Carefully Taught: Musicals for Teaching Tolerance and DIversity

SBO Staff • April/May 2019ChoralRecruitment • May 9, 2019

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Musicals tell a variety of stories that can serve as effective ways to teach students tolerance and diversity. This article’s title derives from “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2019. People are diverse because of religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, politics and physical condition. This creates an interesting, varied world, yet it can also be a source of conflict.  Because of the wide variety of people in our world, we can help students learn tolerance. The concept of developing tolerance is clearly linked to diversity. If people are different from us, how can we develop ways to tolerate these differences?

The History of Musicals

Plays with music started in Ancient Greece. Today’s musicals began in the mid 1800s and have continued evolving into the 20th and 21st centuries with varying themes and types. Historically, musicals developed first as live stage performances. Musical films came in the late 1920s with the advent of talking pictures. Television musicals performed live have become popular on the NBC and Fox networks. Musicals are found on cable, streaming and home video, making them accessible to educators. Select stage, film or television musicals can teach about tolerance and diversity within an arts or popular culture context.

Implementing Musicals

Musical themes, scenes and songs can be utilized in lessons to illustrate and promote tolerance and diversity. Consider the following in lessons:

  • Show tunes to illustrate key tolerance or diversity concepts
  • Scenes from a film musical or recorded stage musical (use subtitles if available)
  • Entire musicals such as South Pacific or West Side Story
  • Written scripts of dialog, especially with older students
  • Photographs that invite discussion
  • Playbill covers, promotional illustrations, or Hirschfeld caricatures
  • Acting out musical scenes or performing show tunes
  • Musical study guide content or another reading source can illustrate tolerance and diversity. Mini-lessons can prime students to work with songs, musical scenes, entire musicals, or readings. What students learn about tolerance and diversity in school can become portable skills that they can take with them and use in the work force, family situations, and society.

Lessons can be developed using various curriculum frameworks such as Multiple Intelligences, habits of mind, and project-based learning. Differentiation invites students to explore various musicals. The Resources sidebar can help develop lessons.

Musicals to Explore Tolerance and Diversity

Numerous musicals illustrate ways to teach students about tolerance and diversity. While hundreds of musicals have appeared through the decades, I will highlight 26 to illustrate how musicals can serve as effective ways to create lessons. Conflicts in musicals vary. Consider the following learning scenarios for teaching tolerance and make sure students understand how intolerance is resolved.

  • The Band’s Visit: A story of ethnic tolerance ensues when an Egyptian band arrives in a small Israeli town and has no immediate means to leave. The two groups learn tolerance and make the best of the situation.
  • Cabaret: Set in Berlin during the Weimar Republic in 1931, under the presence of the growing Nazi Party, a German woman and Jewish man bring to light the intolerance for Jews during this period.
  • La Cage Aux Folles: This story about homosexual men offers lessons in tolerance. “I Am What I Am” is Albin’s signature song. He poses as his partner Georges’ wife in drag to appease Georges’ son when they meet his future in-laws.
  • Carousel: A carnival barker Billy Bigelow is ostracized within a Maine community during the 1870s. Although he marries a girl, Julie Jordon, tragedy strikes when he is killed during an attempted robbery. Billy leaves behind Julie and their daughter Louise, who is taunted because of her father’s shady past.
  • Evita: The first lady of Argentina Eva Perón encounters adversity in her rise to the top. Many people are intolerant of her because she was born out of wedlock.
  • Fiddler on the Roof: Set in Russia during the early 1920s, a Jewish family headed by a milkman Tevye demonstrates his intolerance of change, the importance of Jewish tradition, and his views of arranged and interfaith marriages.
  • Hamilton: An American Musical: The phenomenal musical depicts treasurer Alexander Hamilton. Aaron Burr and Hamilton have a conflict over John Adams’ election as president, culminating in a duel that results in Hamilton’s death.
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame: The story of Quasimodo, a deformed hunchback, is a lesson in tolerating those with physical problems. We also see conflicts between Parisians and gypsies.
  • Jekyll & Hyde: Dr. Jekyll attempts to cure his father’s mental illness. He creates an evil personality known as Mr. Hyde. Jekyll must find a cure for the demon he created in his own mind.
  • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat: Joseph, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, is the victim of his brothers’ jealousy. They want to kill Joseph out of jealousy over his Technicolor dreamcoat and father’s favoritism. Joseph is sold into slavery and subsequently imprisoned. When Joseph has seen that his brothers have changed, he forgives them and is reunited with them and his father.
  • Kiss Me, Kate: Based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Kate sings “I Hate Men.” A few conflicts ensue that teach tolerance including the principal actors’ divorce and their ability to continue working on the stage.
  • Man of La Mancha: Spanish author Cervantes is in a Seville dungeon and acts out the adventures of Don Quixote with his cellmates. Much of the conflict is that Quixote is not based in reality, making people intolerant of his idealistic views.
  • Miss Saigon: Themes of east versus west are found in this musical based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Interracial marriage between Vietnamese women and American GIs fostered racism against their offspring.
  • Mulan: A young woman goes into military service disguised as a man to keep her family’s honor. She knows that her female identity will not be tolerated in the military where it is a men only crowd.
  • My Fair Lady: Social class provides much of the conflict in this story based on Pygmalion. Professor Henry Higgins, phonetics expert, tries to convert a poor flower girl into a refined lady, working on her speech that marks her as a less prestigious speaker of Cockney. “Why Can’t the English?” sung by Henry Higgins offers much insight into his character. “Just You Wait” sung by Eliza offers her commentary about her teacher.
  • Oklahoma!: We see a few clear instances of intolerance: the farmers versus the cowboys, Laurey versus Jud, the farmhand, and Laurey versus Curly. “The Farmer and the Cowman” illustrates how there should be an understanding between farmers and cowboys, demonstrating tolerance.
  • Oliver!: Based on Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist!, an orphan experiences a number of trials including leaving the orphanage and associating with a group of pickpockets.
  • Once on This Island: An island with impoverished black peasants on one side and rich whites on the other side teaches about ethnic tolerance. An orphaned peasant girl is adopted by peasants after a huge storm. Love is found to be of utmost importance.
  • Rent: Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, the story is updated by having the main disease HIV/AIDS instead of consumption. The main conflicts are homophobia and HIV/AIDS.
  • 1776: This musical leads up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams is disliked yet his fellow forefathers must learn to tolerate him to accomplish the task at hand. A main area of contention is slavery and its inclusion in the impending document.
  • Show Boat: Julie is the daughter of a mixed marriage but passes as white. She marries Steve but the two may be arrested because of a law against mixed marriages.
  • The Sound of Music: This musical takes place before and during the Nazi takeover of Austria. “No Way to Stop It” is the best song to illustrate this theme. The original 1959 Broadway cast album and the 2013 TV version include this song.
  • South Pacific: Set during World War II, South Pacific deals with racial prejudice, illustrated through two romantic couples. Nellie Forbush and Emile de Beque are in love but when Nellie discovers that Emile’s first wife was Polynesian, and that they had children, she demonstrates intolerance. Lieutenant Joe Cable and Liat are also in love but Cable rejects Liat because she is Tonkinese. He sings “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” ideal for teaching about prejudice.
  • West Side Story: Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this musical pits two gangs against each other: The Jets, a New York gang, and The Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang. The gangs hate each other and are intolerant of each other’s existence. When an American man Tony falls in love with a Puerto Rican woman Maria, the conflict becomes even more pronounced.
  • Wicked: When a baby is born green, she is immediately discriminated against. Elphaba lives her life looking different from everyone else. How can she be understood for what is inside instead of by her green complexion?
  • The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy and her friends are traveling through Oz to Emerald City. How do the four principal characters learn to get along on their trip to the Emerald City? How do the characters react to the Wicked Witch of the West and vice versa? What are the Wizard’s shortcomings?


Because of their wide array of themes, conflicts and characters, musicals can effectively teach students about tolerance and diversity. Undoubtedly, in order to encourage students to embrace tolerance, they must be carefully taught.


  • The Cyber Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre, Film & Television
  • Redman, George L. 1999. A Casebook for Exploring Diversity in K-12 Classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
  • Stempel, Larry. 2010. Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater. New York: W.W. Norton .

Keith Mason, Ph.D. received eight Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards for educational impact for integrating musicals into the high school curriculum. He is currently writing a book Musicals Across the Curriculum.

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