Mike Lawson • March 2002 • March 1, 2002

What do “The Music Man,” “The Sound of Music,” “West Side Story,” “Oklahoma!,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “My Fair Lady” have in common? All these musicals and dozens of others are cherished classics of American popular culture and American musical theater. While musicals are often considered entertainment, with careful planning they can be powerful educational tools.

School band and orchestra directors are often involved in staging school musicals. Such musicals can support arts education standards, core subject standards and thematic learning at all levels of instruction. This article outlines specific ways to integrate musicals into the curriculum, using “The Music Man” as a model. [May 18, 2002, marks the centennial of playwright Meredith Willlson’s birth.]

“The Music Man” debuted on Broadway 45 years ago on Dec. 19. “The Music Man” is appropriate for students of all ages and grade levels. Additionally, because of its musical theme, the play is ideal for both instrumental and vocal music lessons. The show offers marches and many references to marching bands and bandleaders as well as one of the most popular standards for marching bands, “Seventy-six Trombones.” The show also offers barbershop quartet and Broadway tunes ideal for vocal music programs. Ideally, the show can be used to encourage interdisciplinary learning in a number of subjects, thus moving beyond the obvious music and theater realms.

Many of our high schools stage a musical each year – classics by a variety of composers and lyricists, including Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and more. Such musicals can be powerful sources for educational experiences. Undoubtedly, the staging of a musical can reach other academic disciplines as well. The premises of musicals can be incorporated into student lessons in many subject areas. Even though musicals are generally staged at the high school level, musicals can easily be introduced at the elementary and middle school levels. If it is not always feasible to have students view a live stage performance of a musical, movie musicals on home video can be a viable alternative, since they offer convenience and flexibility. The variety of musicals that have been staged and filmed offer a multitude of themes that can touch virtually every school discipline.

In this article, I include my personal account of integrating musicals into our high school curriculum. In addition, I have included a number of ideas to inspire learning activities.

Arts Education Standards Support Musicals in the Curriculum
Standards-based learning supports musicals in the curriculum. Indeed, musicals are both a major source of entertainment throughout the world as well as educationally-rich resources worthy of inclusion in our curriculum. Many school-aged children enjoy musicals, providing an effective motivating factor for the inclusion of musicals in the curriculum.

Some curriculum specialists believe that school-based learning should focus on core areas like reading, writing and arithmetic. In today’s global society, one can present a strong argument for other areas, such as the arts, social studies, science, world languages, physical education, technology and practical arts. Treating musicals in the curriculum can promote learning in over a dozen school subjects. Traditionally, faculty and students have placed their efforts into the actual staging of the musical. In more recent years, musical theater has been used as a teaching tool supported by study guides, books, workshops, institutes, and other materials designed for learning by means of musicals.

Musicals are unquestionably a part of the arts. National and state standards promoting the arts have been developed in four main areas: dance, theater, music and visual arts. Musicals can be prime educational vehicles for the four main areas within the umbrella of arts education standards since all four of these are represented in musicals in varying degrees. It is well worth considering the arts education standards since musicals fall neatly within the theater domain and support the other three areas of music, dance and visual arts. Consider the following three relevant national standards for arts education:

  • “Comparing and integrating art forms by analyzing traditional theater, dance, music, visual arts and new art forms.”
  • “Analyzing, critiquing and constructing meanings from informal and formal theater, film, television and electronic media productions.”
  • “Understanding context by analyzing the role of theater, film, television and electronic media in the past and present.”

In these standards, the theater is specifically mentioned. The New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards, for example, encourage the combination of two or more subjects around a theme. More specifically, “The Music Man” could be used to focus on the history of early 20th-century America and the Gettysburg Address. It could also lead to the study of such themes as barbershop quartets, marching bands and the history of Iowa. Dozens of other musicals also serve as strong educational opportunities.

Beyond the Arts Curriculum: Musicals for Interdisciplinary Learning
Teachers in various subject areas can tie a musical into their curricula by focusing on themes, characters, plots, song lyrics, historical events and artistic components. This promotes the music as an effective educational tool, not only for students in the production but also for students in their regular classes.

From 1999 to the present, I have incorporated concepts from our high school musicals into my Spanish and Italian classes. I begin each year by writing study guides for teachers, and I expanded the concept to include study guides for the cast and for use by my students for creating projects. The guides provide background about the show, themes, creators and songs of each musical that we stage. Projects have included commemorative stamps of the show’s creators, song translations, a CD booklet, a show poster, a show program with digital photographs, colorful interdisciplinary quilts focusing on the shows and related themes, calendars, and trading cards of cast members.

All the projects promoted standards-based learning in several school subjects, including world languages, music, theater, art, math, science, social studies and language arts. Projects were designed to fit the language abilities of the various levels of the students. The projects completed were some of the most satisfying of my entire teaching career because they promoted language learning, computer technology, interdisciplinary learning and a project approach to learning. This project approach to musicals could potentially be used in virtually any subject area.

Musicals are generally staged as co-curricular activities. Nevertheless, these opportunities can enhance the learning of both core and elective courses taken by our students. Bridging the school musical to both the curriculum and the lobby displays can encourage collaboration between the visual and performing arts faculty and faculty in other areas. The band/orchestra teachers or musical directors can be key players in integrating the school musical into the curriculum.

The following steps outline a “how to” for curriculum integration related to school musicals:

  1. Once a musical is selected, find background about the show and its creators in books, on the Internet, in cast and soundtrack liner notes, articles and knowledgeable teachers or students.
  2. Create guidelines of themes, preferably in writing, that you can distribute to faculty or explain at a faculty meeting; this could be in the form of a written study guide.
  3. Encourage participation of faculty by designating one or more people as resources.
  4. Complete class projects prior to the musical’s staging.
  5. Display projects on the nights of the performance in your lobby or another visible location.
    One problem area may be time. Some faculty members may claim that they cannot fit the musical into their lessons. Since lessons treating musicals can vary in length, you can explain that even a part of one class lesson can address the musical. Those who have more time could do a unit or a special project.

The following exercises provide examples of how different activities related to “The Music Man” can be incorporated into various school subjects.
Art/Architecture: Students do art projects reflecting the themes of “The Music Man,” help with aspects of the school’s production (costumes, sets, make-up, lobby display). Art projects could include painting, drawing or sketching set designs. The architecture of houses and farms built during the early 1900s as well as American architecture can be explored.

Auto Shop/Mechanics: Students analyze classic American cars circa 1910, including their creators, engines, design, gas efficiency and current status as collectibles.

Business: Students analyze U.S. business trends and practices during the 1910 era, focusing on the time period and locale of “The Music Man.” Mail-order catalog companies such as Sears and J.C. Penney can be explored along with the Wells Fargo company, which is featured in one song in “The Music Man” score.

Computer Science: Students study the history of the Internet, use the Internet to research “The Music Man,” design a Web page devoted to “The Music Man,” or write an article or report about the musical using the computer.

Drama/Theater Arts: Students learn about the production of the stage, movie and revival versions of “The Music Man” through reading, lecture and by viewing the film and analyzing the libretto. Students could also take a look at other musicals by Meredith Willson (“The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “Here’s Love” and “1491”) or look at “The Music Man” within the context of Broadway musicals of the 1950s (the Golden era).

English/Language Arts: Students analyze the dialogue as found in “The Music Man” libretto and analyze the lyrics as they would analyze poetry. Students could focus on language that dates the show or helps define the variety of American English used in the western United States.

Home Economics: Students learn about the history of clothing and fashion circa 1910, with a focus on the American west. Students could also explore the history of quilt-making within the United States. Students could also learn about regional cuisine of the western United States.

Industrial Arts: Students learn about set construction for plays, movies and TV shows.

Journalism: Students research “The Music Man” and help design a program for the show or write a newspaper article for the school paper or a local newspaper.

Math/Economics: Students learn about math and economic developments in the 1910 era with emphasis on the western United States.

Music: Voice students learn to sing one or more songs from “The Music Man” score. Instrumental students learn to play one or more songs from “The Music Man” score. General music students listen to songs from the score and determine how they help develop the story and characters. All music students could learn more about the life and music of Meredith Willson.

Photography: Students analyze photograph stills from “The Music Man” productions and take photographs of the school production’s cast for use in various publications or displays.

Physical Education/Dance: Students analyze the dance sequences in “The Music Man.” Students could also explore the life and work of choreographer Onna White, who staged dances for both the original 1957 Broadway show and the 1962 musical.

Science: Students of science can explore the contributions of Americans to scientific discovery, especially from the earlier part of the 20th century. Students could also learn about the acoustics of sound in music and how musical instruments make sound.

Social Studies/History: Students learn about the 1910 era in terms of social trends, politics and demographics with emphasis in Iowa. Students could also take a close look at another musical set in Iowa, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “State Fair” (1945).

TV Production/Mass Communication: Students could explore technological advances throughout the 20th century, including the radio, silent films, talky films, television, computer technology, digital systems and the laser.

World Languages: Students read about “The Music Man” in the target language and discuss the reading’s content using a series of comprehension questions. Students prepare hands-on projects that combine art, music, theater and other disciplines. Students compare American music with music of the target culture.

“The Music Man” also generates several music-specific activities, including many that are interdisciplinary in nature.

  • Compare “The Music Man” to other musical comedies, noting similarities and differences.
  • Compare “The Music Man” to other Meredith Willson musical comedies.
  • What would “The Music Man” be like without music? Would the story be as effective?
  • Create another song for “The Music Man” score. Who will perform it? What will its main message be? How will it further develop the plot and characters?
  • Similar but different: students identify similarities and differences between the stage, movie and revival versions of “The Music Man.”
  • Name that tune: Using the overture, students identify the melodies they hear. Students can compare the stage version with the motion picture version.
  • Act it out: Working with the Willson (1957) libretto, students act out select scenes and/or songs.
  • Hit it: Students perform songs with piano or other accompaniment or a capella.
  • Listen Up: Students listen to songs from the various recordings of the show.
  • Analyze the song “Till There Was You” in terms of melody. This song is referred to as an AABA song. The melody of the A sections differs from the melody of the B section. Identify some other popular songs that follow the AABA melody pattern.
  • Students view the film in class or at a special screening, or see a stage production of the show.
  • Students read the libretto and non-fiction articles and materials about the show, including print materials and the Internet. These readings could include reviews of the original stage, film and revivals of “The Music Man.”
  • Students write about their favorite song from “The Music Man” or some other aspect of the show or score.
  • Students discuss the show’s score in cooperative groups. Each group could analyze a different song or compare different versions of the same song.

Staging co-curricular school musicals, live musicals outside of school and movie musicals can enrich the K-12 curriculum within an interdisciplinary framework. In many schools, the staging of a musical is a highlight of the academic year. It makes sense to use the themes, premises and music of school musicals to enhance student learning in a variety of school subjects. The arts are an important part of any sound curriculum, making musicals ideal for integrated and interdisciplinary projects. Indeed, musicals can support arts education standards, core subject standards and thematic learning at all levels of instruction. The school band or orchestra educator can serve as a key player in the integration of a school musical into the curriculum.

Additional Information: FACTS ABOUT “The Music Man”

  • The original title for the play was “The Silver Triangle.”
  • The musical “The Music Man” opened on Broadway on Dec. 19, 1957, at the Majestic Theatre and ran for 1,375 performances.
  • Robert Preston, Morton Da Costa, Onna White, Perl Kelton and the Buffalo Bills appeared in both the Broadway production and the 1962 motion picture version of “The Music Man.”
  • The Broadway production won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, beating out West Side Story.
  • The original version of “The Music Man” included a young, spastic boy. Advisors of Willson on his earlier version thought it would be best to eliminate the spastic boy from the story. Willson decided to change the spastic boy into the younger brother of Marian Paroo and have him lisp.

“The Music Man” creator, Meredith Willson, enjoys legendary status within the world of musical theater. Willson was born on May 18, 1902, in Mason City, Iowa. Throughout his life and no matter what his level of success, Willson always went back to Mason City to visit because he was so proud of his birth city and state. This pride is exhibited in his masterpiece, “The Music Man.”

Willson was the youngest of three children. His father John was a lawyer who played guitar and his mother, Rosalie, taught piano. Rosalie was the inspiration for the character Marian Paroo in “The Music Man.” Willson was destined to become an internationally known musician. His parents made individual plans for each of their children: their daughter Dixie was to be an educator; their son Cedric was to be a businessman; and Meredith was to be a musician. He took piano lessons from an early age, taught by his mother, and followed those with flute and piccolo lessons.

After graduating from high school, Willson moved to New York City, where he studied flute and conducting at the Damrosch Institute of Musical Art (now called Juilliard). Willson played the flute in the John Philip Sousa Band from 1921 to 1923. He was also the principal flutist with the New York Chamber Music Society and New York Philharmonic Orchestra from 1924 to 1929.
After leaving the Philharmonic, Willson began to work in radio on the west coast. He was the first musical director for ABC radio in Seattle, then for KRFC in San Francisco, and lastly for the Western Division of NBC Radio. At NBC, he directed “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show,” among others. During this radio period of his career, Willson composed and guest conducted for symphony orchestras, scored two films (Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes”), and also wrote music and lyrics for popular songs in the 1940s. Two of his most popular hits were “You and I” – which was also the theme song for Tallulah Bankhead’s radio program, “The Big Show” – and “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You.” Willson had his own television show in the late 1940s called “The Meredith Willson Show.”
“The Music Man,” Willson’s first Broadway musical, is considered his masterpiece and best known work, although it was his first of four musicals. He also created two other Broadway musicals – “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1960) and “Here’s Love” (1963). A fourth musical called “1491” ( 1969) was about a speculated romance between Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella. It was performed a few times in Los Angeles, and quickly closed. “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was mildly successful but “Here’s Love” and “1491” were considered flops.

Meredith Willson penned several books in addition to being a musician: “And There I Stood with My Piccolo” (1948), “Eggs I Have Laid” (1955), “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory” (1959), and “Who Did What to Fedalia?” (1950). He also authored a young musician’s guide in 1938. In “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory,” Willson presents a first-hand account of the creation of “The Music Man.” (The book’s title comes from a recurring line in the rhythmically spoken song, “Rock Island.”)

Meredith Willson died on June 15, 1984, of heart failure in Santa Monica, Calif., at the age of 82. In recognition of Willson’s great contribution to musical theater and 20th-century music, the Mason City Foundation has created a Music Man Square in Willson’s birthplace, Mason City, Iowa. A stamp featuring Willson was released on Sept. 21, 1999, in New York City, as part of a series to commemorate the important contributions of Broadway songwriters.
– Keith Mason
Meredith Willson

Keith Mason, Ph.D., teachers Italian and Spanish at New Providence High School in New Providence, N.J. He has integrated musicals at his school for four years. Dr. Mason is the recipient of three Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards for Outstanding Educational Impact.

UpFront appeared on pages 13 – 19 in the March issue of School Band and Orchestra.

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