The best World War II themed musicals of all time
This week, we commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, celebrating the end of World War II. As well as television series, films and novels charting the lives of those that fought, survived and died during battle, there’s also a long list of musicals that explore the war’s history. Here’s our top picks of musicals based on World War II, from stories close to home as well as those on shores far away.
A history of World War II shows
Receiving its Broadway premiere just four years after World War II ended, Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s South Pacific is a stage adaptation of James Michener’s short stories, similarly named “Tales of the South Pacific”. The musical follows Nellie, a southern American nurse stationed on a Pacific island during wartime, later falling in love with Emile, a French planter. South Pacific was last performed in London in 2011, starring Samantha Womack and Alex Fearn.
Inspired by George Takei’s personal experiences of living in a Japanese internment camp, the Star Trek actor was part of the musical’s original cast, receiving its Broadway premiere in 2015. The musical follows the Kimura family in 1940s America, who are instructed by officials to leave their California farm immediately and live at a ‘relocation center’ in Wyoming.
The festive, feel-good musical was last revived at the Dominion Theatre, but did you know the Bing Crosby version of the White Christmas track is one of the best-selling singles of all time? Based on the 1954 film of the same name that starred Crosby, the musical follows ex-army pals Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, helped by sisters Judy and Betty Haynes as they put on a show to save their former General’s ski lodge.
On The Town
Three American sailors are allowed to leave their boat for 24 hours in New York City at the start of On The Town. Exploring the world around them, they fall in love with their surroundings on dry land, as well as connecting with women. As they take a bite out of the Big Apple, the sailors’ lives change in this Golden Age musical, with music by Leonard Bernstein. Productions of On The Town often feature meticulous choreography, previously seen in London in 2017 at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
At the start of the show, an eccentric Emcee greets audience members to the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret bar in 1930s Berlin. Sally Bowles is the star performer, an English woman who regularly impresses the crowd. But, when Cliff, an American writer sets sights on her, he’s lovestruck. Stars including Judi Dench, Liza Minnelli and Alan Cumming have appeared in productions of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret over the years, which has been revived three times on Broadway and in London four times.
The Sound of Music
Arguably one of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s most successful musicals, The Sound of Music centres on Maria, a young woman who looks after the von Trapp children, later marrying their widowed father and fleeing Austria with the family. Even though the musical received its Broadway premiere in 1959, the story earned global acclaim thanks to the five-time Academy Award-winning film adaptation, starring Julie Andrews as Maria. Last performed at the London Palladium in 2006, the musical features songs including “Do Re Mi”, “My Favourite Things” and “Edelweiss”.
A lesser-known musical by Les Miserables writers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, Margeurite received its West End premiere at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2008. Ruthie Henshall played the titular character, a middle-aged singer in Paris who is the mistress of a Nazi officer, but gets caught up in the French Resistance.
Exploring the consequences of WWII veterans integrating back into American society, Bandstand centres on Donny Novitski and his fellow troopers as they take to the mic once more for a radio contest. Reaching the final, the group of soldiers and a war widow named Julia risk their lives for victory, but can they take the title? The swinging sensation Bandstand received its Broadway premiere in 2017, winning the Tony Award for best choreography.
Soldier of Orange
Based on Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema’s experiences as a Dutch resistance fighter and RAF pilot, Soldier of Orange has been seen by over three million people in the Netherlands. The production will soon receive its London premiere, staged in a purpose-built rotating auditorium, allowing audiences to feel as if they’re in a World War II battle.