Our Guest." The musical thankfully also features new songs by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, including "No Matter What", "Me", "Home", "How Long Must This Go On?", "If I Can't Love Her", "Maison des Loon", and "Transformation". In Disney style, the musical offers stunning moving sets, breathtaking special lighting effects and more. "Beauty and the Beast" opened at the Palace Theatre on Broadway in April of 1994, and has since become an international sensation. It won the Tony Award for Best Costume Design.
Based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, the musical "Les Miserables" (often referred to as "Les Miz") is among the world's most popular musicals. From its celebrated opening in London in October 1985, the play immediately captured the imagination and enthusiasm of the theatre-going public. Set in France between 1817 and 1832, the play relates the story of Jean Valjean, a prisoner numbered 24601, who makes parole after serving nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon tasting freedom, Valjean almost ends up imprisoned again when he steals silver from a bishop. Extending grace to the convict, the bishop tells the authorities that he gave the silver to Valhean as a gift. This one act of undeserved kindness changes Valjean's life, transforming him into an honest man who later becomes mayor. Despite his just governance and his kindness to a young prostitute, Fantine, and her child, Cosette, Valjean is pursued by the legalistic Officer Javert who is convinced that he has violated his parole. The dramatic score of "Les Miz" includes the songs "On My Own," "One Day More," "A Little Fall of Rain," and "Do You Hear The People Sing?". The musical has been seen by over 40 million people worldwide in 27 countries and in 16 languages. There have been 31 cast recordings, including the multi-platinum London cast album and the Grammy Award-winning Broadway cast and complete symphonic albums.
My Fair Lady
"My Fair Lady" premiered on Broadway in 1956 and soon became the most popular musical of the 1950s. Based on George Bernard Shaw's 1914 play, "Pygmalion," the musical was adapted by the talented duo of Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner. The story revolves around Eliza Doolittle, a coarse flower vendor in Covent Garden who agrees to take speech lessons from the snooty phonetician Henry Higgins in order to fulfill her dream of working in a flower shop. Eliza exceeds everyone's expectations and becomes an elegant lady fit for high society, and even manages to get Higgins to fall in love with her. The original production during the 1950s featured Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins and Julie Andrews as Eliza (the 1964 film version starred Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn).
The Scarlet Pimpernel
Based on the novel by Baroness Orzcy, "The Scarlet Pimpernel" musical relates a tale of romantic intrigue taking place during the French Revolution, set to a delightful score by Frank Wildhorn. The play opened with limited interest at the Minskoff Theater in 1997, but was revamped in November of 1998 to garner a substantially more favorable reception. The musical tells the story of an Englishman who fops about as a wastrel to disguise his identity as a hero who saves aristocrats from the guillotine. More suspense ensues when the Pimpernel marries the beautiful actress, Marguerite, whom he soon suspects is a spy working alongside his nemesis, the revolutionary Chauvelin. Although the play is not as spectacular as the grand musicals in the tradition of "Fiddler on the Roof," "My Fair Lady," "West Side Story" or "Les Miz," it is a nonetheless entertaining musical romp that mixes romance with heroics.