Musical Study Guides Support: Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment

By Keith Mason, Ph.D.

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Musicals are rich resources for learning in addition to being major forms of entertainment. Because of the popularity of musicals in education, the creation of musical study guides has become more common than in the past. What exactly do these musical guides accomplish? What type of content do they contain? What subjects are impacted? Who prepares such study guides? This article explores study guide content, variation and the shows represented in this body of literature and how they impact curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Musicals: A Brief History

American musical theatre can be traced back to the mid 1800s although precursors that led up to this performing art can be identified, including minstrel, revues, operetta, and vaudeville.

The twentieth century saw the musical develop and the form is still popular today globally. John Kenrick’s book Musical Theater: A History and Larry Stempel’s volume Show Time: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater provide detailed histories of musical theatre. Historical information about individual shows can be found in Broadway Musicals Show by Show, and Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green, but also consider liner notes of cast albums and soundtracks, magazine and journal articles, websites, books, and special DVD releases of film musicals. Information may also be found in study guides for individual musicals.

Musical Study Guides: A Rationale

Similar to other guides used as ancillaries to complement textbook or curricular content, study guides are produced to help students learn material and assist educators who wish to use musicals in their classes or in co-curricular settings. Maxworthy found that study guides are effective for helping reading comprehension. In a similar vein, musical study guides can help students with comprehending musicals. I have been tracking musical study guides for more than 20 years; this article is a culmination of this careful look. Besides learning musical- related material, the following lists advantages that musical study guides offer:

  • help busy teachers implement a musical and have a resource to guide them, whether it is curricular or co-curricular
  • promote musical theatre and encourage educators to bring students to live theatre venues
  • accommodate a group of students who are working on the same musical or individual students or student groups who are working on various musicals
  • show the importance of musicals as educational resources
  • assist with both breadth and depth of learning
  • foster skills and concepts in other core subjects such as language arts, math, science, and social studies

Professional Musical Study Guides: An Overview

Many study guides began as print materials. Many are now available on the Internet in digital format. Some guides are available both online and in print. Some guides are more generic because they do not represent a specific production of a musical. Other guides are tailored to specific productions. While this survey is not exhaustive, it is representative of what is available to educators and their students. The following outlines a selection of musical study guides from several resources including the guides’ features:

Music Theatre International (MTI) is a licensing firm for musicals. They offer more than 40 musical study guides for purchase. www.mtishows.com/marketplace/resource/pre-performance/study-guide

Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddon, Connecticut stages musicals every season. They produce their own study guides for their musical productions. At press time, 11 years worth of study guides appear on their website at www.goodspeed.org/education-library/study-guides

StageNotes by Camp Broadway produces study guides for Broadway musicals available on line and in print format. www.stagenotes.net/teaching-tools/education-guides/

Lincoln Center has provided guides for some musicals including The King and I, My Fair Lady and South Pacific and others are available on the Internet. Search by show title plus the words “study guide” or “resource guide” to locate online materials. Many musicals have web sites with study guides such as Newsies: The Musical and Aladdin.

Teachers Pay Teachers, which offers teacher-produced materials regarding musicals, is also worth considering. Search by musical title or composer/lyricist such as Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe.

Professional study guides are usually authored by theatre professors and professional educators. Note that some guides are available for golden era musicals, generally those from 1920 to 1959, and some have been written for newer musicals.

Teacher Authored Study Guides: Considerations and Options

A school may stage a musical for which no professional study guide exists. I was in this situation several times. For eight spring musicals at a New Jersey high school, I created in-house study guides to promote learning and interdisciplinary initiatives. The guides started small and grew in detail and comprehensiveness. The musicals undertaken were Carousel, Bye Bye Birdie, The Boys from Syracuse, The Music Man, Hello, Dolly!, Anything Goes, Into the Woods, and The Boy Friend. When I first began these in-house study guides, there were many musicals for which there were no professional guides. Nevertheless, the study guides that did exist helped guide me on what to include and how to go about subject matter and interdisciplinary treatment.

Content for both professional and school authored musical study guides can vary. They usually impact the curriculum by:

  • Providing plotline, themes, symbolism, character development and musical score
  • Address storytelling and its strong message
  • Inspire writing across the curriculum
  • Promote project-based learning, creativity, and divergent learning
  • Also consider using film musicals when available, print and digital materials, books and props to enhance learning.

Curricular Considerations

Many educators utilize Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe 2005) to ensure deep learning, big ideas, essential questions, and enduring understandings. Other frameworks are also helpful in integrating musicals including the Multiple Intelligences, differentiation, habits of mind, thematic and interdisciplinary learning, and learning styles. Subject area standards, whether national, state, or local ones, can also drive learning plans. Several articles by this author have addressed general benefits of musicals, subject area treatment and curricular frameworks:

For world languages (Mason 2011), for fabric arts (Mason 2017b), for Multiple Intelligences (Mason 2017c), for Habits of Mind (Mason 2017a), for middle school integration (Mason 2019), for high school integration (Mason 2018) and for general music (Mason 2002a, Mason 2002b).
The following learning scenarios can be utilized using study guides as learning tools including assessment.

Internet research of study guides Students search the Internet and locate as many study guides as they can find, noting where they found them.

Individual musicals in depth Each student locates one musical study guide and becomes an expert on that musical by reviewing the guide and filling in additional information from Internet or book research.

Study guide creation Students alone or with others create a musical study guide for a musical that does not have a known guide. Students can utilize the format and content of a published guide as a model. Teacher guidelines can ensure comprehensive guides. Guides can be presented and shared with the class.

Traditional or digital materials Students create materials to teach about one or more musicals. This can include a PowerPoint, handouts, narratives, or a video.

Completion of an activity or project Students can identify a musical activity or project they wish to pursue and complete it alone or with others. Examples include an essay, a term paper, a song analysis, or a newspaper or magazine review of one specific musical.

Summary

An analysis of musical study guides reveals their content, availability, and importance in using musical theatre for educational purposes. They can certainly contribute to student learning as reliable guides to individual musicals. Students can create their own guides to show mastery, higher level thinking, and creativity. Undoubtedly, musical study guides support curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

References

Green, S. (1996).  Broadway musicals show by show, 5th ed. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard.

Green, S. (1999).  Hollywood musicals year by year, 2nd ed. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard.

Mason, K. (2002a).  The interdisciplinary musical. School Band and Orchestra, 5, 13-19.

Mason, K. (2002b). Musicals across the curriculum. NJEA Review, 75, 13-17.

Mason, K. (2011). Music, maestro: Keith Mason describes the glee that musicals can bring to the language classroom. Language Magazine 10,8, 25-28.

Mason, K. (2017a). Musicals foster habits of Mind. Teachers Matter Magazine, 34, 56-59.

Mason, K. (2017b). Musicals inspire fabric arts. Arts & Activities Magazine, 85, 16-18.

Mason, K. (2017c). Musicals – the musical intelligences way. Choral Director 14, 8-13.

Mason, K. (2018). Integrating Musicals into Your Curriculum: This approach to interdisciplinary learning hits all the right notes. Principal Leadership, 19,4, 48-53.

Mason, K. (2019). Musicals for Middle Level Arts and Academics.”AMLE Magazine 7, 2, 7-10.

Maxworthy, A.G. (1993). Do study guides improve text comprehension? Reading Horizons, 34, 2, 137-50.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. Understanding by Design, 2nd ed. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Keith Mason, Ph.D. advocates for musicals in the curriculum. He received eight Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards for integrating high school musicals into the curriculum. He is currently writing a book entitled Musicals across the Curriculum.

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