I don’t have the financial statistics, but I think it’s fair to say that more people attend musicals in a year than attend straight plays, either on Broadway or throughout the rest of the country. Yes, straight plays often populate the landscape (outside of New York) because musicals are prohibitively expensive, but a musical always pulls in greater attendance. Despite this, there is very little going on in schools in terms of teaching musicals.
Why Musicals Aren’t Taught
There are several factors in this. First of all, in selecting works to teach, teachers are looking for works that will speak to kids and also have something important to express in a well-crafted manner. When I was a teacher, I taught A Raisin in the Sun, once to analyze in a theatre class and once as part of a regular American literature class. For the theatre class, we were able to analyze the characters of the play using method techniques and analyze the structure of the play and how the Aristotelian elements of drama can be used to express, understand, or communicate the playwright’s intentions. When I taught it as part of my American literature class, we studied it through various interpretive lenses, looked at the historical perspective, analyzed it for its themes, connected the themes to modern times, reflected on those themes, and evaluated them in our own lives. Let’s face it, it would be hard to go that deep on most musicals, even something as rich as The King and I or A Little Night Music.
Secondly, most English teachers know and enjoy musicals but don’t fully understand them. They can read The Miracle Worker or Death of a Salesman and introduce the kids to great insights on human nature, relevant themes, and life-altering ideas. For most musicals, though, understanding and appreciating them are largely artistic appreciation exercises. The Music Man is a great musical, but I don’t think there’s much to discuss in the way of great insights on human nature, relevant themes, and life-altering ideas. If you were to teach The Music Man, you’d be looking at the character development, the use of music to advance plot and develop characters, the choice of musical styles, and the choreography. Of these four major elements, the average English teacher will only feel comfortable discussing character development.
Thirdly, there is not easy access to most musical libretti. They are not published as part of a literature textbook nor are they readily available through other outlets. This makes it difficult because the chance of legally obtaining enough copies of a musical you’d want to teach is pretty much impossible, unless it was a modern play purchased within your window of opportunity of publication.
Additionally, musicals are viewed as fluff by our culture and don’t garner the same reverence as a great Arthur Miller or Edward Albee play. In selecting great literature, comparing Hello, Dolly! to The Great Gatsby seems like a no-brainer; however, musical theatre literature isn’t as shallow as it may seem. Dismissing a great musical theatre libretto only shows how people don’t fully understand the genre.
Part of this also comes from the fact that most people in the country aren’t aware of some of the more recent musicals, which would be great for use in a classroom. Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, for example, would make for great discussion; however, hardly anyone outside of New York has even heard of it.
These are all valid points, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for musical theatre literature in an English curriculum. In fact, there are many important reasons why reading musical libretti should be included as part of a drama curriculum.
Why Musicals Should be Taught
1. It is one of the few genuine American art forms. The musical’s roots reach back into European opera and operetta tradition, but out of that came an entirely different set of rules and a new form, first developed by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern in Show Boat and later perfected by Hammerstein with Richard Rodgers in Oklahoma!, the general template that is still used today. As one of our few original art forms, the American musical should not be ignored by educational institutions.
2. It is a greatly misunderstood art form. Those who say they hate musicals because people just break into song and dance betray their ignorance of how great musicals are constructed. Most musicals that have made it to Broadway never have someone break into a song or a dance. Instead, the song flows naturally from the moment and the dance is used to express emotions. Most people don’t understand that. How many people can sit through an action film with little character motivation or even a logical series of events and not be nonplussed by it all but cannot at least appreciate the non-literal expression of a musical.
3. To appreciate a musical requires higher order thinking skills because it is a non-literal medium. For example, you need to understand how a dance could be a physical representation of an intangible emotion.
4. It can be a gateway into the world of drama. Kids really struggle in reading plays. The problem is that kids equate visual storytelling with movies; however, most plays lack the sequential storytelling of the typical movie a kid sees or they lack the style of conflict, storytelling, and character development kids expect as a result of seeing movies. Look at some of the most popular plays taught in high schools—Fences, The Glass Menagerie, Our Town, Death of a Salesman. Kids walk away thinking plays are weird and boring when they don’t understand that literary storytelling is far different than what they experience in a typical movie. Yes, these plays all follow the traditional structure of a story—exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement—but the stories are not always linear or person vs. person conflict.
Musicals could act as a bridge between the film-like storytelling medium and the stage play medium because musicals regularly use linear storytelling structures with relatable conflicts. For a kid to be introduced to drama literature through a “confusing” Shakespeare play or a play with a “boring” plot creates a barrier to appreciation. Teaching a musical can be a mid-level step to helping students understand the unique qualities of a story told on stage and the more challenging, idea-based plays of Wilson, Miller, or Sheridan.
5. Kids in lower-ability classes and those struggling with reading love plays. This past summer, I taught summer school at a juvenile detention center. These boys, who wouldn’t do anything but try to look for cute girls on the street outside the window, looked forward to reading plays. The problem, as mentioned earlier, is finding plays of a high enough level of interest and quality. A musical plot, involving love and humor, would be a very good option for them.
Also, with the addition of playing songs on a stereo, it makes for a quicker read. Even in a play kids enjoy reading, that final act can really be a bummer because the play itself has been dragged on for so long. Because of the music in a musical, the songs can be played on a CD player, allowing for a shorter time spent reading.
6. It is a form of drama literature. If a district or college class seeks to educate student on drama literature, musical theatre literature is one important aspect of that genre.
It is not unusual for high schools and colleges to offer classes in genre fiction that is lacking in depth, such as gothic, mystery, popular, or fantasy literature classes. These classes tend to be focused on learning about the genre—the origins, the changes, the impacts, the philosophies. Musical theatre literature typically has more depth than these genres, yet it is hardly ever taught.
Coming Next: In this non-consecutive series, I will also be looking at great options for teaching musical theatre literature and methods of teaching musical theatre literature.