The country is gripped with Hamilton fever, and the only cure is scoring tickets to the hottest show on Broadway. Even if you don’t live close enough to New York City to attend, you’ve no doubt heard of the hip-hop musical retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton, perhaps the most obscure person to ever appear on U.S. currency (he’s on the $10 bill, y’all). The combination of our general ignorance of an important figure and Lin-Manual Miranda’s sweet rhymes have made the show a phenomenon. Which makes us think of all the other shamefully overlooked historical figures whose lives would make for excellent musicals.
Elisha Kane was once the most famous man in America. More people attended his funeral services than Abraham Lincoln’s a few years later (thought, to be fair, a lot of people died in the intervening years owing to a little thing called the Civil War). Kane was a doctor, a marine, and an adventurer, part of two expeditions sent into the Arctic to search for explorer John Franklin, whose ships became icebound while making their way through the Northwest Passage. On the second attempt, Kane marched his men for 83 days through the tundra, carrying their wounded, suffering from scurvy and other ailments, and finding rescue with just a single fatality. Sadly, the effort broke him, and he died two years later having never recovered his health. His body was transported from New Orleans to Philadelphia, and was met at every station by throngs of people.
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The sexiest revolutionary ever would be a fantastic subject for a musical, especially now that we’ve moved past the era in which college students plastered his poster on their walls. A Marxist, he was a trained doctor and all-around brilliant guy who passionately despised capitalism (and, as a result, the United States). Upon meeting Fidel Castro in Mexico, he accompanied him to Cuba, where he helped overthrow the government and put Castro in charge, and promptly became the finance minister (and chief enforcer, a job at which he was brutally efficient). Guevera remains a divisive figure, but the combination of brains, brawn, good looks, and political convictions make him ideal for the Hamilton treatment.
Billy the Kid
Most think of Billy the Kid as a famous outlaw who shot some people, maybe? Or they think of Emilio Estevez. The truth is somewhere in between: Billy’s is actually a tragic story. There’s every reason to believe he was a more or less good kid; orphaned at the age of 14, he worked honest jobs and most people who knew him had nothing but praise. Yet being an orphan in America in the 19th century was no picnic, and Billy started journeying down a dark path more or less by default. His fame comes mainly from his status as a scapegoat for a gang war; a price of $500 was put on his head in 1880, making him an instant celebrity and resulting in his violent death shortly thereafter. Far from an amoral villain, Billy was probably just a scared kid trying to survive—yet he also killed eight people, making him a surprisingly complex character.
Frank Wills was a security guard who happened to work at a hotel in Washington, D.C., called the Watergate. One night he noticed a piece of tape on the lock of an exterior door and, doing his job, removed it. When he came back on his rounds a little later, the tape was back, so he called the police, who discovered the first evidence of what would become the greatest political scandal of the modern age. For a short time, Wills was a celebrity, but when things calmed down, he found he couldn’t effectively capitalize on that renown, and no one would even hire him as a security guard, for fear of repercussions. He slid into poverty and died of a brain tumor at age 52. His tragedy would make for a dark musical, but the chance to show the relatively unknown side of Watergate would be pretty amazing.
Peggy Shippen Arnold
Let’s hear it for the antiheroes—especially when they’re not angry white guys. Everyone knows the name Benedict Arnold, which remains shorthand for “traitor.” But few seem to remember Arnold had a wife (his second). Peggy Shippen of Philadelphia was beautiful, smart, a prominent member of society, and a British loyalist. Arnold met her in the midst of the Revolutionary War when he was appointed military commander of Philadelphia as the British evacuated the city, and they were married soon after. Shortly after that, Arnold began communicating with the British, which was almost certainly not a coincidence. A modern Lady Macbeth, Shippen is a fascinating figure whose impact on American history remains criminally obscure—until a bouncy musical that finds new words to rhyme with “traitor” changes all that.
Ask people about the “slave rebellion” of the 19th century and most will mention Nat Turner, but Charles Deslondes’ attempt to seize the city of New Orleans in early 1811 is just as incredible. Deslondes, a slave who worked as an overseer, planned his insurrection for years. He had a political goal and an organized force who concentrated their early efforts on seizing uniforms and weapons from the local militias as they marched on the city. It was a highly orchestrated attempt with a realistic goal, yet was eventually defeated by superior firepower and greater numbers. Deslondes was brutally tortured and executed, and his followers massacred. Many speculate the uprising was obscured in history books because the idea of organized slaves with sophisticated idea about freedom and independence didn’t fit the historical agenda. It’s about time Deslondes’ story was told.