Music has been in the classroom for decades, but not everyone highlights the musical, which then neglects some of the most amazing storytellers from classic writers and composers such as Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webb to modern and unique writers and composers Jason Robert Brown and Lin-Minuel Miranda.
Besides breaking up power point lectures and textbook readings with the entertainment of music or YouTube performances, musical performance can enhance the curriculum by offering an alternate voice to the same lesson. Perhaps a song or two from 1776 will help students remember the founding fathers who wrote the Declaration of Independence.
While a musical is not 100% factual (most need to speed history along to fit in a 2-3 hour production) the positives of including musical theater into a curriculum or library collection outweigh the historical inaccuracies. Find me any historian who doesn’t rise up to “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
Many libraries already include musical soundtracks or DVDs, but I want to encourage the partnership between libraries and the academic curriculum by going beyond books and articles. Let the students listen to a different type of lesson. Musicals such as Wicked are based on popular fiction, but people often forget about the musicals that can help teach history or culture, such as racial prejudices shown in Show Boat to Vietnam protests in Hair. American culture has always been portrayed in music and theater, why not use musicals as another format to teach?
Plays and musicals are a great way to witness a story and as they focus on historical figures and events, these theatrical masterpieces can assist with curriculum. Theater has created an opportunity to reach new audiences and teach history in a new context to a new audience.
With the newly opened Hamilton musical and the classic 1776, history lessons not only liven up with hip-hop and song, but they could be included with curriculum and collections. George Takei’s Allegiance, which opened this month on Broadway, tells of the atrocities of an era when the American government locked away Japanese Americans into the Internment Camps. Considering this tidbit of history is often excluded in history classes, with this new musical teachers can not only discuss its continued relevance in today’s politics and the current conversation surrounding immigration.
Sample from Hamilton:
“And? If we win our independence?
‘Zat a guarantee of freedom for our descendants?
Or will the blood we shed begin an endless
Cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?
I know the action in the street is excitin’
But Jesus, between all the bleedin’ ‘n fightin’
I’ve been readin’ ‘n writin’
We need to handle our financial situation
Are we a nation of states? What’s the state of our nation?”
In Hamilton, audiences will learn of Alexander Hamilton’s rise from an immigrant to an American politician. The friendship turned political rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr is the moving force through the show. Using the musical to teach deeper lessons is not new of course. From early lyrics in “My Shot” when Burr recommends discretion he also references an earlier musical, South Pacific, with the song “Carefully Taught” about how racism is taught.
“Geniuses, lower your voices
You keep out of trouble, and you double your choices
I’m with you, but the situation is fraught
You’ve got to be carefully taught:
If you talk, you’re gonna get shot!”
Speaking of war and racism found in shows like South Pacific and Allegiance, topics of immigration and social justice are headlines in our current news and offer daily topics in government and social science classes. Students can hear new perspectives and relate these musicals to current events. Teachers and librarians can then use the comparisons as an opportunity for discussion or to connect teens to other sources of information. From offering examples of history and people striving for a better life in Argentina with Evita or France in Les Miserables, to pieces of literature that compare and contrast the story to stage with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Big River, musicals can enhance any collection or class experience.
A few suggestions to begin your own experience:
- 1776 – “Molasses to Rum” where the hypocrisy of delegates from northern cities is shown concerning the slave ships and trade.
- Parade – “How Can I Call This Home?” questions the displaced Jewish factory owner now living in Atlanta. He is later sentenced to a crime he didn’t commit and lynched by a mob, based on the true story of Leo Frank.
- Miss Saigon – “Bui Doi” mentions the children born to Vietnamese mothers and abandoned by their American fathers to be ostracized by their culture.
- Ragtime – “Wheels of a Dream” tells the story of different racial groups in early 20th century America and wanting a better future in America.
- Pirate Queen – the story of Grace O’Malley, a pirate and chieftain in Ireland who became her own captain, defended Ireland, and met with Queen Elizabeth to negotiate the release of family members. “Woman” to see the injustices of being born ‘just a woman’ when she has the skill of any man.
- Next to Normal – “You Don’t Know/ I Am the One”
- Company – “Being Alive”
- Les Miserables – all songs are necessary to cover Victor Hugo’s great masterpiece of 19th century France and the lives of Jean Valjean, Javert, and the revolutionaries. “One Day More” is the ultimate show stopper.
- Big River – “World’s Apart” shows the friendship, yet the difference between Jim and Huck in the musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
- Jekyll and Hyde – “Confrontation” from the book with the same title shows the mental struggle between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as they each try to take control of the other.
- In the Heights – Lin Manuel Miranda’s first musical about the community of Dominican-American Washington Heights in New York City. The first musical focused on such a community follows locals, those with larger dreams, and those searching for a true home. “96,000” is the opening number where nearly the entire cast dreams of winning the lottery.
- Fiddler on the Roof – focuses on the community of a small Jewish village in Russia from the normalcy of matchmaking to the political reasons the town, and community, must leave their community and its traditions.
- West Side Story – besides being a musical version of Romeo and Juliet and a beautiful love story, it is another brilliant example of how prejudices can get out of hand and destroy lives.
- Jesus Christ Superstar – tells the story of Judas’ concerns over Jesus’ rise in the community and shows a softer side to both Mary Magdalene as well as a Jesus who (briefly) questions his God. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice certainly took on a controversial story, but it is one often studied in World Religion classes and doesn’t a rock opera make any class more exciting?
What are your favorite musicals? Have you used these resources in curriculum or library programming?
— Sarah Carahan, currently reading All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven