Musical theatre can be a great tool for teachers as it can help teach a variety of skills and provide information. However, musical theatre is often ignored in the classroom. This is not only a fault of people with distaste for theatre, but also lovers of theatre. As David Savran says, “And even for many devotees of the so-called straight theatre, musical theatre remains (at best) a guilty pleasure-a little too gay, too popular, too Jewish, and too much damned fun” (216).
This blockage between theatre that is deemed “appropriate” to teach and musical theatre is etrimental to the theatre world and to the knowledge of students. Musical theatre can act as a bridge between many other mediums, as well as being versatile enough for even the most skeptical learners. Students can access new information through musical theatre as it is very flexible and is an asset to theatre courses and classes everywhere because it offers a plethora of history, culture, and lifelong skills.
If any note is made about musical theatre in University of high school classes, it is the history of it. Despite this, however, musical theatre’s history is very cloudy and unclear. The beginnings of musical theatre have been said to have started at the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century, but there is an unsureness regarding whether or not that is even the right time (Donahue, Patterson 303). Were vaudeville and burlesque the first forms of musical theatre, or does musical theatre strictly begin with the creation of the American musical?
This again, is up for debate and the collection of this information could lead to a research paper or group project if a teacher so planned. This mystery can be used o a teacher’s advantage, as Stacy Wolf points out, when teaching musical theatre one can start wherever they want, going as far back as Viennese opperettas or as recent as this year’s Tony Award winners (54). This knowledge of musical theatre history not only teaches about musical theatre, but also typical theatre, because students can examine how theatre has grown and evolved to branch out in many different directions.
Because musical theatre is a very flexible art, students can also study the different uses of musical theatre throughout history around the world. Chinese noh theatre and the American musical both highlight music in their performances, however, each piece uses music in very different ways and to different affects, due to the change in time as well as place. Not only does musical theatre open up a world of history, but it also opens up a discussion about different social and cultural issues.
Musicals have gone against the norm for as long as they have been around, which is, of course, a debatable topic, but again, Wolf encourages teachers to use this to their advantage and to not only acknowledge these differences, but to use the conventions to frame analysis and to historicize” (53). By doing this, a teacher should not only hope for conversations on identity, politics, difference, race, gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity, but to plan for those discussions in order to make the best out of them (54).
Musicals are able to approach difficult topics with the joviality of music and dance, and use that to their advantage. Musicals like RENT, Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables, and Wicked are all able to explore dark moral and ethical topics (however silly at times) through music rather than simple speech. Imagine how frightening some of the topics these shows bring up would be without music; surely the AIDS epidemic, cannibalism, the French Revolution, and the ability to mistake injustice for evil would not be half as enjoyable without music.
These shows would be extremely different without music and would change the tone of the show entirely. Therefore, students can recognize that music plays a large part in the tone of the show while still addressing very serious issues, and that music makes addressing those issues more effective and clearer than if music was not included in the production. Where ever he concept of “othering” is discussed, the inverse, in this case community, will also be a natural point of discussion and debate.
Musical theatre has brought people together closer than ever before, sometimes literally in very small theatres, but also figuratively. The Kamsack Playhouse is a clear example of this community building. Despite being a small town with little theatre knowledge, the Kamsack Playhouse has grown to show many different performances featuring actors from all over North America (Dey 15). This theatre would not have been possible without the community spirit and connection that has een brought to Kamsack. This community theatre shows that theatre can bring people together.
If that were not so, Broadway would not be as popular, nor as successful as it is today. The community of the actual actors is also important, as the trust amongst the actors is very clear in any production, from intricate dance numbers to being able to harmonize properly. This teamwork is essential in musical theatre, and therefore the community that the show creates is an important environment to see the show flourish. Musical theatre also has the magic to engage students and to ecognize important aspects of storytelling otherwise disregarded by other forms of theatre, mainly, the power of music.
As Okikawa puts it, “students learn that music and song serve an important element in storytelling: They immediately set the tone of a character’s feeling and the mood of a scene in a way that lighting or words alone cannot do” (372). Music is able to shape and define these performances and add meaning to the show in ways that other theatre cannot. Because students recognize this, they can then recognize the importance of music in other mediums like television, dance, and podcasts that also se music, and analyze the use and effectiveness of the music as well as how it affects the process of storytelling.
By being able to analyze music in musical theatre, students can find it easier to recognize and critique the music used in those other mediums. The importance of music can also be crucial in learning aspects of theatre that aren’t strictly musical, like learning beats in a scene. By attaching an actual beat to a scene, it can be easier for some students to imagine where one beat ends and another begins by matching it with the actual beat of the music. This can be especially affective when working ith younger students who have just begun to learn the effectiveness and importance of beats in a scene.
There are many reasons that musical theatre is an important component in theatre education including history, social and cultural issues, community and teamwork, and the importance of music in storytelling. However, despite these reasons, educators still find many issues with teaching musical theatre. Wolf has many suggestions for teaching musical theatre still, like analyzing lyrics as poetry, comparing productions, and not reserving musicals as an afterthought or teaching them in a eparate course, theatre course (53-55).
This goes to show that there are many different reasons and ways to teach musical theatre, the only one standing in the way of progress is the educator. There are many perks to musical theatre education and the knowledge and skills that can be provided can only strengthen the minds of learners. It is then left to the educators to integrate musical but instead integrating them into a regular theatre into theatre courses in order to broaden student’s knowledge of theatre and appreciation of the very unique aspects that musical theatre brings to the stage.