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Five musicals based on weirdly tragic true stories

Although the musical -- one of the sillier holdouts from an era when theater was more, you know, theatrical -- is mostly exploited these days for its camp potential (see: The Book of Mormon), it's still not quite dead as a study of human emotion, either. And although the idea of portraying serious drama through the lens of the old song-and-dance is a little weird on its own, it gets even weirder when that drama is based on reality. In honor of Titanic: The Musical, making its debut in Boulder tonight with the CenterStage Theatre Company, here are five attempts (successful and not so much) to apply the chorus line to human tragedy.

Five musicals based on weirdly tragic true stories

5. Titanic: The Musical

Back in the late '90s, Titanic was basically what Bono's Spider-Man is today: a strange, hulking, multi-million-dollar disaster waiting to happen. But while it did, indeed, garner mostly negative reviews when it opened, critics at least admired the show's ambition and generally allowed that it came close to pulling it off -- and it became a big hit, too, perhaps vindicating playwright Maury Yeston: "I think if you don't have that kind of daring damn-the-torpedos, you shouldn't be in this business," he said. (On a side note, the Broadway production of Titanic made use of a hydraulic stage to simulate the ship's sinking, the source of most of its cost. CenterStage's production will be skipping that part.)

Five musicals based on weirdly tragic true stories

4. The Sound of Music

Proof that a heart-on-the-sleeve musical of tragedy can effectively play the heartstrings, The Sound of Music, based on the memoirs of Maria von Trapp, is perhaps the most successful musical, well, ever. And while it is, in concept, pretty heavy, it succeeds by spending most of its time using the looming spectre of Nazi power as a backdrop (thank you, Rogers and Hammerstein, for no Nazi dance numbers) to the lighter, cuter drama at play. By the time it all does come to a head with a bracingly restrained performance of "Edelweiss," it's about as powerful as a musical can be.

Five musicals based on weirdly tragic true stories

3. Cannibal: The Musical

There is probably not a single event that has ever happened in the world less accommodating to the musical treatment than the story of the Donner party, those guys who got lost in the mountains and ate each other. Matt Stone and Trey Parker were not unaware of that when they made Cannibal, their first project together in a career that would go on to create South Park, Team America and The Book of Mormon. It's a little rough around the edges, but it does offer a glimpse into the early potential of a pair who would go on to combine musicals, real events and blistering satire to ever-increasing hilarity.

Five musicals based on weirdly tragic true stories

2. Assassins

In a similarly murderous vein, Assassins follows in musical for the exploits of a very special class of folks: Those who have attempted (successfully or otherwise) to murder the president of the United States. Viewing these would-be assassins as just variants on the familiar theme of empty ambitions toward stardom, Stephen Sondheim's brilliant send-up of celebrity culture won great acclaim by shedding stark light on how psychotic even our most benign aspirations can appear.

Five musicals based on weirdly tragic true stories

1. The Civil War

America's darkest war doesn't exactly lend itself to random bursts of song, but the real problem with Frank Wildhorn's The Civil War was not its tone so much as its rudimentary scope -- it's a story that's been told a million times, and adding a couple of arias here and there doesn't make it any more novel; "[it] strikes chords with which even an elementary school student would be familiar," noted the New York Times. The tone didn't help, either, with a chorus of slaves offering foot-stomping gospel numbers incongruous with the story and a dramatic resolution worthy of an after-school special: "When all is said and done, I guess we're all the same," the soldiers sing, observing that the only difference is a "different name."

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