Keith Mason describes the glee that musicals can bring to the language classroom
Musicals help form the fabric of American popular culture. Fairy tale and cartoon characters featured in animated and classic musicals such as The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, and West Side Story are an important part of our childhoods with high schools staging productions annually. Language teachers can capitalize by undertaking activities and projects related to the musicals because they are so much a part of American popular culture that children grow up being exposed to their characters, songs, themes, and storylines.
Some educators may question the use of musical theater within the language classroom but American musicals have reached all corners of the globe. Sports such as football or basketball are not popular in most of the target cultures that we teach. Nevertheless, our students discuss these sports in the target language as part of the social makeup of school. Musicals that are staged in our schools also form part of their social makeup and are worthy of inclusion in our language classes.
Musical plays and movies serve as powerful springboards for language activities. Classic works by Bernstein, George and Ira Gershwin, Lerner and Loewe, Loesser, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Sondheim, and Webber and Rice, among others, inspire class lessons and units. Because schools at all levels can potentially stage musicals, unique opportunities to develop language activities as curricular tie-ins are invited. Moreover, with the availability of a great many musicals on video and DVD, we need not limit ourselves to using live, in-school performances as inspiration for musical tie-ins. Indeed, video releases of movie musicals and audio recordings of musical scores provide the flexibility that teachers often seek. Recordings for many scores are available in the languages we teach (e.g., Carousel in Japanese; The Sound of Music in German; Evita or Man of La Mancha in Spanish). Notre Dame de Paris, an original musical performed in French, is ideal for French courses.
Although we often view musicals as a major form of entertainment, they can also be strong educational experiences that can accommodate visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. I have utilized musicals to enhance and enrich language instruction for the past several years, during which we have received eight awards for Educational Impact from the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey for our efforts in connecting our school’s musical with our high school curriculum. Every time we have entered the competition, language projects and activities have figured prominently in our integrations.
Some language educators may never have considered utilizing school musicals as stimuli for language learning. However, connecting the language classroom and the musicals either as part of the arts programs or as co-curricular activities makes sense. As musicals are routinely produced in so many high schools and have become such an important part of so many students’ lives, we can capitalize on this fact by connecting the two thus fostering the Connections standard and helping students build the Communities standard. A number of elementary and middle schools, as well as colleges, also stage musicals. Thus, the potential for using musicals to enhance language learning can be found at all levels of instruction.
Languages and Musicals: Standards-Based Instruction
Musicals can be rich resources for thematic learning, can enrich any language curriculum, and support standards in various subjects. Because musicals offer a story, plot, character, songs, and themes, they can be easily treated similarly to literature in the language curriculum. Most musicals can be considered as a comedy or drama with music, making them ideal stimuli for language activities.
The integration of musicals can also support language learning. The Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century (1999) have helped language educators consider key components of sound language instruction. The national generic and language-specific foreign language standards support the inclusion of musicals in sound language instruction. Consider the five Cs of the national standards and how they support musicals studies: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. See the sidebar “Musicals and the 5 C’s.”
Musicals and the 5 C’s
Communication: Musicals provide spoken language, listening practice, exposure to dialects, and the possibility of reading the script or the original source material; students can talk about or write about the plot, characters, themes, and songs within the musicals in the target language.
Cultures: Musicals are rich in contextualized cultural themes including regional settings and chock full of social, political, ethnic, and gender issues.
Connections: Musicals support interdisciplinary study linking them with theater arts, visual arts, language, history, geography, culture, sociology, and other disciplines.
Comparisons: Specific musicals can be compared to other musicals in terms of plot, story, setting, characters, songs, or themes. Because a number of cast albums and soundtracks are available in the languages that we teach, language teachers can incorporate musicals in translation into class activities.
Communities: Target language students can utilize their language skills for personal enjoyment.
Ideally, a musical could be chosen to enrich the existing curriculum. For example, if students of Spanish are reading Don Quixote de la Mancha by Cervantes, they can at that point be exposed to the musical Man of La Mancha. If students will be reading fairy tales, they can be exposed to musical versions of Cinderella, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Once Upon a Mattress, or Into the Woods.
It is absolutely essential that teachers verify the appropriateness of a specific musical to the age level of students before deciding to use it. It might be a good start to integrate your lessons into your own school’s musical production since that musical must be approved by the administration or use musical films from your school’s media center collection. See the “Resources” sidebar for works and web sites ideal for background information about possible musicals.
The following works and websites can help you integrate musicals into your language classes:
Filichia, Peter. 2007. Let’s Put on a Musical, 2nd ed. New York: Back Stage Books.
Green, Stanley. 1990. Broadway Musicals Show by Show, 5th ed. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard.
Green, Stanley. 1990. Hollywood Musicals Year by Year, 2nd ed. Wilwaukee: Hal Leonard.
The Musicals/Language Link
A number of content-rich language activities tied to musicals can help teachers encourage both language learning and language acquisition. Such activities can be accomplished in class, out of class, or in combination. Some of the projects described here have been exhibited in elaborate lobby and/or cafeteria displays to coincide with our school’s musical production. Both the projects and displays get students and faculty members not normally associated with the staging of the musical involved, inviting their creativity. The main focus here is connecting the use of musicals and the language, and fostering the five Cs. Let’s start with my two favorite musicals, The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music, which celebrated their seventieth and fiftieth anniversaries, respectively, in 2009.
The Wizard of Oz: The classic 1939 MGM musical, with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. I have used both the Spanish and Italian dubbed versions of the film, El Mago de Oz and Il Mago di Oz, in my own classes. Follow-up activities focused on character identifications, character descriptions, song titles, basic facts, and students’ personal views of the film, all in the target language. While the lyrics to the songs were not dubbed in the target language, the abundant dialogue in the target language reinforced listening comprehension, vocabulary, and structures in context. Many students were already familiar with this film, which I considered an advantage.
The Sound of Music: While the associations to German culture are obvious because of the Austrian setting of The Sound of Music, there are a number of activities that can be done in other language classes using this 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Activities include tracing the origin of the do-re-mi scale (related to the song “Do-Re-Mi”) to an Italian monk, analysis of Latin song lyrics used in the convent scenes and linking this with the history of Italian and the Romance languages, the Alpine link between Austria and Northern Italy, and comparing marionette theatre in Italy with the marionettes featured in the “Lonely Goatherd” scene. The Holocaust in Italy could also be addressed and linked to the Benigni film La vita è bella/Life Is Beautiful. The 1965 movie soundtrack of The Sound of Music was recorded in Italian, German, French, and Spanish in addition to the original English, using the Irwin Kostal orchestrations. These recordings could be used for a comparative analysis between the English version and the target language version. Cast albums are also available in Dutch, Hebrew, Japanese, and Swedish.
Fairy Tale Musicals: A few musicals derive from children’s literature: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Peter Pan, Once Upon a Mattress, and Into the Woods. Our school staged Into the Woods in 2005 and our language students undertook several projects. Italian 1 students produced postage stamps of themes and people associated with the musical along with text in Italian. Another section of Italian 1 created a fairy tale calendar with text again in Italian. Spanish 3 wrote biographies of cast members in Spanish and created paper dolls of their images while Spanish 5 created a quilt that featured themes and people associated with Into the Woods. Italian 4 created Little Red Ridinghood’s cloak in fabric with fabric panels of graphics and Italian text related to fairy tales. Students read fairy tales in the target language and practiced all four language skills. Students produced a “woods” mural with fairy tale characters in tempera paint, a beanstalk complete with a stuffed “Jack” doll, and stained glass fairy tale scenes to adorn our cafeteria’s windows, coinciding with our school’s performances. This encouraged creativity in arts while enhancing the theater-going experience for the entire school community.
Americana Musicals: Bye Bye Birdie, The Music Man, and Hello, Dolly! were all staged at our school, prime examples of classic Americana. One of the highlight projects for the first show was for students to create a CD booklet and a graphic for a compact disc in the Italian language. Each song title was provided in Italian along with photographs of two of our cast members. This project received a local lesson plan award. For The Music Man, students in Spanish 2 each researched one musical instrument because of the show’s band theme. Students wrote a brief description in Spanish of the assigned instrument, plus a biographical sketch of one cast member in our production. Cast members each posed for a photograph in costume featuring one instrument, bridging the two components together. Hello, Dolly! proved ideal for Italian class. Not only was an Italian cast CD available with song lyrics in Italian, but two of the decorative arts revered by the Victorians, the time period of Hello, Dolly!, were highlighted. Students in Italian 3 and 4 researched cameo jewelry and stained glass windows, art forms that can be traced to Italy. Students learned the history of each art form and then created cameo and stained glass portraits of cast members from our production, with biographies in Italian. These projects bridged language studies, history, and visual arts.
Language-Specific Musicals: I have done activities tied to Evita and Man of La Mancha in Spanish classes. Students listened to cast albums of these two shows in Spanish. Dubbed versions of both films are available. Students can learn about the Perón era of Argentina, or read excerpts from Don Quijote de la Mancha by Cervantes to foster language skills. Les Misérables can work well in French classes, while The Light in the Piazza, winner of six Tony Awards, has potential for Italian courses.
The Opera-Musical Link: Students can take a close look at musicals that have originated from operas such as Rent (from Puccini’s La Bohème), Miss Saigon (from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly), and Aida (from Verdi’s Aïda). The Paper Mill Playhouse and the State Theater in New Jersey staged Miss Saigon in recent years, a sung-through musical based on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This created a unique opportunity to undertake a Madama Butterfly/Miss Saigon thematic unit in my Italian courses. Our unit was an idealized educational opportunity, linking an Italian opera with a musical theater adaptation. Because Miss Saigon is not available on video or as a motion picture, we arranged a field trip to see a stage performance, serving as a superb culminating activity for our thematic unit.
Target Culture Musical Theatre: While musical theatre may be an American genre, we can also offer students musical theater native to the cultures that we teach: zarzuela in Spanish class, opera in Italian class, operetta in German class, and the comédie-musicale in French class. Students can also learn the chronology of opera as the historical precursor of musicals, with operetta as an intermediate musical genre. Making this connection for students between musicals and opera can make operas more accessible to them, particularly in Italian courses. When our school staged Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse, students of Italian learned about Commedia dell’Arte influences in that work, originating in Latin stories by Plautus. Their learning culminated in a colorful Comedy of Art calendar with hand-drawn images of famous Commedia characters such as Pantalone and Pulcinella and descriptive text in Italian.
The careful selection and use of musicals can truly enrich the language curriculum. With the dozens of musicals available, they can serve as creative ways to allow students to master the National Foreign Language Standards. Thus, students are not only gaining practice in the target language, but they are also learning about a classic part of American popular culture, American musicals, on both stage and screen. Because music is an important part of the arts and popular culture, American musical theater can ideally be bridged to a standards-driven language curriculum. When utilizing musicals staged in our own schools to foster language learning, we can witness firsthand how such curricular planning can be regarded as an innovative way to integrate art and music into the language curriculum, as well as being an ideal way to invite creativity in both instructor and students. The musical integrations that I have undertaken have been career-changing for me because of the hundreds of students affected by the themes and music found in classic American musicals.
Keith Mason is a teacher of Spanish and Italian at New Providence High School in New Providence, New Jersey. Dr. Mason has received eight Paper Mill Rising Star Awards in Educational Impact for integrating school’s musicals into the world language high school curriculum.
Illustrations by Amane Kaneko