Society for American Music

Bulletin, Volume XXVII, no. 1 (Spring 2001)

'Say It With Music': American Musical Theater in General Studies Courses


By Ann Sears, Wheaton College, Norton, Mass.


For the last several years, all Wheaton College (Norton, Massachusetts) students have been obliged to take a group of courses known as the General Education Requirements in order to graduate. As you can imagine, these requirements are met with various degrees of love and hate by both students and faculty. However, these General Education courses are wonderful opportunities to create student-friendly general studies courses (after the model of the College Music Society) while allowing faculty to teach more often in their particular areas of interest. If the courses prove compelling to students and enrollements rise, the department basks in the welcome glow of administrative approval, and the professor is hailed as a thoughtful, innovative member of the faculty. College, department, faculty members, and students benefit equally from a positive experience.

With such meaningful rewards in sight, it is no surprise that this particular professor eyed the Gen. Ed. requirements called "cultural diversity." While the anthropologists and sociologists argued about whether that should mean diversity within the United States or around the world, I focused on an African-American music course incorporating both African and African-American material. That worked so well that I developed another course in American musical theater that could be cross-listed in the Theatre Department's courses as well as fulfilling the Wheaton College General Education categories for Arts and Humanities, and Cultural Diversity.

Having attended some Wheaton-sponsored workshops about cultural diversity, I began to think about the new course in a cultural diversity context. While another chronologically organized course would probably be approved by the Wheaton College Educational Policy Committee, what about a course that was organized around issues such a ethnic identity, stereotypes, and nationalism, and how these ideas are explicated or transmitted by stage and film works?

The course that resulted, now being taught for the fifth semester, is called "Broadway Bound: American Musical Theater." It is divied into three sections. The first section, "The Black Experience in America," may include material from such shows as Treemonisha, Show Boat, Cabin in the Sky, The Green Pastures, Porgy and Bess, or The Wiz, among others. The second section examines how American musical theater constructs ideas of Asian identity: the shows might be Madame Butterfly, South Pacific, The King and I, Flower Drum Song, or Miss Saigon. The third section is entitled "Romantic Treatments of American History" and often uses Oklahoma!, 1776, La Faciulla del West, olr Girl of the Golden West. The musical theater repertoire is so rich that much variety is possible year to year, although choices must be made with certain criteria in mind.

Many students in these general studies classes about music or theater have little or no applied performance experience in either music or theater, nor are they usually familiar with the film adaptations that many of us assume to be common ground. Most of them have no experience with opera or operatically trained voices, even though they somehow already know that they just hate opera. And for the majority of the class, thinking of American musical theater as anything more or less than pure entertainment is a very new concept.

Many of us would agree that no matter how the course is constructed, one must cover certain aspects of musical theater: vocal styles and how they have changed through the twentieth century; the many differences between stage and film production techniques; musical forms and genres; and the process of writing book and lyrics. It is essential to explain why we frequently use film in studying American musical theater; and the course should give at least a brief overview of the great composers and lyricists. However, if the course is primarily structured around social and political issues and human experiences and begins with history and literature, the students can feel very involved in the course immediately, no matter what their musical backgrounds or skills might be.

With this general context in mind, here are some strategies for presenting American musical theater material to general studies students.

Let's begin with Treemonisha. (Yes, I know: Treemonisha, Porgy and Bess, Madama Butterfly, and La Fanciulla del West are operas. But, you see, part of my mission is to slip a little opera into the mix before the students can object. To my delight, many students really liked most of the operatic examples!) To discuss Treemonisha, we must first know about ragtime and Scott Joplin. The usual approach discusses the rise of ragtime, its musical characteristics of ragtime, the 1899 publication of "Maple Leaf Rag," Scott Joplin's life, and the opera itself: characters, the setting, the musical forms found in it, and the rediscovery of the opera late in the twentieth century.

This is important knowledge that should be available to every student. However, some students will absorb this material more easily if we start from a context they can grasp more readily than new musical ideas. Suppose the study of Treemonisha begins with a lecture about African-American history: for example, the changes in the slave trade from 1808 to the Civil War Years; the chief failures of the Reconstruction period (the failures to achieve land reform and to guarantee civil rights for free people of color); the share-cropping system; the rise of the Ku Klux Klan; Plessy vs. Ferguson (the 1896 Supreme Court decision that institutionalized segregation); and finally, the Niagara Movement in the first decade of the twentieth century (meetings which led to the founding of the NAACP) and the debate within the black community about accommodation or resistance to injustice. How can students relate this complex and angst-laden history to an opera written in 1911 with a soporific plot about a young black girl and the significance of her education? Suppost they read excerpts of speeches from opposite points of view given by Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Instutute and proponent of African-Americans "pulling themselves up the social ladder a bit at a time," and W.E.B. DuBois, the brilliant Harvard-educated author of The Souls of Black Folk and a proponent of complete immediate social and political equality? If they read these speeches along with the opera libretto adn then write a paper about which side of the black community's debate Joplin would have taken, the historical context becomes a powerful entrance into the opera and often leads to a lively class discussion.

Treated in this fashion, Treemonisha leads quite naturally to the more dramatically successful stories of Show Boat (1927) and Porgy and Bess (1935). With its powerful treatment of social issues, Show Boat, the 1927 collaboration of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, segues very naturally into the Asian section of the course and Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific and The King and I.

South Pacitic is familiar to many students and it is particularly appreciated by those who have been in a high school or community theater production and know several hit songs from the show. They usually don't know James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning book of short stories, Tales of the South Pacific, published in 1947 and now out of print; and they have rarely read the two short stories that were conflated into the show: "Our Heroine" and "Fo' Dolla." Some of them have seen the film adaptation, and they inevitably agree unanimously that the lighting effects in this film are just dreadful, which usually leads to a discussion about how the film could be improved. Therefore, their project for this show is to update South Pacific for filming. They must read the two short stories, view the old film and produce the following: a new scenario or plot outline; a list of musical numbers (they can use or delete old numbers or add new ones); and a proposed cast list, including their reasons for choosing these actors and actesses. Although their choices of new song topics reflect the dissonance between the exotic atmosphere of a South Pacific island paradise and gritty World War II experiences, they still find much of the show has worn well, particularly "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." They may contemplate a darker atmosphere for their updated version, but the social commentary in South Pacific is rarely improved on by their changes.

The King and I appears at the mid-point of the current syllabus. The entire class is looking a little glazed from mid-term exams, the omnipresent campus cold, and the onset of winter weather. The dance element in The King and I is the perfect antidote to mid-semester torpor. After an introduction to the show (the plot, the characters, the principal songs, interesting facts about the creation of the show), we view the "Shall We Dance" segment. I ask them why Rodgers and Hammerstein chose to use a polka here, rather than a waltz or some other appropriate 1860s dance. Since most of them aren't quite certain what a polka or waltz are, I have two choices. I invite a volunteer from class to join me and we demonstrate both dances. This has the advantage of me making quite a fool of myself, always a quick attention-getter in class. Even better, I teach all of the class the polka and waltz in class in about a half-hour session. Once the students are breathless from the polka, part the reason for Rodgers' and Hammerstein's choice of this dance becomes clear: It so perfectly reflects the state of the relationship between Anna and the king as they realize they love one another.

We now proceed to The Small House of Uncle Thomas, Jerome Robbin's imaginative ballet adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Along with a discussion of the story of Uncle Tom's Cabin and its relationship to The King and I, we look at the charming elements of pseudo-Thai cance and drama in this "show within a show," and set up a discussion of the usefulness of including ballet and vernacular dance in musical theater, as well as exoticism.

As the semester whizzes to its end, we take up romantic treatments of American history and Oklahoma! The film version of Oklahoma! captures the sunlit, pastoral environment described so eloquently by Lynn Riggs and Hammerstein in play and musical adaptation respectively. It hardly makes the hardship of frontier life in the Oklahoma territory real. In this tranquil, bucolic, Oklahoma, there's plenty of time for romance and dancing. A comparison of the extraordinary black and white documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains (with film score by Virgil Thomson) instantly shows how romanticized a musical theater production can be, how removed from authentic human experience. And after half a semester of looking at so many show in which the love interest is paramount, a discussion of how history is written and transmitted is a welcome change.

These essentially interdisciplinary ways to approach musical theater are only limited by your time and imagination. You might teach The Green Pastures by concentrating on the spiritual tradition and Hall Johnson, or you might choose to add to that reading an article on black English or ebonics and discussion of political correctness of using anything that contains minstrel dialect. How about following that project with a comparison of Bizet's opera Carmen in French and Hammerstein's Carmen Jones, or a comparison of both the 1936 and 1951 film versions of Show Boat? You might divide the class into small groups, giving each a short work to adapt, such as O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi or the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. After they write a short scenario of their assigned show, compile a list of musical numbers, and a cast list, ask them to present some portion of their musical adaptation to the class.

Whatever unique assignments and lesson plans you develop in such a course, the interdisciplinary approach integrating music, theater, history, and literature will captivate your students. It's very rewarding to watch general studies students learn new ideas through these venues and develop an affection for the works along with a good deal of self-confidence in their abilities; and this is likely to be one of the most enjoyable pedagogical experiences of your career. (Be forewarned that this material is addictive, and be prepared for large classes!)



Ann Sears is associate professor of music history at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. She chairs the nominating committee of the Society for American Music. This paper was presented at the Toronto 2000: Musical Intersections megaconference.





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