Hello Dolly! An Inderdisciplinary Approach

By By Keith Mason, Ph.D.

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Hello, Dolly! remains one of the most popular works of the golden era of American musical theatre. The original story was part of a John Oxenford London play of 1835. His farce was adapted to German by Austrian Johann Nestroy and was called Einen Jux Will Er Sich Machen, meaning “He Wants to Make a Joke.” Thornton Wilder adapted the German work, first as The Merchant of Yonkers, and then as The Matchmaker. The Wilder adaptation was the source material for Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly!, staged on Broadway in 1964. The original production garnered 10 Tony Awards, a record at that time. The film version starring Barbra Streisand marks its fiftieth anniversary in 2019. I remember vividly seeing the film in a local cinema in 1969. Many years ago, I remember watching the film version on TV when it would be broadcast on Christmas Day.

A Hello, Dolly! revival ran on Broadway from March 15, 2017 to August 25, 2018 with Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters and Donna Murphy rotating in the role of Dolly Levi. A national U.S. tour starring Broadway legend Betty Buckley began in September 2018 and is scheduled to run through August 2019. This opportunity could encourage class trips to theatres throughout the U.S. and interdisciplinary lessons at schools tied to this Hello, Dolly! production.

In his autobiography Showtune, Dolly! composer and lyricist Jerry Herman states, “I fell in love with musical comedy when I was very young, and it is still my greatest passion. I go to opera, I go to ballet, I go to drama and comedy. But when I go to a musical and they start the overture, my heart leaps up.” Besides Hello, Dolly!, Herman is best known for several musicals and a revue: Milk and Honey, Mame, Dear World, Mack and Mabel, Jerry’s Girls, La Cage Aux Folles, and Miss Spectacular.

In this article, I describe an interdisciplinary approach for using Hello, Dolly! that took place at a New Jersey high school. It provides suggested activities for several academic subjects that demonstrate how a musical can enhance learning across subject boundaries. Many of the ideas outlined here can be utilized with other musicals.

Back lobby mural features silhouettes of waiters, Dolly Levi and Horace Vandergelder

Interdisciplinary Approach

Interdisciplinary curricular planning involves two or more subjects that allow students to make connections and learn at a deeper level. In Stirring the Head, Heart, and Soul: Redefining Curriculum, Instruction, and Concept-Based Learning, H. Lynn Erickson had this to say regarding interdisciplinary learning: “It can and should be implemented when feasible because it helps students understand complex issues from disciplinary perspectives, but interdisciplinary work should enhance not supplant a quality discipline-based curriculum.”

The tenets of a number of curricular frameworks such as the Multiple Intelligences, differentiation, thematic learning, concept-based curriculum, habits of mind, learning styles or standards-based learning can enhance interdisciplinary curriculum. I have had much success with project-based learning tied to musicals. The role of technology also needs to be determined when completing activities and projects. I found that combining traditional drawing with technology yielded several exceptional projects.

Tips for Integrating Musicals

  • Research the chosen musical for themes, characters, settings, time periods and songs to determine ideas for lessons, units and art displays
  • Locate a study guide or develop one that includes lessons, activities, projects, and assessments
  • Collaborate with colleagues and your administration
  • Involve students and encourage their input
  • Implement the integration
  • Document your work in writing and in photos and videos for future reference
  • Interdisciplinary Curriculum Using Musicals

Painted mural of Victorian house evoking the time period of Hello, Dolly!

Hello, Dolly! can impact several academic subjects. While I focused on high school initiatives, many are adaptable to elementary and middle school levels. Dolly! themes, settings, and songs inspired projects allowing for students to practice various general skills and subject-specific material while concomitantly learning the Dolly! musical.

Both the Victorian time period (1837 through 1901) and Hudson River Valley New York setting of Hello, Dolly! set the scene for learning. The story of Dolly Levi as a matchmaker arranging marriages between couples creates an additional context for learning.

The following learning scenarios can help teachers connect Hello, Dolly! to student learning. Consider including a research phrase in activities and projects.

English as a Second Language: Students benefit from learning song lyrics through singing and listening, reading about the musical, viewing the film version of Hello, Dolly!, writing about a topic related to the music or creators and the musical within U.S. culture and popular culture.

Family and Consumer Sciences: Students create a quilt or other fabric project with art and text involving research about one topic or song in Hello, Dolly! A digital quilt could also be created although the kinesthetic power of producing an actual fabric quilt is a pre-technology throwback. Students can also research, prepare and sample foods popular within Victorian America.

Industrial Arts: Students learn about set design including CAD (computer-aided design) and the actual construction of sets.

Language Arts: Students read the source material for Hello, Dolly!, analyze lyrics or dialog or write song analyses, interpretations or other creative written assignments.

Mathematics: Students complete projects that require math or spatial intelligence such as a project that requires a logical progression, space planning or three-dimensional projects.

Music/Performing Arts: Students act out, sing, perform instrumentally or dance one item from Hello, Dolly!  Songs by Jerry Herman include “It Takes a Woman,” “Dancing,” “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Hello, Dolly” “Before the Parade Passes By,” and “It Only Takes a Moment.”

Science: Students explore the flora and fauna of the Hudson River Valley and those popular with Victorians such as peacocks, mollusks, flowers, and fragrances. Three branches of science, biology, chemistry, and physics, included Hello, Dolly! lessons. For biology, students learned about the botany of flowers because the Victorians revered plants. In chemistry, students did an experiment creating fragrances found in perfumes, also revered by the Victorians. In physics, students learned about the acoustics of musical instruments.

Social Studies: Students complete projects tied to the Victorian time period and New York setting of Hello, Dolly! This could include reports, booklets, digital presentations, and creative projects. For one musical integration, U.S. History II students did montages describing how certain musicals help teach history. Examples included Evita, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Pippin, and South Pacific.

Visual Arts: Students create art such as a drawing, painting, mural, sculpture, mobile, or display inspired by a theme or song in Hello, Dolly! Visual arts students created drawings of Victorian homes in monochromes. Students learned about Victorian architecture while utilizing single color palettes. A lobby display committee created front lobby silhouettes of waiters from the Harmonia Gardens scene in Hello, Dolly! These were repeated in the back lobby, flanking an additional silhouette of Dolly and Horace Vendergelder dining at the Harmonia Gardens. A display featured rose paper, photo stills, and a gazing globe. Two students from the lobby display committee created a bright yellow Victorian house mural that stood out in our art display.

Silhouettes of Harmonia Gardens waiters in the front lobby greet audience members

World Languages: Students complete projects tied to Hello, Dolly! in the target language. Students of German can read the precursor play entitled Einen Jux Will Er Sich Machen that led to Thornton Wilder’s two books. Listening to an Italian language cast album of Hello, Dolly! or one in another target language is a possibility including comparisons between the original English language version and the target language version.

In my Italian and Spanish classes, students completed several projects. Two Italian class projects tied to Italian and Roman decorative arts. Italian 3 class learned about cameos, portraits first sculpted from the volcanic rock of Mount Vesuvius in Naples. Students created cameos on paper of Hello, Dolly! cast members with biographies in Italian. Italian 4 students learned about how the Romans first created stained glass windows. They created stained glass style portraits on paper with color markers of cast members also with biographies in Italian. 

One Spanish class created paper dolls of cast members with biographies in Spanish. This combined costumes, drawing, and target language writing. Students in another Spanish class created an interdisciplinary quilt with topics including creators of the original 1964 Broadway musical, Yonkers, Dolly! characters, the Hudson River Valley and Thornton Wilder with text written in Spanish. Most students had never used fabric markers on cotton muslin panels in school work.

Cast biographies and photos with flower descriptions in Italian created a project that combined the school production, flowers and language skills. In one Spanish class, hand fans, popular with the Victorians, were created with drawings of cast members and text in Spanish.

Tour booklets of Victorian New Jersey and New York highlighted interesting facts in the target language about the time period in these two states. This could be tailored to your own home state. A HEART grant from our county was awarded to complete work on Hello, Dolly! The Heart of Union County booklet had 21 students focus on the 21 towns of Union County, New Jersey where they resided. Students focused on historical aspects of each community and wrote the text in Spanish.

Writing: A variety of assignments can foster writing in all subjects. Students can create a Victorian menu or write a report about Victorian cuisine in the family and consumer sciences class. Students can write about period clothing also in family and consumer sciences. Students can write reports, create digital presentations with text, write a script for a commercial or presentation or complete a problem-solving project tied to Hello, Dolly!

It is also possible to mix and match from two or more subjects to emphasize interdisciplinary learning. For example, I had students of Spanish create a quilt, combining performing arts, family and consumer sciences, writing and world languages with elements of social studies and mathematics. 

Summary

Hello, Dolly! offers so much for several subjects in the curriculum. Jerry Herman’s musical occupies a prominent place within musical theatre and musical cinema. By working with the music, dances and themes of Hello, Dolly!, students can experience a classic golden era musical using an interdisciplinary approach.

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

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