Based On A True Story

Learn from the greats and embrace artistic license!

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.


  1. I’m thinking that once your characters sing, you’ve already taken plenty of artistic license, so what’s a little more. (Maybe not with Jersey Boys, although I think they used some songs for plot and not concert material. But that may be my memory taking artistic license.)

    I got over that hump in two different ways– In the one truly autobiographical song in my show, I had a dead spot — So I slipped the waitress “$50 that I really couldn’t afford.” That line usually gets a laugh when I play it right.

    Then, since was lucky enough not to remember anything but the ending of the story I’m telling, I made 90% of the rest up. It’s been delightful to have the subplot reveal itself to me.

    I’ve always found that even the stuff I make up winds up revealing a lot about me, whether I want it to or not.

  2. Long time reader (since forever), first time comment-er, because I usually agree 100%, but this time I find I have some qualms…

    I agree writers can do more to spice up real-life stories, and for a musical-theater format it’s especially necessary. But history is not the same as entertainment, and too often we forget that because history actually sells pretty well as entertainment, particularly when well-spiced.

    In your caption you call them the “greats,” and while I won’t dispute that, I think a lot of the artistic license you are herein encouraging can be morally questionable. When you create a musical that is a huge cultural force, it sometimes becomes the reference point for that era or historical event. In the case of Evita, Tim Rice has forever skewed people’s perceptions of Eva Peron.


    Similarly, Les Mis takes liberties with Victor Hugo’s novel which takes some liberties itself. I think my high school history class spent a single day covering the French revolution, so more of what I know about it is now based in historical fiction than fact, and I’m sure that’s true of many people.

    I guess I have more of a bone to pick with those two than with Jersey Boys and Once, because they deal with big political upheavals rather than musicians, but no matter what the subject matter, I think there should be a push for, to borrow a word from Stephen Colbert, Truthiness.

    People are getting hooked on entertainment that makes them feel like they’re learning, when in reality they’re just being given carefully curated semi-truths. It abounds on TV (see: Aaron Sorkin, or USA’s “Political Animals”), but has made it to the stage recently as well, with the big controversy surrounding a new play titled “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” (

    A lot of people understand that when you say “based on a true story” it doesn’t mean that everything in the show is fact, but we shouldn’t be using that as a disclaimer to make convenient choices. Convenient choices like the “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” writers’ choice to have Jackson’s father be killed by Native Americans. For obvious dramatic reasons: to provide a nice little revenge subplot giving some reason (however misguided) to the President’s genocidal mistakes. It’s like writing a musical about Hitler and having Jews kill his parents early on in the story. Now most non-Jacksonian scholars who went to see the musical will have fallen for a blatant lie.

    Art is truth–I would practice caution rather than “liberal doses of artistic license,” personally.

    Anyways, no offense meant, I know this post has good intentions and I love this blog, keep up the great work!

  3. I hear what you are saying, Wes…BUT I know first-hand that “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” causes many audience members to run home and start researching Andrew Jackson. In the best of all possible worlds, theatre (musical or not) would cause people to run home and look something up…and spark ideas and conversations that otherwise would not have happened.

    Here’s to a society that values both uninhibited creativity and critical thought! It could happen…right??

    (By the way, Brisa–speaking of “based on a true story”–did you get to see “Reporting Live” at NYMF? The buzz on that one made me hit Google…wow.)

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