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 agree with him. Recently, I happened upon a YouTube video of performers in a Smash Mob from Les Mis’. The video was from 2017. The singing made me cry it was so beautiful.
Certain musicals do leave me staggering, how about you? I consider them to be 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.
A teacher who used my unit of Rent, stated, :Extremely satisfied This was fantastic for discussing and analyzing “Rent”. My student’s were completely focused and active participants. Thank you for such a professional and high quality resource.:
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. Pick up my unit for Oklahoma here: Oklahoma! Broadway Musical Unit
One teacher who reviewed the unit said, “Extremely satisfied. This resource is very complete and provided lots of teaching options to use with my students. Versatile and appealing!”
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. You can find my unit here: West Side Story Broadway Musical Unit.
One review said, “Extremely satisfied. This resource is extremely detailed and well-written. I love West Side Story. This resource kept my older students engaged. What a awesome lesson!”
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
Here are several quotes from websites about Hamilton which I think say it better than I can, “The show combines hip-hop, rap, R&B, soul, and traditional show tunes to create its novel score. And Miranda’s witty, sophisticated lyrics bring the familiar historical characters to life in a whole new way, drawing the audience in with their humanity and familiarity. The resounding success of Hamilton is undeniable.”
The blog, Broadwayinbound, mentions, “America’s founding fathers were all white, and many of them owned black slaves; in Hamilton, however, people of color play the leading roles — and Miranda says that was very intentional. “This is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance.”
Here’s another from https://www.cbc.ca, “From childhood Miranda loved musicals, and performed in several high school productions. One of his all-time favorites is Les Misérables, and that musical theatre classic inspired Miranda’s thinking on Hamilton. The things that you can see in Hamilton that are affecting people are also present in Les Mis. One, it’s trying to capture so much of the human experience that even if we fall short, we’ve got a lot of it. I mean, Les Misérables starts in prison. It’s ‘Look down, look down, you’re standing in your grave.’ And then it goes up from there,” he said in an interview.”
I especially like this quote from The Guardian, :Hamilton features black and brown actors, but its story never depicts a slave. That said, it’s also true that minstrelsy is crucial to Miranda’s project: he takes the long American minstrelsy tradition of white people in blackface on stage and reverses it.”
Isn’t it easy to understand why it is so popular?
Every season in the fall, 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