In middle school, when we began learning about the American Revolution, I would watch 1776 all of the time. Since Hamilton did not exist at that point, it was one of the only and best ways to see those I was reading and making reports about. Just like a bad or cringy movie you cannot help but to like, I couldn’t help but like 1776 as I saw some of my favorite historical people like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams moving and acting how I envisioned they did, which is based partly on history and party on my expectations founded in historical myth. I think these musicals are a good way of understanding the basics of what happened, who did what, and why, but they never fully address the more complex aspects of history simply because there is not enough time and because that is not the director Peter Hunt’s intended purpose.
It wasn’t until the end of middle school, beginning of high school when I learned more about the true colors of Thomas Jefferson. Until then, I saw him as a speaker for Enlightenment ideas and as a dreamy young politician in colonial America. This view of Jefferson was mainly based on this musical, especially with the scenes of him singing about and to his wife. Even though a key part of this movie was trying to show how important the wives were in the creation of American (from a 1972 perspective) through the inclusion of Jefferson’s and Adam’s wives, it romanticized their history. Yes, these women were fairly important in the creation of America, but others who were just as important were not talked about or shown like Jefferson’s slaves or anybody not in the elite, land-owning class. There are few, or maybe no, instances in 1776 where a “regular person” interacts with or helps the Continental Congress “heroes”, which just shows how romanticized the heroes of American history are.
If you interpret these musicals at face value, you are missing a key part of history because art (musicals are a form of art) does not have the responsibility of telling a “truthful” or accurate history if the creator does not want to. 1776’s description even says that it is a “patriotic musical” that “celebrates the founding fathers”; although there should be a basis in truth as the musical uses historical characters and a real-life time period, Hunt is able to take creative liberty (note that this musical is also dated with what is considered American history). Similar to Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda romanticizes Hamilton and the time period he is in so that you relate with the main character. He will not tell you about Hamilton’s involvement in the slave trade in the Caribbean (he disliked slavery but I don’t think it was central to his political positions), his ingrained elitism and dislike of those from lower social classes, assistance in passing the Alien and Subduction acts, and constant slander of other political opponents.
From personal experience, without some type of prior knowledge, “patriotic” and dramatized musicals can be misleading, but if you mix in education it allows the musical to be both patriotic and truthful/more historical as you can contextualize and analyze the information.