An Exhibit of the Diehn Composers Room, Old Dominion University Libraries


Plots from the 20th and 21st Centuries

Politics and music have a strong and long-lasting bond in the Americas. Political jingles and campaign songs, protest themes, and anthems for every nation and every state in the nation are a staple of the political landscape. Censorship of music, even in the West, demonstrates the associative power between word and idea that music creates.

Opera and musical theater have abundantly celebrated, satirized, defended, held up for scorn and pity, politics, politicians and political movements of the 20th and 21st centuries. Every opera and musical in our exhibit that treats 20th and 21st century history uses a political plot line.

LaGuardia & FDR
Fiorello LaGuardia and Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Tom Bosley as Fiorello LaGuardia
Tom Bosley as Fiorello LaGuardia in Bock and Harnick's Fiorello
Bock & Harnick
erry Bock (piano) and Sheldon Harnick (far left), creators of Fiorello!

1900 - 1950

LP cover of Fiorello!
LP cover for the original Broadway recording of Fiorello

Early 20th century American history has not been a favorite subject of opera and musical theater. Only one musical, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's Fiorello! (1959) deals with a figure from that period, the charismatic New York congressman and mayor of New York City Fiorello LaGuardia. The musical chronicles the life of the young LaGuardia prior to winning the mayoral election of 1933. Musical Theatre International says that, "unlike most political musicals, which are usually satires, “Fiorello!” is really a love story set to the music and beat of a New York City in the midst of change." LaGuardia's zeal for fighting corruption and organized crime translates well to the stage

1951 - 2001


The last half of the 20th century has been abundantly depicted in musicals and opera. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Timothy Rice's last collaboration on a full scale production was Evita (1976), the rags to riches story of Eva Duarte de Perón, whose death in 1952 as first lady of Argentina took the nation into a period of intense grief and spectacular mourning.

Drawing of Evita Peron
Drawing of Eva Perón from Pioneer Opera's production of Evita
Cover to Anthony Davis's X
Score of Anthony Davis's X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X
Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice
Andrew Lloyd Webber & Timothy Rice

Death and politics are heavily linked in these historical subjects. Other than Evita, death finds its way into Anthony Davis's X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986), Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie's Harvey Milk (1995), John Duffy's Black Water (1998), Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally's Dead Man Walking (2000), and John Adams's Death of Klinghoffer (1991). Other non-dramatic works included in the exhibit are reflective of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. They include Adolphus Hailstork's "As Falling Leaves" (2002) and David Stern's "We Stand for Freedom: In Memoriam, September 11, 2001".

Harvey Milk
Harvey Mills
Malcom X and Mohammed Ali
Malcolm X and Cassius Clay, 1963
Dead Man Walking
Recording of Jake Heggie / Terrence McNally's Dead Man Walking
Poster for Death of Klinghoffer
Recording of John Adams's Death of Klinghoffer
Scene from Death of Klinghoffer
Scene from Dead Man Walking
Score of Black Water
Score of John Duffy's Black Water

Just as inescapable as the bond between death and politics is that between politics and the media. Postmodern political figures, whether governmental or anti-establishment leaders, rely on image and media. Nixon in China (1987), by John Adams, captures the US president at the high point of his political career, a career both made and broken at various stages by the press. At complete variance with the status of US president, heiress Patricia Hearst became a political figure in her own right, one also created by the press. Anthony Davis based his opera Tania (1992) on the events of 1974-75, when Hearst was kidnapped and then later arrested as a bank robber with other members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

Nixon in China
Recording of John Adams's Nixon in China
Patricia Hearst as Tania
Patricia Hearst in Symbionese Liberation Army publicity photo

Copyright © 2007 Old Dominion University Libraries
Diehn Composers Room

Page modified: