Six Great Lessons Students Can Learn from Ground Breaking Musicals
Lin-Manuel Miranda is quoted as saying, “The musicals that leave us kind of staggering on our feet are the ones that really reach for a lot.”
I’d agree with this statement. Recently, I happened upon a YouTube video of performers in a Smash Mob from Les Mis’. The video was from 2017. Considering Broadway is closed temporarily because of the pandemic, the singing made me cry it was so beautiful.
Certain musicals do leave me staggering, how about you? They are ground breaking.
What are some ground breaking musicals?
That’s a tough question. There are many, almost too numerous to list here.
Number One: Rent
My curiosity for information regarding those exceptional musicals was piqued. Which musicals carved their own way in musical theater? Looking around, I found this information.
“You might call this one, the “anti-Cats” musical. Drawing on his memories of his first apartment in New York — with rotting floorboards, no heat and a shower in the kitchen — and the friends he’d made then, writer Jonathan Larson created the musical “Rent.” Based on the Puccini opera “La Bohéme,” “Rent” tells the story of a group of struggling artists, and while it’s meant to capture the passion and love often associated with the Bohemian lifestyle, it also illustrates the dire aspects of being a “starving artist,” so to speak.
The re-imagining of the famed opera takes it from tuberculosis-riddled Paris to the East Village in New York City, at a time when AIDS was causing much distress. It depicts love and passion in spite of progressive, incurable illness. The musical, which dispensed with many Broadway staples, like dimming the lights and starting with an overture, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. It was only the seventh musical ever to earn the distinction.”
The lesson to be learned from Rent? Live in the moment and to live every day like it is your last.
Other Ground Breaking Musicals
Lesson Two: Oklahoma!
From the 1920s into the 1940s, popular tunes inevitably came from Broadway musicals. Composers such as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Irving Berlin were in the height of their careers. Oklahoma! was ground breaking in several ways. Rather than a huge ensemble number it opens with cowboy Curly singing, Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’! There’s a healthy dose of insanity and murder. Songs aren’t just musical window dressing anymore; they drive the story forward.
The lesson to be learned from Oklahoma!: Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements.
Lesson Three: West Side Story
Another innovative musical is West Side Story. Wow, you can’t beat it, can you? The carefully cut costumes of the Jets and the Sharks still look fresh from the dryer. There is no profanity (unless you count, “Krup you!”) and only one gun. But in the 1950s, a gang version of Romeo and Juliet packed with racial tension and a bittersweet conclusion was a big deal. Reviewer Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune summed up the reaction after opening night when he wrote, “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning.” The musical scored by Leonard Bernstein was also doubted initially as too operatic.
The lesson to be learned from West Side Story: There are consequences of racial/ethnic/cultural hatred and what occurs when one’s pride controls a person’s behavior and attitude.
Lesson Four: Jesus Christ Superstar
Let’s not forget Jesus Christ Superstar! Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and librettist Tim Rice, both British, debuted with the first rock opera, all of the dialogue set to music. That style of libretto has since evolved into the norm for musicals. I remember hearing the musical for the first time at a youth group meeting–amazing experience. If you haven’t seen the live television version of it, check out my blog post concerning the talent who portrayed Judas, Brandon Victor Dixon and The Two Most Inspiring People I’ve Seen This Year
The lesson to be learned from Jesus Christ Superstar: There are consequences to success and the power that comes from it.
Lesson Five: Chorus Line
“Five, six, seven, eight!” Those are familiar directions to a cast. Chorus Line looks inside the lives of seventeen dancers competing for eight spots in a Broadway production. Before its fifteen-year run ended, the Michael Bennett musical further loosened the definition of how musicals had to be structured. With A Chorus Line, monologues and songs could serve as their own plot, if they stayed consistent with a central idea. This philosophy gave future musicals permission to try other, less traditional innovative forms.
The lesson to be learned from Chorus Line: Dreaming is important, but action is even more important.
Lesson Six: Hamilton
I can’t wait for Broadway to open again. I look forward to the next ground breaking musical, don’t you?
I have several Broadway musical lessons (all useful for distance learning) which demonstrate these lessons. For more information about them, check out: DramaMommaSpeaks
What musical do you think is significant? I’d love to know. Contact me at DhcBaldwin@gmail.com or DeborahBaldwin.net