Memory and Musicals

Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776

This American musical written by Peter Stone focuses on the American Revolution around the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This musical focuses on key figures from the revolution such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Richard Henry Lee and their contributions to the independence effort.[1] Many of the people who were fighting and supporting the war felt so strongly about independence from England that they were willing to give up their lives. One example is Richard Henry Lee of Virginia who eventually creates what is called the “Lee Resolution.”[2] In the musical, Lee believes that he is the best person to create a document declaring independence, and he says to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, “and may my blood stop running blue if I can’t deliver unto you a resolution on independency.[3] This lyric shows an example of the dedication that some have for their country, and some people believe that there is worth becoming a martyr. This idea of sacrifice during American Independence is similar to the idea of sacrifice in Ireland, and it shows that both nations had men die for freedom from England.

1776 is just a musical that tells a simple story. While the important theme of martyrdom is touched upon, the story does not go much further than basic themes and plot. There was not much of a deeper meaning that came from the musical. It told the story of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but there were no lasting effects that came about because of the story or the way it was performed.  This musical shows that America and Ireland have similar values of martyrdom because both nations wanted their freedom from England.

1776 and Historical Memory

Peter Stone’s 1776 musical generated a collective memory about the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Based on The Columbia Companion to American History on Film, Cotton Seiler argued that Stone’s musical humanizes historical figures, like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, to defend the memories of these founding fathers as heroes of the United State of America.[4] In 1972, Peter Stone composed the musical to defend the founding fathers as heroes of the United States because the culmination of Nixon’s Watergate Scandal, Vietnam War, and economic recession challenged the foundational beliefs on American values.[5] In the twentieth, the 60s and 70s civil right movement undermined the predominant, historical narrative about American values because the movement sprouted the New Left: a political group that opposed the slavish principles of the Founding Fathers, especially the amendment for slavery.[6] Stone defends the memories of the Founding Fathers as national heroes by composing a narrative that justifies American slavery. In the musical, the southern colonies refused to sign the first draft of the Declaration of Independence because the draft included a clause that eliminated colonial slavery.[7] To Stone, Jefferson removed the slavery clause because the Continental Congress needed all thirteen colonies to vote unanimously for national independence. Here, Stone creates and preserves the historical memory of the Founding Fathers as champions of American independence. Stone rejects the New Left’s alternative narrative about the Founding Father by creating a musical that paints them as heroes, instead of slave-holders. In his musical, Stone preserves the Founding Fathers as heroes of American independence as well as the protectors of inalienable rights of individual.


Hamilton is a modern American musical that was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and debuted on Broadway in 2015. Containing many of the themes commonly found in theatre about revolution, Hamilton talks about martyrdom and its importance. Alexander Hamilton, who is the focus of the musical wants to participate in the American Revolution directly on the battlefield. He believes that if he dies for his country, he will be remembered as a hero, which he, among many others, believed is the best way to die. Acknowledging that he has many other skills, specifically strategical skills, George Washington calls Hamilton in to ask him to be his “right hand man.”  Similar to the Old Woman in “Cathleen Ni Houlihan,” Washington acknowledges the ideal of masculinity of dying in battle when he says,

It’s alright, you want to fight, you’ve got a hunger
I was just like you when I was younger

Head full of Fantasies of dyin’ like a martyr?

Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.[8]

Although Washington does not say that becoming a martyr is unacceptable, he says that Hamilton would be better suited for a different job. Although Hamilton knows and understands his skills, he is still in love with the idea of his martyrdom. Washington convinces Hamilton that masculinity can be achieved through legislative means, instead of physical warfare:

I’m being honest

I’m working with a third of what our

Congress has promised

We are a powder keg about to explode

I need someone like you to lighten the load.[9]


Hamilton and Historical Memory

Not only does this musical tie in examples of memory and martyrdom, it, also, produces an alternative narrative that projects the voices of the non-white people. Miranda assembled a cast of multi-colored people to act out the characters of the musical. Moreover, this minority cast projects a third dynamic into the folds of musical as they play the roles of historically famous white people. For example, Miranda’s Puerto Rican ancestry did not prevent him from playing Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father of a predominantly white European ancestry. A journalist for Duke University, Camille Jackson, claimed that Hamilton’s composer, William Henry Curry, incorporated hip hop and rap to further complicate the predominately white narrative of Alexander Hamilton. When Jackson interviewed Curry: “Curry said it will be interesting to see whether Broadway audiences will continue to embrace contemporary music like hip hop. He also raised some of the complexities of colorblind casting.” Miranda’s Hamilton generates an alternative narrative that relies on the historical memories of: American slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and the twenty-first century killing of black lives by police brutality. This shows how Hamilton has a large impact on race relations in the United States.

In this alternative narrative, martyrdom becomes a real and prevalent theme for physical violence because a community will fight against someone who has unjustly mistreated them in the past. Like the Irish and American people, martyrdom becomes a reoccurring theme throughout this narrative because it inspires people to fight for their freedom. In Hamilton’s last act, George Washington and Company sings about who are the authors of memories and preservers of this historical narrative:

Who lives

Who dies

Who tells your story (Miranda)?

In “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” these lyrics suggest that anyone has the power to create a narrative about the past. However, it takes a theatrical performance to have these memories of the past collide with the present myths about the past. In other words, theatre is an open space for the interpretation of the past as well as a place where playwrights introduce new memories about the past. Playwrights, like Miranda, project a new, alternative narrative when actors perform historical memories on stage because the playwright takes his own individual memory of the past and repurposes it to establish a historical narrative—a narrative that relies on the collective memories created by the experiences of the playwright’s audience.

For Camille Jackson’s article:


Memory and Political Melodramas

Memory and Literary Revival


Identity and Musicals

Reception and Musicals

Hamilton and Cathleen Ni Houlihan?: Irish and American Dramatic Representations of Colonial Rebellion


[1] Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, 1776 (1969).

[2] Lee, Richard Henry, “The Lee Resolution,”

[3] Edwards and Stone.

[4] Seiler, Cotton, The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past. (Columbia University Press, New York, 2003), 153.

[5] Seiler, 154.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stone, Peter. 1776.

[8] Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton (New York:  2015).

[9] Miranda.

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