Even though most theatre programs in the secondary schools produce one musical a year (which is often their only production), musical theatre is rarely studied in the classroom. This unit is intended to correct this oversight. Students use the skills associated with musical theatre in school productions, and these projects provide the academic reinforcement to develop those skills. The following projects and lesson plan can be taught by any teacher with basic movement and voice skills and successfully completed by any student regardless of her level of talent.
Skills and Understandings
Students will be able to:
- Define the major roles of those involved in creating a musical
- Name several major musicals
- Perform basic choreography
- Sing as part of a chorus or individually
- Perform in role as a character
- Create a timeline of U.S. musical theatre history
- Compare and contract musical theatre and other theatrical forms
- Describe Broadway's impact and influence on musical theatre*
- Integrate a variety of art forms (music, dance, etc)
*PBS has a series titled Broadway: The American Musical with excellent project ideas related to nonprofit and for profit theatre at pbs.org/wnet/broadway/teachers/lp3.html.
Projects & Assessments
- Project — Musical theatre performers must be able to sing, dance and act. Enable your students to develop all three skills by staging scenes and musical numbers from a single musical. Make sure that you have developed a supportive class community so that everyone feels comfortable singing and dancing in front of one another. If possible, collaborate with the music and dance teachers to combine classes and encourage the students to help each other develop the necessary skills. Be sure to let your students know that they will not necessarily be graded on their performance abilities. Taking the risks and trying out different techniques are much more important than whether someone has raw talent or not.
- Assessment — Personal improvement and performances using all three skills.
U.S. Musical Research
- Project — Provide the students with a list of U.S. musicals that includes a variety of composers (Stephen Sondheim, Rogers and Hammerstein, etc.), directors (Julie Taymor, James Lapine, etc.) and choreographers (Gene Kelly, Bob Fosse, Twyla Tharp, etc.) and ask them to pick one from the list. Ask each student to research their choice and present their musical to the class in a creative way. They can sing or play songs from the show, teach a dance number, perform a monologue, discuss the history of the production, etc. Encourage the students to be as creative and informative as possible. As an alternate assignment, have the entire class research the body of work from one key musical theatre person such as Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Bob Fosse, etc.
- Assessment — Creative presentation on a U.S. musical
- Project — Some of the most popular movies of all time have been musicals. Show the students a movie version of a musical (The Phantom of the Opera, Grease, Chicago, Little Shop of Horrors, Hairspray, etc.) and, if possible, take them to see a live version. Ask the students to write a critique of the movie in terms of its theatricality, the performances and how the movie version adjusts the script to work cinematically.
Assessment – Class discussions and written critique.
- Assessment — Face chart designs, pictures and presentation.
Musicals Based on Plays
- Project — Discuss the process of turning a play script into a musical version of the script (like Romeo and Juliet becoming West Side Story and M Butterfly becoming Miss Saigon). Show the students a non-musical and a musical version of the same story. Ask them to pick the same scene in both versions and analyze how and why the scene changed from one script to the next. As an alternate assignment, the students could create arguments for the scene that they think is the better of the two and support their opinion with evidence from the text to persuade their audience.
- Assessment – Class discussions and written analysis or argument.
Songs as Monologues
- Project — Assign each student a solo song from a muscial or have him or her pick one from a list. Ask the students to rewrite the song from the songbook in the form of a monologue. Then, have the students analyze the lyrics as they would any other monologue paying attention to beats and character objectives and tactics. The students could perform their monologue as both a monologue and a song provided they feel comfortable performing solo in front of the class. The purpose of this assignment is to help students recognize that an actor is still concerned with character analysis even as they switch from spoken word to song. The same assignment could be done with a duet turning into a spoken word scene.
- Assessment — Written analysis and evidence of that work in performance.
Song Lyric Scenes
- Project — Have the students divide into small groups or pairs and select one of their favorite songs that is not from a musical. Working from the lyrics and drawing inspiration from the music itself, the students will write a scene. They can use direct quotes from the lyrics if they choose, but they do not have to. The purpose of the assignment is to capture the quality of the song in a spoken word scene.
- Assessment — Written scene and performance.
Original Musical Theatre
- Project — Divide the class into small groups based on topics that interest them. In these groups, they will create a five to ten minute original musical about their topics in which they have at least one song (it can be an existing song with the words changed), choreography and dialogue. Give the students enough time to rehearse and prepare their musicals before they share them with the class.
- Assessment — Creation and performance of an original work that incorporates song, dance, written dialogue, character and story.
Who’s who in Musical Theatre?
Description: The students will research the people and tasks necessary in producing a musical.
Objectives: Define the major roles of those involved in creating a musical
Length: Two 45 minute sessions
Materials: Prepared poster board puzzle pieces, research tools
National Theatre Standards: Grades 9-12
Content Standard: Understanding context by analyzing the role of theatre, film, television and electronic media in the past and the present.
Achievement Standard: Students (b.) identify and compare the lives, works and influence of representative theatre artists in various cultures and historical periods
- Before class prepare the puzzle pieces so that each student in the class has one. Each puzzle (a poster board cut into pieces) should be color coded to represent a single musical (e.g., all the puzzle pieces for Wicked should be written in green, those for Into the Woods in red). Each puzzle should have a piece for the name of the musical (Rent), the theatre's name (Nederlander Theatre), the composer's name (Jonathan Larson), the lyricist's name (Jonathan Larson), the book writer's name (Jonathan Larson), the director (Michael Greif), the choreographer (Marlies Yearby), the musical director (Michael Greif), lead actor's names (Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel) plus additional pieces for designers, crew, tech, producers, etc. Decide if you want to write the names of original productions, current productions or a combination of the two.
- Pass out a puzzle piece to each student and have him or her find a group by matching the color.
- Students work in groups to research what their person did for the musical and what that job entails. They should add their research to their puzzle piece so that they have a complete collage of the musical and those involved.
- Share their work with the class.
- Create class definitions of each job.
- Evaluate group work and final collage.