Everyone has a unique story to tell, but only a select few have a story so compelling that it’s worthy of the Broadway stage. Billie Holiday is one such life – and playing her is what sky-rocketed Audra McDonald into Broadway history earlier this month when she won her sixth Tony for the role in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. But who are the others? We decided to take stock of the life stories we’ve seen grace the Great White Way through the years. Presidents that changed the course of the nation have had their lives told through award-winning plays, while songwriters and performers have gotten the behind-the-music treatment with their biggest hits providing the soundtrack. And then there are ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary things. Here’s a rundown of the memorable people who have served as the inspiration for equally memorable theatrical productions, including some that are still playing on the Broadway stage.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois
Opened Oct. 15, 1938, closed Nov. 25, 1939
Our 16th president has appeared in numerous Broadway plays including Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln, The Lincoln Mask, and even a short-lived musical called The Young Abe Lincoln. But the most sweeping and memorable of these is Robert E. Sherwood’s Pulitzer-Prize winning work, which details the rail-splitter’s early life in the state where he spent most of his life. The play begins with a youthful Abe earning his keep as a backwoods shopkeeper. His integrity, humor and homespun wisdom earns the respect of all of his neighbors and, gradually, he becomes a prominent figure in state and then national politics. Canadian-born Raymond Massey originally played the title role in the play as well as the 1940 movie version, causing controversy. Some Lincoln purists were outraged that the Great Emancipator would be played by a non-American.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Sunrise at Campobello
Opened Jan. 30, 1958, closed May 30, 1959
America’s only four-term president was portrayed by Ralph Bellamy in this play that, like Abe Lincoln in Illinois, focused on the beginning phases of a great American political figure’s career. Campobello is the name of the Roosevelt family’s summer home in Nova Scotia. In 1921, when he was just 39, Franklin is struck with polio while vacationing there and both his legs are paralyzed. His domineering mother advises him to give up public life, but his supportive wife Eleanor urges him to overcome the disability. The play ends with FDR standing at the podium of the 1924 Democratic Convention delivering the nominating speech for his party’s candidate for president, Alfred E. Smith. Bellamy also repeated his stage role in the 1960 film edition opposite Greer Garson as Eleanor. FDR has popped up in other shows as well, including, of course, the musical Annie.
Sir Thomas More
A Man for All Seasons
Opened Nov. 22, 1961, closed June 1, 1963
The man that was the subject of this biographical show lived five centuries before there was even a Broadway. Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas (1478-1535) sacrificed his position, his home and finally his life because he disagreed with his sovereign. The issue? Henry VIII’s attempt to circumvent the church in order to divorce his wife Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boelyn. This disagreement ended with More losing his head after being convicted of treason. Paul Scofield won both the Tony and Oscar for his moving portrayal of the noble statesman. Frank Langella played the role in a 2008 revival from Roundabout Theater Company.
The Miracle Worker
Opened Oct. 19, 1959, closed July 1, 1961
Robbed of sight and hearing in infancy, Helen Keller was raised in her Alabama household as an object of pity. William Gibson’s moving play chronicles teacher Annie Sullivan’s struggles to awaken young Helen’s spirit and intelligence by having her learn sign language. It seems to be an impossible task until Annie forces Helen to refill a water pitcher towards the end of the play. In one of the most moving scenes in Broadway history, Helen makes the connection between the water and the word her teacher is spelling into her hand and she manages to speak “Wah-wah.” Anne Bancroft played Annie in the original production and a then 12-year-old Patty Duke became the youngest performer on Broadway to receive star billing as Helen. A 2010 Broadway revival starred Alison Pill and Abigail Breslin.
Opened Oct. 15, 2003, closed Jan. 2, 2005
What a life Golda Meir led. Born in Russia in 1898, her family immigrated to the US in the early 1900s. After graduating college, she became a public school teacher in Milwaukee. She was also an active Zionist, and moved to Palestine after marrying and eventually settled in Jerusalem. Her activism led her to politics, and in 1969 she was elected Israel’s first female prime minister. She was forced to resign five years later after the Yom Kippur War. It’s no surprise, then, that she was the subject of two Broadway shows, both written by William Gibson (The Miracle Worker). Anne Bancroft played Golda in Gibson’s multi-character play simply titled Golda. In 2003, Tovah Feldshuh went solo in Golda’s Balcony.
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
Opened Nov. 6, 2005
The current trend for real-life musicians to serve as the focus for musicals began with this show. The rise of the falsetto-voiced Valli and the rest of the Seasons from rough and tumble New Jersey to the top of the charts with songs like “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Sherry” and December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”. All four of the band members serve as narrators (the show is organized into four different “seasons”), giving each character a chance to give his side of the story. The show took home the Tony for Best Musical and original star John Lloyd Young won a Tony Award for his amazing recreation of Valli’s sound (he also stars in the just-released film version of the show). Get tickets
Motown: The Musical
Opened April 14, 2013
This is one of the few Broadway shows written by the subject themselves. Based on his autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown, record mogul Berry Gordy looks back on the creation of his gigantic music label, which gave voice to the African-American experience. The show begins with the taping of a TV special commemorating Motown’s 25th anniversary. An embattled Gordy, fighting to keep his company from being swallowed up by conglomerates, flashes back to his Detroit childhood in 1938. We race through the beginnings of Motown — tours through the segregated South, guest shots on The Ed Sullivan Show, Gordy’s stormy romance with Diana Ross, the turbulent ’60s, race riots, the discovery of the Jackson Five, movie production with Lady Sings the Blues, reinvention with funk — and all the glorious moments in between. Get tickets
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical
Opened Jan. 12, 2014
While still in high school in Queens, Carole Klein began selling teenage crush songs under the name Carole King to record mogul Don Kirshner. She meets and marries fellow Queens College student and aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin and the two pen more than 50 hits. They become best friends with another songwriting couple, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill. Carole and Gerry’s professional and personal union disintegrates. With her collaborator and husband gone, Carole overcomes her fear of performing and writing solo to create such soulful, heart-stopping anthems to life and love as “You’ve Got a Friend,” “So Far Away,” and the shattering “It’s Too Late.” This musical tracks her journey from teenage songwriter to iconic performer. Jessie Mueller won a Tony for her earth-moving performance in the title role. Get tickets
Lyndon Baines Johnson
All the Way
Opened March 6, 2014, closes June 29, 2014
An assassin’s bullet ended John Kennedy’s administration and propelled LBJ into the White House. Against a backdrop of political infighting within his own party and that of the opposition, Johnson courageously and single-mindedly pushes forward controversial civil rights legislation using his gutsy Texas bluster to get his troops in line and quell his opponents. In this sweeping drama, which won the 2014 Tony, LBJ, along with Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, George Wallace, and dozens of others are profiled in the fight to pass the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. Bryan Cranston won a Tony Award for his incisive portrayal of the hard-nosed president, and leads a of cast of 20 playing more than 40 historical figures.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Opened April 13, 2014, closes August 31, 2014
Billie Holiday is one of history’s greatest jazz singers, with a very tragic life story involving rape, prostitution, abusive relationships, racism and drug and alcohol abuse. This nearly-solo show, now on Broadway through August 31, stars Audra McDonald, who won a record-breaking sixth Tony Award for her remarkable performance as Holiday. The setting is a small club in Philadelphia just months before Holiday’s death. She recounts her tragic past to the rapt audience, all while singing such iconic classics as “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit” and “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.” Get tickets