These days, when new musicals so often come pre-branded, there’s the temptation to write a musical “based on a true story.” And it’s not a bad idea, look at Jersey Boys, Once, Evita, Newsies, Les Mis… It can really work!
However, often writers get caught up in the “true story” part and forget that the most important word is “based!” What all of the shows I just mentioned also have in common is that they exercised artistic license and took (sometimes extreme) liberties with story.
Musicals have to hit the right dramatic arc, follow an emotional through plot, and reach climactic moments in all the right places – often real life stories don’t follow our prescribed structure (no matter how hard you try to live your life as a musical). Also, keep in mind that most true stories occur over extraordinary lifetimes of one or more key players which is inherently difficult to fit into a 2.5 hour package.
I’m always interested in discovering new musical submissions or proposals for shows based on real events – it’s fun to learn something new and I’ve always said that everything I’ve ever needed to know about life and history and I could learn from a musical. However, where I see these shows stumble is when they tether themselves too closely to the facts.
If you look at the successful musicals I mentioned above and others, you’ll see that a liberal dose of artistic license with a dash of fact and healthy dollop of historical flavor just might be the recipe for success.