Unique Teaching Aids: Musical Theatre
It is a well known fact that art imitates life and that drama rarely confines itself to the inside of a theatre. If you're looking for a fresh, dynamic way to teach students about the highs and lows of the human pageant, I invite you to take a glance inside the nearest Broadway songbook.
Since the early days of vaudeville, musical theatre has served as a reflection of the times and culture that shapes its lyrics, melodies, and stories. Whether showcasing the turbulent lives of figures like Eva Peron or presidential assassins, or providing social commentary on things like racism and relationships, musicals offer unique perspectives on the people, places, and events that enrich history.
Tale as Told as Time: Literature on Broadway
Tired of showing the same PBS specials and AE videos to your students in an effort to enhance their reading? Why not try listening to a few showtunes instead? Here are some examples and standards to get you started:
- "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha: This show is a shortened version of Cervantes' Don Quixote. In the musical, Cervantes is in prison, awaiting his trial before the Spanish Inquisition. He enlists the aid of his fellow prisoners to enact the story of his Spanish knight, and defend the principles for which he stands. "The Impossible Dream" outlines the traditional values of chivalry: honor, chastity, selflessness, etc. Use the song to initiate discussion about the quest motif in literature, and as a way to identify contemporary chivalrous figures.
- The Scarlet Pimpernel by Frank Wildhorn: Discuss how Sir Percival Blakeney, the dashing, swash-buckling hero of the French revolution, the Scarlet Pimpernel, is a classic romantic figure. In particular, examine the songs, "Into the Fire" and "The Creation of Man" to demonstrate the two sides of Percy's character, the idealistic savior, and the foppish dandy he pretends to be in order to conceal his heroic exploits.
- Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim: The classic fractured-fairy tales setup. Sondheim takes the well-known stories of our childhood and shows us what happens beyond happily-ever after. Discuss how Sondheim skewers the traditional archetypes of literature: the sage, the witch, prince charming, and of course, our [often] over-simplified notions of good and evil. Some excellent songs to study are "Agony" and the title song.
High-Flying Adored: Historical Figures
It seems only natural that those individuals, whose personal histories are filled with larger-than-life emotions and events, should burst into song at the right moment to express their beliefs, desires, and darkest fears...
- Evita by Andrew Lloyd Webber: The basis for this soaring musical is the rise and fall of Eva Peron and her influence over the Argentinean people. The song "Buenos Aires" is an excellent example of the swirling, tumultuous times portrayed onstage, and is also a perfect introduction to the ambitious Eva. For those who may not be familiar with the era of Peronism, ask students if they can draw any parallels between the ways in which people like Eva Peron and Princess Diana are revered by their people.
- 1776 by Sherman Edwards: Who knew that John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were all accomplished singers? This gem of a musical, which is sadly not very well know, is focused on the events leading up to the signing of the declaration of independence. "The Egg" discusses the birth of the new American nation, comparing its development to a favored symbol of our country. Moreover, the haunting waltz, "Molasses to Rum," is an unflinching look at the practice and hypocrisy of the slave trade during the colonial era.
- Ragtime by Stephen Flaherty: The title song alone discusses a multitude of important events that ushered in the twentieth century: the influx of immigrants to Ellis Island, the creation of Ragtime music, the growing presence of African Americans, the popularity of Harry Houdini, and of course, "The Crime of the Century." I also recommend that students listen to "Make them Hear You," an inspiring ballad that speaks to the dreams of such men as Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass.
Here are a few final suggestions:
- "You've Got to Be Taught" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's Avenue Q (for high school students only)- The first song examines the dark truth of racism and indoctrination, while the latter is a hilarious skewering of contemporary society's obsession with political correctness.
- "Razzle Dazzle" from Kander and Ebb's Chicago- A satirical narration of the (often) absurd nature of public opinion, justice, and the media.
- "Wonderful" from Wicked, Stephen Schwartz's irreverent and clever take on The Wizard of Oz, is the Wonderful Wizard's explanation of charisma and politics in the public arena.
For more musical titles and songs, click here.
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