Stage Musicals vs. History: A to F
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 2000, Revised 2003)
- Annie Get Your Gun
- Catch Me If You Can
- Civil War
- Floyd Collins
- Funny Girl
(All photos below are thumbnails click on them to see larger versions.)
Annie Moses was an Ohio farm girl whose skill with a rifle saved her impoverished family from starvation. It is true that she beat touring sharpshooter Frank Butler in a competition and became his partner. They married in 1876, and she took on the stage name "Annie Oakley." It is also true that Annie was befriended by Chief Sitting Bull, who adopted her and named her "Little Sure Shot." From the 1880s through 1901, Annie, Frank and Sitting Bull toured the world with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. The Butlers continued to give exhibitions (mostly to benefit women's & children's charities) until both died within days of each other in 1926. Two key things: it is unlikely that Annie would ever throw a match to appease a man's ego, and there is no record of Frank Butler ever expressing resentment of Annie's superior talent. In fact, he adored her for it.
P.T. Barnum was one of the most colorful characters in American history, and most of Barnum is an inspired riff on the facts. However, the affair with opera star Jenny Lind never happened. All reliable sources suggest that Barnum was devoted to his wife Charity.
The real Arthur (if there was one) was a barbaric war lord who ruled part of Britain in the pre-Christian dark ages. He bore no resemblance to the medieval Christian monarch depicted in this musical, which was based on T. H. White's delicious fantasy novel The Once and Future King. Librettist Alan Jay Lerner based his script on only a portion of the novel -- rights to the early chapters had already been purchased by Walt Disney, who turned out the animated charmer The Sword in the Stone (1964). Lerner sticks to White's original characterizations, but changes Lancelot into a handsome hunk the novel (in accordance with the traditional legend) depicts the French super-knight as powerful but remarkably ugly.
Catch Me If You Can
In the 1960s, teen con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. passed $2.5 million worth of bad checks, passing himself off as an airline pilot, doctor and attorney until the FBI nabbed him at age 21. After serving time in prison (in several countries, no less), Abagnale worked for the bureau as an anti-fraud consultant, and published a best-selling (and admittedly embellished) autobiography. Like the hit 2002 film, the musical pits him against Hanratty, a fictionalized compilation of several agents who pursed the young con. Abagnale's stint impersonating a doctor lasted no more than a few days, and he barely mentioned his parents, whose failed relationship is tagged a the root cause of Frank's crime spree. (Some sources suggest the writers based this on conversations with Abagnale, but that has yet to be confirmed.)
In 1924, Chicago housewife Beulah Annan shot and killed her lover, Harry Kolstadt. Beulah's husband Al lined up prominent defense attorney W.W. O'Brien to keep his wife from hanging. After a highly publicized trial, and announcements to the press that Beulah was pregnant, the all-male jury needed only two hours to reach a verdict of "not guilty." The pregnancy proved a hoax, the Annans divorced, and Beulah wound up dying in an asylum in 1928. Inspired by this and several other murder cases, reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins took a playwrighting course at Yale and penned the hit stage drama Chicago (1927). There was a silent screen version, and Twentieth Century Fox later eventually filmed a sound version entitled Roxie Hart (1942). Watkins resisted all attempts to turn her story into a musical, right up to the time of her death in 1969. The Watkins estate finally sold the rights to producer Robert Fryer, and Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb took it from there. The corruption and media madness depicted in both the stage and screen musical version of Chicago were very much a part of the 1920s -- just as they are all too much a part of our own time.
Presented as a series of unconnected scenes, this Frank Wildhorn musical made no attempt to follow the war's progress. For example, the finale depicted the battle of Gettysburg, ending with the ensemble lying dead onstage until Frederick Douglass strode out over the corpses to announce that the war ended and Lincoln was assassinated within a month. Huh? As if the final two nightmarish years of the war don't really matter? Aside from Douglass and the disembodied voice of Lincoln, the characters in the show were fictitious. The Civil War's three librettists mauled history in the name of providing entertainment, then forgot to provide anything that might entertain. What was their inspiration, Springtime for Hitler?
While the basic order of events in Evita is historically accurate, Webber and Rice opted for the most unsavory version of every episode. Mind you, that does not mean they got it wrong. Power has changed hands often in Argentina over the last fifty years, and with each change the "official" version of Eva Duarte's life story seems to mutate into a fresh set of fictions. Che Guevara's revolutionary ideals may have been a reaction to corrupt movements like Peronism, but he never had any personal contact with Eva. There is no doubt that Eva's foundation provided the Peron's and their cohorts with millions in graft; it also built hospitals and schools and provided desperately needed services for the poor.
After cancer took Eva's life at an early age, her funeral was every bit as spectacular as the stage musical suggests, and the film version includes an accurate re-enactment of this ghoulish event. Peron proceeded to indulge his obsession with teenage girls, recruiting them from various government run schools. Within a few years of Eva's death, the old reprobate was deposed and forced into exile in Spain. Peron returned in triumph in the 1970s, with his new wife Isabel as vice president the job once denied to Eva. Peron died soon afterward and Isabel took control of Argentina. In a desperate attempt to prop up her sagging regime, Isabel located Eva's long-hidden mummified body and brought it back to Buenos Aires. For better or worse, Isabel Peron was deposed before plans for a new tomb could be executed. Eva's corpse is currently locked away in the Duarte family's Buenos Aires vault. Peron's remains were beside Eva's until 2006, when they were moved to a new mausoleum. Juan and Eva Peron remain controversial figures in Argentina to this day.
This almost forgotten show proves that accurate history can be turned into excellent entertainment. Except for a brief prelude, the action takes place long before LaGuardia's turbulent years as mayor of New York. It concentrates on his years as a crusading attorney for the downtrodden, depicting his earliest attempts to enter the corrupt world of New York politics. While a few of the supporting characters are fictitious, many of the people and incidents in Fiorello come directly from the "Little Flower's" life. His first wife did die at an early age, after which he married his longtime secretary.
In 1925, America was transfixed by the true story of this cave explorer who became fatally trapped while searching for a tourist-worthy cave. Collins, his family and the reporter who exploits their tragedy really existed, but at least one supporting character ("Ed Bishop") is fictional.
We've had so many questions on this show (and film) that the answers rate a separate page click here for the true dish on Fanny Brice.