School musicals can be far-reaching with careful planning. Many high schools stage a musical each year making musical theatre accessible to school populations. Besides attending performances, teachers and students can work on activities and projects tied to the school musical, making them educationally enriching.
For eight years, school musicals were systematically integrated into a New Jersey high school’s curriculum while supporting local and state standards. Besides curriculum integration, students created artistic lobby and cafeteria displays to coincide with musical performances. High school musicals can impact learning at the elementary and middle school levels as well. Stage, film and TV musicals can also be utilized in student learning.
The Rising Star Awards
The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey sponsors a yearly competition, the Rising Star Awards, for high school musicals. Other states have similar Tony-like competitions. Interestingly, the Rising Star Awards feature two categories that are absent from comparable programs: Educational Impact and Lobby Display. Students and faculty at the high school completed work within these two categories over an eight-year period for Carousel, Bye Bye Birdie, The Boys from Syracuse, The Music Man, Hello, Dolly!, Anything Goes, Into the Woods and The Boy Friend.
One can justify curricular integration of school musicals as follows:
School musical integrations had a few facets. First, a research phase involved an in-depth look at themes, subject-specific ideas aligned to standards and artistic concepts. This phase included the preparation of study guides by the author for students in the cast and select classes and for teachers. During this phase, students and faculty advisors designed lobby and cafeteria displays. Once the school year began, teachers would voluntarily undertake activities tied to the musical. Completed a few months before the performances, the resulting assignments culminated in lobby or cafeteria displays. Entry binder compilations of assignments served as support materials for the Rising Star Awards review committee.
When rehearsals began in January for upcoming March performances each year, the author gave multimedia cast presentations at the first rehearsal, providing background information, distribution and overview of study guides, interactive activities, a musical score activity and examples of pivotal songs or scenes from each musical.
Activities promoted subject-area and interdisciplinary learning, inspired by musicals. Students in Italian and Spanish classes completed written activities with art components including calendars, storybooks, show programs, fabric projects (quilts, Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak, a scarf), trading cards, cameo images, stained glass images and tour booklets. U.S. history classes created collages demonstrating how specific musicals teach history. Science classes addressed the acoustics of musical instruments, the botany of plants revered by Victorians and the chemistry of fragrances also revered by Victorians for a Hello, Dolly! integration. Language arts students analyzed show tune lyrics, and visual arts students created murals, paintings and drawings based on musicals’ themes. Culinary arts students baked tea cakes popular during the Victorian period.
Projects and Visual Arts on Display
Along with class projects, art displays were placed in the auditorium lobbies and cafeteria to coincide with performances. The displays reflected themes, time periods and concepts of each musical. For Carousel, students created a vibrant carnival mural accompanied by calliope music in the background. Bye Bye Birdie displayed the fictitious town of Sweet Apple, Ohio in the front lobby with a music store, Ed Sullivan footage in a display case serving as an appliance store window, a painted mural of the second New York Penn Station waiting room and a heartthrob homage. For The Boys from Syracuse, the front lobby featured a Mediterranean village complete with Etruscan arches, terracotta style roofing and a 24-foot drawn grapevine. One building mural paid tribute to the original creators of this 1938 Broadway musical. The Boys from Syracuse silhouettes appeared holding our show poster.
Anything Goes exhibited sailors, a ship mural and a nautical display case highlighting a ship’s steering wheel. For The Boy Friend, a Mediterranean beach scene occupied the display case, tied to its French Riviera setting. Art Deco style silhouettes appeared in the back lobby. Text often accompanied displays providing important background information about each musical, time periods and settings.
School musicals can offer much to the entire school population. Why not get the most out of musicals by integrating them into regular classes, creating a powerful, memorable educational impact? The enthusiasm and creativity exhibited by faculty and students truly brought each high school musical to life, not only on stage, but also behind-the-scenes by impacting the curriculum.
Keith Mason, Ph.D. has taught world languages in New Jersey high schools for more than 20 years. Previously, he taught language and linguistics at the University of Michigan, University of Virginia, Rutgers University and Princeton University. Dr. Mason received eight Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards for Educational Impact. He has written more than 60 articles, many about musicals. He is currently authoring a book Musicals Across the Curriculum.