Instead of realistically depicting Monroe’s life, Marilyn: An American Fable wildly theatricalized its subject and became a notorious camp-fest. One of the most legendary numbers involved Marilyn taking a bubble bath while chorus boys danced around her wearing pink overalls and wielding plungers.
Marilyn: An American Fable was by no means an accurate portrayal of Monroe, but is it possible to accurately portray someone’s life through song and dance? Many biographical musicals attempt to represent a real person’s story in song. While some like Funny Girl and Jersey Boys have enjoyed critical and commercial success, many of Broadway’s biggest flops have been biographical musicals. Some have been campy, absurd, and inaccurate, while others were just plain boring.
Here are 10 notable people and the biographical Broadway musicals they inspired:
Imagine there’s a Broadway musical shrine of John Lennon– it’s easy if you try. Lennon used five different actors to reflect on John Lennon’s life and philosophy, from his childhood in Liverpool to his death. Yoko Ono oversaw the production, essentially turning the show into a living memorial to Lennon featuring only music from his solo career. Many critics found the musical too selective of what it depicted, and criticized the choice to focus so heavily on his relationship with Yoko Ono while mostly ignoring his time with The Beatles. Lennon closed after a month of performances.
Coco focused on Coco Chanel‘s career in the early 1950s, when she reopened her Paris salon after over a decade spent in retirement. In the show, Chanel worked on her comeback collection as she revists her past loves through flashbacks. The 11 o’clock number, “Always Mademoiselle,” dealt with the personal sacrifices Chanel made for career success. Though the musical was originally written as a star vehicle for Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn played the role on Broadway in 1969. Critics hated the show, Katharine Hepburn wasn’t a strong singer, and the set pieces designed by Cecil Beaton often malfunctioned. However, Hepburn was still a huge draw at the box office and the show was a financial success, closing after her departure in the summer of 1970.
Teddy & Alice (1987)
President Theodore Roosevelt is remembered for his series of reforms during the Progressive Era and his adventurous spirit, but Teddy & Alice depicted him as merely the gatekeeper for his rowdy teenage daughter, Alice. Unlike many other women of the time, Alice smoked, dressed provocatively, spoke her mind, and refused to obey her father, even if he was the President. An operetta with a libretto set to John Philip Sousa songs, the musical was a slice of Americana that used the relationship between the President and the First Daughter to say something about the spirit of the country at the beginning of the 20th century. Many fictional flourishes in the show, such as Eleanor Roosevelt catching the bouquet at Alice’s wedding, were the focus of the harshly negative reviews from critics.
The First (1981)
The story of Jackie Robinson, the first player to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, had already been the subject of movies when The First opened on Broadway in 1947. Unlike other depictions of Robinson, The First didn’t focus on his journey to the Major Leagues, but instead centered around the first year he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Baseball players singing and dancing in a Broadway musical wasn’t a novel idea at the time, as shows like Damn Yankees had become huge hits. However, the baseball ballets juxtaposed against scenes depicting racism didn’t appeal to audiences. Other than launching the career of David Alan Grier, who played Jackie Robinson, The First is largely forgotten.
Charles VII and Joan of Arc
Goodtime Charley (1975)
Leave it to Broadway to put a lighthearted spin on the tale of St Joan of Arc and turn the visionary French warrior into a singing and dancing ingenue. Originally intended to star Al Pacino, the musical Goodtime Charley starred Oscar-winner Joel Grey as Charles VII, the heir apparent to the French throne. Set during the 92nd year of the Hundred Years’ War, it followed the romantic exploits of young Charles and his feelings toward Joan of Arc. Some of the musical numbers inspired by history books include “Voices and Visions,” where Joan tells the French court about her divine inspirations, and “History,” during which figures such as Henry V and Philip of Burgundy appear as ghosts in Charley’s dream. The show received poor reviews, and closed after only 100 performances.
Onward Victoria (1980)
Women’s rights activist Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for President of the United States in 1872. Onward Victoria presented her belief in equal rights and her role in the women’s movement through burlesque numbers. Fellow activists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton also appeared as characters in the musical, which took huge liberties with facts to present a campy take on women’s history. Jill Eikenberry starred as Woodhull for only one performance, as the show opened and and closed on the same night.
Leigh Bowery and Boy George
Talk show host Rosie O’Donnell teamed up with Boy George to produce his musical, Taboo, in 2003. Named after the London nightclub where Boy George met artist Leigh Bowery, the show focused on Boy George’s coming-of-age, his early successes, and his spiral into drug addiction. Bowery’s fashion sense, career as a club promoter, and death from AIDS anchored the other half of the story. Boy George starred in the show, however, not as himself–he played the role of Leigh Bowery. The production was plagued with problems from the beginning, with the press attacking the show before it even started rehearsals.
Jack “Legs” Diamond
Legs Diamond (1988)
Historians are divided as to whether Jack Diamond’s nickname “Legs” came from his nimble ability to escape attempts on his life or his reputation as a good dancer. The creators of the Broadway musical version of his life, Legs Diamond, must have believed the latter, as Australian piano man Peter Allen played Legs Diamond as a flamboyant bootlegger that danced and high-kicked his way through the New York mob scene. Critics savaged the show, with Allen’s performance as Legs receiving the brunt of the negativity.
The Boy from Oz (2003)
An Australian actor high-kicking while playing Legs Diamond? Not so much. But an Australian actor high-kicking while playing the actor who high-kicked as Legs Diamond? Success! In 2003, Hugh Jackman played Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz, which told Allen’s life story through his songs, including his childhood in Australia, marriage to Liza Minnelli, and death from AIDS-related causes in 1992. Critics and audiences hated the show, and it would have been a sure-fire flop if not for the appeal of Jackman. He played the role with so much energy and gusto that the show was a commercial success. Jackman still channels Peter Allen during concert appearances, often performing Allen’s songs “I Go to Rio” and “I Honestly Love You.”
Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie & Clyde (2011)
The story of depression-era bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow has been told in movies, television, and music. The Broadway musical Bonnie & Clyde opens with their final ambush, then flashes back to their first meeting. The country-pop score focuses on both of the characters’ desire to be famous and leave a mark on the world.