Which Great American Should Be Immortalized With the Next Big Broadway Musical?

Hamilton has caught the nation’s attention. A panel of Smithsonian writers and curators suggest who’s next.

Hamilton star
Who will be the next Hamilton? Illustration by Shaylyn Esposito

The story of Hamilton has been told, and re-told, its legacy firmly planted in the history of Broadway. After winning the Grammy, Pulitzer and Tony for his exceptional work (not to mention the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award), Lin-Manuel Miranda departs the cast of the hit show this weekend, along with co-stars Leslie Odom Jr., and Phillipa Soo. The show will continue to thrive and sell out for months, both in the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York and in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and the cities on its nationwide tour, but in many ways it begins its second chapter next week with its new leads.

So what’s next for Miranda? Most immediately, it’s some electioneering, a long overdue haircut, and then back to work on a Disney movie musical, a highly anticipated “Hamilton mixtape”, and a starring role in next year’s Mary Poppins sequel. Much to the chagrin of Slate’s L.V. Anderson (who admonished those who would try and project their own dream musical ideas onto Miranda), we here at Smithsonian.com decided to go ahead and present our ideas on the characters from American history who deserve the next spotlight.

While luminaries like Josh Gad and Amy Schumer have proffered (terrible) ideas of their own, our writers, editors and museum staff have made suggestions below. Perhaps speaking to the preponderance of XX chromosomes on staff, our list below skews largely female. But considering the centuries of men largely getting to have their stories told, we’ll leave it at #sorrynotsorry.

Some of these figures have already had musicals written about them, but none of have catapulted to theater’s biggest stage in New York nor have had the star-power of a genius like Miranda behind them. This is also not to say that Miranda needs to write these future Tony-winning musicals. In his #Ham4Ham shows and sidegigs, Miranda has shown a clear love and support for his colleagues on the Great White Way. Wannabe songwriters and dramaturgs, take one of these ideas (or give us one of your own in the comments below)—and don’t throw away your shot!

Naomi Shavin, editorial assistant, Smithsonian magazine

Part of Hamilton’s pedigree has been its source material, Ron Chernow’s best-selling biography of the lead character. Journalist Nathalia Holt’s new book, Rise of the Rocket Girls, has a cast of strong female characters that would rival any of the Founding Fathers for their guts and glory, but of all of Holt’s “girls,” Helen Yee Chow steals the show. Raised in China and a survivor of the Japanese bombing of Hong Kong, Helen immigrated to the United States to attend college. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she developed a reputation as the fastest “computer” (proven during rowdy computing contests) and paved the way for female engineers to be brought into JPL. She made it a point to hire women—and to rehire former colleagues if they’d left to start families. Over time, the female computers of JPL began to call themselves “Helen’s Girls.”

Her career spanned major Civil Rights and feminist milestones and rapidly shifting social norms. Her story even has a great meet-cute: an old crush she’d left behind in China ended up in the States too, and was dazzled by her intelligence and success at JPL. The next Hamilton will need its own Lin-Manuel Miranda, a wildly talented and charismatic lead who is not only passionate about bringing history to life, but also about bringing diversity to the stage. Imagine Helen Ling played by Constance Wu (of television's “Fresh Off The Boat”), an actress who has spoken out repeatedly on the lack of diversity in Hollywood, and who has been singing and dancing in plays since childhood, very likely because her parents love Broadway show tunes.

Christopher Wilson, director of the History Film Forum, Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

“Who the hell is Diane Nash?”

Through the phone after midnight Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s voice lashed, and his drowsy assistant John Seigenthaler was instructed to find this woman Nash and call her. In 1961, she had just resurrected the Freedom Rides where blacks and whites rode side-by-side on buses through the Deep South, into the mouth of Jim Crow, to force the Federal government to change the status quo. Then 22 years old, with a mind much older, she proved there’s not a bolder or more deserving heroine to become the subject of the next Hamilton. The story of the student at Fisk University who resolved to, if necessary, lay down her life to set others free has it all: intrigue, love, violence, tragedy, inner struggles, war and rivals, and a movement with a rich musical legacy that became the American revolution of the 20th century.

John Hanc, Smithsonian.com contributing writer who covered Hamilton for this site and for Newsday

Brave and resourceful, Benedict Arnold was the best general we had in the Revolution’s early years. As the late Bill Stanley, a Connecticut historian and Arnold defender used to point out, before Arnold betrayed his country, he saved it—most notably at Saratoga. What turned him into a turncoat—the slights, real and imagined; the schemes; the involvement of his beautiful wife Peggy Shippen—makes for spicy drama, as the producers of AMC’s “Turn” recognize: The “turning” of Arnold by John Andre (with Shippen’s eyelash-fluttering help) is one of the show’s plotlines. And who wouldn’t have wanted to be in the room where it happened, when Benedict and Peggy realized the jig was up and conspired to buy him time to escape from West Point? Washington and his aides found her hysterical and half-dressed, feigning insanity—and bought the whole act. Why, Peggy could’ve won a Tony!

Rachel E. Gross, science editor, Smithsonian.com

Silent Spring came out in 1962, the same year Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize for describing the structure of DNA. Unlike their discovery, Rachel Carson’s message—that the Earth had reached the limits of its ecological balance, and that it was up to us to protect it—was met not with acclaim but with scorn from the chemical industry, other scientists, and even the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, who determined that Carson, because she was attractive yet unmarried, was “probably a Communist.”

Carson’s personal life was burdened; she became the sole caretaker to her ailing mother and her niece’s orphaned son. But that weight was lightened by one relationship: the deeply profound friendship she shared with Dorothy Freeman, which sustained her through the storms she would encounter. After meeting one summer in Maine, the two women became a core presence in each other’s lives, exchanging over 1,000 letters throughout the 12 years they knew each other.

When Carson was battling the cancer that would ultimately kill her at 56, the pair burned the majority of their correspondence, fueling speculation that their relationship was of a romantic nature. Whether platonic or romantic, their bond formed an anchor that supported Carson’s work. “All I am certain of is this; that it is quite necessary for me to know that there is someone who is deeply devoted to me as a person,” Carson wrote in one letter, “and who also has the capacity and depth of understanding to share, vicariously, the sometimes crushing burden of creative effort."

The missing letters provide a jumping-off point for a musical told in epistolary form, chronicling the story of scientific discovery grounded in a deep passion for the natural world. Freeman’s devotion to her friend reflected and reinforced Carson’s devotion to the natural world—a devotion that ultimately led to a nationwide ban of DDTs, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the impetus for a generation of young environmentalists. “Immortality through memory is real,” Carson wrote. As the specter of manmade climate change looms before us, her immortal prophecy bears repeating.

Brian Wolly, editor, Smithsonian.com

The one thing that 19th-century Chicagoan Catherine O’Leary has going for her is that she already has a hit song about her:

 Late one night, when we were all in bed,

Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in the shed.

Her cow kicked it over, then winked her eye and said,

It’ll be a hot time in the old town, tonight!

But as with many folk tales, there’s little truth to it. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, during which 300 lives were lost, $200 million worth in property was destroyed, and 100,000 were left homeless, did not start because an Irish immigrant’s cow booted a lantern. It was a tale spawned while the embers still burned, grounded in fears of a city bursting at the seams with new immigrants arriving daily. An easy scapegoat (scapecow?), the abstract Catharine O’Leary, the one in newspapers and folk songs, was a cautionary tale about what happens when urban growth goes unimpeded.

In reality, her story was typical: a mother of five, married to a serial abuser, eking out a life in the great Midwestern metropolis. She’s a cipher, a vessel for engaging with the story of immigrants like her and the Fire itself. We don’t even know what she looked like; no photographs of O’Leary exist.

The true spark that ignited the conflagration may never be known, but the mystery of this woman holds much drama of a family, a community and a city on the brink of disaster.

Cassandra Good, contributing writer for Smithsonian.com, associate editor of the Papers of James Monroe, and author of Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic.

She was the great celebrity of America’s founding era. In 1803, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, the wealthy, young, and beautiful Marylander, created a scandal by marrying Napoleon’s brother Jerome and then, on their honeymoon, attending a party in Washington in a transparent Parisian gown. When the pregnant Elizabeth tried to return to France with Jerome, Napoleon blocked her from entering and annulled the marriage against their wishes. He married Jerome off to a German princess, leaving Elizabeth to return to America to fight for recognition—and funds—for herself and her son. She socialized with the elite in Washington, London, Paris and Rome; made a fortune off the annuity she received from Napoleon through shrewd business acumen; and lived like a European aristocrat. With her boundless ambition and independence, she was an exceptional woman whose life story was made for the stage.

M.G. Keehan, art director, Smithsonian magazine

"If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."

Shirley Chisholm brought her own chair, and along with it came her guts, her tenacity and her many successes in fighting for equality, all the while fighting her own battles with the systematic, long-entrenched discrimination of the times, many of which continue today. I imagine Chisholm being alternately appalled and intrigued by the progress—or lack thereof—in today's society.

Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress in 1968, and the first major-party African-American to run for president in 1972. She represents many firsts, but she took no pleasure in that and had no time for labels. What mattered to Chisholm was humanity and equality. Some considered her impertinent, but she was effective. She introduced and saw through legislation that created actual change, such as expanded childcare, school lunches, expanded food stamps, domestic-worker benefits and consumer protection and product safety. She was and is a hero.

I imagine Chisholm's story set to Nina Simone and Al Green—music of the 1960s and 70s, of the inner city—and some Lauryn Hill to bring it around to today and Chisholm’s present-day relevance.

T.A. Frailsenior editor, Smithsonian magazine

Sojourner Truth was taller than Hamilton (5-foot-11), and her origins were humbler: Born into slavery, sold for $100 with a flock of sheep at age 9, abused by various owners for 20 years. God told her to walk away from bondage, and she did. She sued an owner who had illegally sold her son out of New York State, and won. She championed abolition and, after emancipation in 1865, women’s rights. She gave “freedom” a meaning Hamilton never intended and could never sustain. 

Carrie Heflin, educator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Mary Edwards Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855, making her one of the few female medical doctors of the time. She eschewed conventions of female dress and preferred to wear pants—resulting in one arrest for impersonating a man. She fought constant discrimination to become a commissioned assistant surgeon in the Union army during the Civil War. She became a Union spy and was captured and held by the Confederate army as collateral in a hostage exchange. Then, finally, she received a little recognition for all of her hard work and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson in 1865—only to have it revoked by Congress in 1917. She refused to give it back and wore it proudly to her dying day. She is still the only woman to have ever been awarded a Medal of Honor.

Jackie Mansky, assistant editor, Smithsonian.com

At the height of her fame, Nellie Bly set sail to best the fictional Phileas Fogg’s 80-day odyssey in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. The daring journalist captured the nation’s attention as she circumnavigated the globe in just 72 days. When she stepped off a train platform in New Jersey, her journey complete, a mob of thousands greeted her with thunderous applause. A brand-new musical (not a revival of the short-lived 1940s flop) would surely garner just as wild a reception.

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864, Bly got her pen name from a Stephen Foster song (a clear front-runner for the musical’s opening number). Her writing highlighted societal wrongs, with her earliest series of investigative pieces focused on the conditions faced by women factory workers. Bly would go on to tackle stories that called for political reform, exposed corrupt politicians and brought attention to the injustices of poverty.

Despite her talent and work ethic, Bly’s reporting was constantly relegated to the women’s sections of the newspaper. But she refused to be outgunned and outmanned. After she was assigned arts and entertainment reporting at The Pittsburgh Dispatch, she left for New York to take a job with Joseph Pulitzer at the New York World. There she would go undercover to report the story that would define her legacy, a burning exposé on the conditions that women faced in a New York insane asylum.

At a time when a women’s place was considered to be in the domestic sphere, Bly broke barriers, and refused to be boxed into her gender-assigned space. She pioneered a new kind of undercover investigative reporting, and lead a generation of daredevil “girl reporters” to pick up a pen and write.

Jessica Carbone, curatorial associate for food history, Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

One of the things that makes Hamilton work so well is that Hamilton documented himself so well, with volumes of personal and political writing, and in doing so documented a particular kind of early American philosophy. Phyllis Wheatley would be an ideal subject for a musical for the same reason—not only did she express herself through her poetry, but writing as an enslaved woman in the 18th century gave her a unique perspective on American life, ambition and ingenuity. One of the most well-trod tropes of musical theatre is the idea of the “I Want” song (in Hamilton, it’s “My Shot”). What could be a better template for that than Wheatley’s “On Virtue”? In striving for knowledge, she says that “goodness” is how we reach a “higher appellation…a better strain, a nobler lay.” Could “On Virtue” the next “Defying Gravity”? (Plus, imagine staging Wheatley’s 1776 introduction to General George Washington as a third-act showstopper—he was also a slave owner, so it was an unusual meeting fraught with lots of meaning for them both.)

Erin Blakemore, contributing editor and writer, Smithsonian.com

A father and daughter stand at the deathbed of a beloved son and brother. As he dies, the father begins an infuriating lament: “Oh my daughter, I wish you were a boy!” Extraordinary fodder for a musical's opening number, but in reality, it was just another day in the life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the suffrage warrior who deserves her day on stage.

The notorious ECS had a depressed mom, a slaveholding, sexist father, a husband who grudgingly allowed her to strike the “obey” part from her wedding vows. And oh, her friends—Lucretia Mott, who became a close ally when they were both denied seats at a prominent antislavery conference; Susan B. Anthony, who told her that “no power in heaven, hell, or earth can separate us, for our hearts are eternally wedded together”; Frederick Douglass, who sprung up and defended women’s suffrage at the Seneca Falls Convention organized by Stanton…and whom Stanton wounded when she refused to support suffrage for black men before black women, opposing the 14th and 15th amendment and almost tearing the suffrage movement in two. 

No one could throw shade like Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (“Confer on me, great angel, the glory of White manhood, so that henceforth I may feel unlimited freedom.”) No one could bring people together or tear them apart like she could. And much like Alexander Hamilton, she’s been ignored in favor of her more famous friends for way too long. Besides, who could resist a musical that includes struggles over seating, a swirling, hell-raising women’s rights convention, and a love/hate story with the likes of Susan B. Anthony? It’s a match made in musical heaven. 

Maya Wei-Haas, assistant web editor, Smithsonian.com

If Lin-Manuel Miranda was able to make audiences tap their fingers to beats about the U.S. financial system, then it’s not too far a cognitive leap to imagine a musical that highlights another complicated subject: billions of years of evolutionary history.

In the 1960s, biologist Lynn Margulis set out to change how the world thought about microbiology with a six-syllable word: endosymbiosis. Her relentless pursuit of this idea incited arguments, ended relationships (including a short-lived marriage to Carl Sagan) and burned academic bridges. Even when faced with rejection after rejection (some 15 in total) from academic journals, “Your research is crap, do not bother to apply again” read one, Margulis persevered.

A child genius, Margulis had bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Chicago by the age of 22. Her idea was groundbreaking, but was strikingly simple. Before around 2.1 billion years ago, all cells existed as prokaryotes, lacking the internal complexities of their eukaryotic cousins that are the main building blocks of you, me and all animals and plants alike. But Margulis hypothesized that cells made the enormous leap from simple to complex by swallowing other cells that could toil away inside, providing its host with the energy to thrive.

This union changed the course of history billions of years ago, and remains at the core of studying how microbes interact with all creatures, from insects to humans—even the formation of new animal species.

For the past few years, scientists have been “dancing their Ph.Ds,” a contest that taps their creative sides. Interpretive dance has been an integral part of musical theater, from Oklahoma’s dream ballet sequence choreographed by Agnes de Mille to the Billy Joel-scored ballet/jukebox musical Movin’ Out. Margulis’ research holds the promise of disentangling the complexities of microbiology in a way only musical theater can, through dance.

Margulis’ courageous quest to make her voice heard is a compelling backbone for the musical, a story that not just goes back eons but is strikingly relevant now, as Margulis’ successors study the microbes that affect everything about our lives today.

Ann Shumard, senior curator of photography at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

“Let Soldiers in War be Citizens in Peace,” wrote Octavius V. Catto in 1865. Even before emancipation, as a free black man living in Philadelphia, Catto devoted his life to securing civil rights for African-Americans, founding organizations like the Banneker Literary Institute and the Equal Rights League. He was a renaissance man, studying the classics and becoming a member of the city’s Franklin Institute, a scientific organization.

During the war itself, he worked alongside Frederick Douglass to recruit African-Americans into the Union army. (He also happened to be an accomplished baseball and cricket player.) A vigorous advocate for the civil rights amendments of the Reconstruction Era, Catto was shot to death by a Democratic Party operative, Frank Kelly, on October 10, 1871, as African-Americans voted in Philadelphia’s first election held after ratification of the 15th Amendment. An all-white jury acquitted Kelly, despite there being multiple witnesses.

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