Keep it real at these Broadway shows based on true stories

Historical events and notable figures of entertainment, politics, and more are the basis of Broadway's biggest shows that you can both enjoy and learn from.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

They’re the real deal. Some of the characters in current and upcoming Broadway plays and musicals are so complex, quirky, and colorful they seem larger than life. But they're not, really — they’re actually drawn from life.

Shows based on fact and actual figures offer intriguing slices of history for audiences and distinct challenges for actors bringing these people back to life. Like, say, capturing a pop music superstar’s signature growl or the various idiosyncrasies of a troubled world-class wit.

Whether it’s on a movie set in the 1970s, in a courtroom in 1913 Georgia, or in colonial times where history – and a nation – is made, Broadway shows bring us up close and personal with fascinating characters who’d be hard for writers to just dream up. The stories of real people in theatre are just as extraordinary as any fiction.

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A Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical

Neil Diamond, a shy Brooklyn kid-turned-adored “Jewish Elvis,” has 39 albums and more than enough hit singles – “Sweet Caroline,” “Song “America,” and “Shiloh” among them – to fill this musical. Will Swenson and Mark Jacoby play Diamond at different ages as the story traces his career and personal highs and lows, which he explores therapy sessions that hush the not-so-beautiful clamor in his head.

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MJ The Musical

Pop star Michael Jackson prepares for his Dangerous World Tour in 1992 while an MTV crew shoots footage for a documentary in this jukebox bio-musical. Audiences get a look into his early family life and his creative process — and watch transformative performances from the lead actor practically resurrecting Jackson on stage. The Tony-winning show is fueled by Jackson’s greatest hits, high-octane dance, and a book by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage.

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Six

They were The Real Housewives of Henry VIII – Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anna of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. In this glitzy, compact musical, whoever makes a case for suffering the most while wed to Henry rules. The women engage in a six-way vocal throwdown with Tony-winning, pop-tastic songs by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss.

Learn more about the real Tudor-era English history that inspired Six.

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Hamilton

Founding Father Alexander Hamilton comes to life in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical filled with rap, hip-hop, and pop that puts a diverse spin on an essential chapter of American history. The story charts Hamilton from his poor childhood in the Caribbean to power player in George Washington’s cabinet to errant husband to the losing end of a duel with his bitter rival.

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Suffs

The year is 1913, and women are fighting for the right to vote. As an older generation of suffragists makes pamphlets and writes letters, a new, young generation comes up and decides to take loudly to the streets, disrupting not only the government, but the old order. Suffs tells these multigenerational women's stories, flaws and all — after all, the movement for women's rights wasn't perfect back then, and it's also true that there's still plenty of work left to do.

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Lempicka

The story of Tamara de Lempicka is a riches-to-rags-to-riches one. The Russian Revolution forces her and her husband out of their luxurious life in Poland, but when they arrive in France, her talent as a painter soon helps her climb the ranks of Parisian society. This tale — including how Lempicka found herself entangled with a new muse along the way — is dramatized on stage in Lempicka, directed by Hadestown Tony Award winner Rachel Chavkin.

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Hell’s Kitchen

Alicia Keys doesn’t just sing that New York is a concrete jungle where dreams are made of — she knows it firsthand, having grown up in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Her experiences coming of age there — working through her relationship with her single mom, falling in love in the wrong places, and finding her passion for music — inspired the new musical Hell’s Kitchen. Packed with over 20 of Keys’s biggest hits and new songs, the musical premiered at The Public Theater in fall 2023 and is moving to Broadway — much closer to Hell’s Kitchen — in the spring.

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Patriots

Discover the puppeteer behind President Putin's power in Patriots. Russian leader Vladimir Putin's rise to prominence on the world stage is well-known, but less publicized is the story of Boris Berezovsky, the man who got him into power in the first place — and then became an enemy of the state for criticizing Putin's reign. Having proven his skill at dramatizing modern politics in The Crown, writer and creator Peter Morgan tackles the Russian arena in Patriots, already earning the 2023 Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Play when the show premiered in London.

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Stereophonic

David Adjmi's play revolves around a fictional '60s rock band recording their soon-to-be breakout album — and the personal and professional troubles that, more than once, nearly stop their success before it happens. Although the band and story are original, the plot is inspired by real-life rock bands of the era.

Adjmi said he first got the idea for the play while listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Going to Leave You” on a plane, and Stereophonic's British American band records their album from 1966-67 in Sausalito, California — details that call to mind Fleetwood Mac and the recording of their own masterpiece, Rumors.

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A Wonderful World: The Louis Armstrong Musical

You may already know that Louis Armstrong is the multitalented musician — singer, composer, and trumpeter — behind songs like "A Wonderful World" and "La Vie En Rose." A Wonderful World: The Louis Armstrong Musical dives deeper into how he crossed racial, class, and musical barriers to reinvent not only jazz performance, but its presence in the global popular music scene.

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Top image credit: MJ The Musical. (Photo courtesy of production)

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