Five musicals based on weirdly tragic true stories

Categories: Lists, Theater

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You sure about this, guys?
Although the musical -- one of the sillier holdouts from an era when theater was more, you know, theatrical -- is mostly exploited these days for its camp potential (see: The Book of Mormon), it's still not quite dead as a study of human emotion, either. And although the idea of portraying serious drama through the lens of the old song-and-dance is a little weird on its own, it gets even weirder when that drama is based on reality. In honor of Titanic: The Musical, making its debut in Boulder tonight with the CenterStage Theatre Company, here are five attempts (successful and not so much) to apply the chorus line to human tragedy.

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5. Titanic: The Musical
Back in the late '90s, Titanic was basically what Bono's Spider-Man is today: a strange, hulking, multi-million-dollar disaster waiting to happen. But while it did, indeed, garner mostly negative reviews when it opened, critics at least admired the show's ambition and generally allowed that it came close to pulling it off -- and it became a big hit, too, perhaps vindicating playwright Maury Yeston: "I think if you don't have that kind of daring damn-the-torpedos, you shouldn't be in this business," he said. (On a side note, the Broadway production of Titanic made use of a hydraulic stage to simulate the ship's sinking, the source of most of its cost. CenterStage's production will be skipping that part.)

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4. The Sound of Music
Proof that a heart-on-the-sleeve musical of tragedy can effectively play the heartstrings, The Sound of Music, based on the memoirs of Maria von Trapp, is perhaps the most successful musical, well, ever. And while it is, in concept, pretty heavy, it succeeds by spending most of its time using the looming spectre of Nazi power as a backdrop (thank you, Rogers and Hammerstein, for no Nazi dance numbers) to the lighter, cuter drama at play. By the time it all does come to a head with a bracingly restrained performance of "Edelweiss," it's about as powerful as a musical can be.

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3. Cannibal: The Musical
There is probably not a single event that has ever happened in the world less accommodating to the musical treatment than the story of the Donner party, those guys who got lost in the mountains and ate each other. Matt Stone and Trey Parker were not unaware of that when they made Cannibal, their first project together in a career that would go on to create South Park, Team America and The Book of Mormon. It's a little rough around the edges, but it does offer a glimpse into the early potential of a pair who would go on to combine musicals, real events and blistering satire to ever-increasing hilarity.

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