By Amanda Leah Davis
It’s all decided; your ensemble is making the trip to New York City and your kids are unbelievably excited. They know that a trip to New York promises some of the best food, shopping, and entertainment in the country in addition to the chance to experience the hustle and bustle of one of the busiest and most significant cities in the world in person. Attractions like the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, the Empire State Building, Ellis Island, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and more are just waiting to be explored. But for musicians young and old, New York is much more than the tourist trap it seems to be on the surface. New York City is home to some of the most elite stages in the world: The Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and, of course, iconic Broadway with its dozens of theaters. And while the Met, Carnegie, and Lincoln Center are incredible venues toting some of the brightest talent the classical world can offer, Broadway’s musicals and plays are more than likely what your students have in mind when they think about seeing a show in New York City and you are not about to let them down now. The real question now, however, is how do you decide what to see?
You obviously have a budget in mind and probably even some of the old “war horses” of the Great White Way have already crossed your mind. Phantom of the Opera and Lion King have certainly stood the test of time, and newer shows like Wicked and Book of Mormon cleaned up at the Tonys and still bring in astonishing grosses at the box office years after they premiered. Broadway offers some of the most diverse theatrical experiences you could ever hope to offer your students with a distinct focus on American musical and cultural ideas. Born out of an amalgamation of the European operetta and the vaudeville talent shows of the early twentieth century, Broadway musicals have evolved into a unique form of storytelling that spans every topic from the lives of simple settlers on the plains of early 1900s Oklahoma to an adaptation of an animated movie about an ogre. So how do you narrow it down? After all, you only get one shot to introduce your students to the thrill that is live theater in New York City. Has the panic set in yet? Well, have no fear, that’s what this article aims to assuage. With a little research and thought, you can easily ensure your students make the most of that coveted Broadway ticket.
Choosing the Show
First and foremost, assess your ensemble’s needs. Are you a show choir director who needs your kids to see how the professionals seamlessly pair movement and music? Avoid the shows with the huge non-singing dance breaks and opt for a musical that works to seamlessly combine dance and music, like Chicago. Are you a jazz choir director with a combo who needs to learn how to listen to each other and blend? Pick a show with instrumental features like Lion King. Do you want your kids to leave the show thinking deeply on issues of race, religion, bigotry, corruption, death, or all of the above? Take them to a show like Dear Evan Hansen. Are your kids unshakable in the face of their daily stresses and in need of a laugh? Maybe try Book of Mormon (but please make sure to go ahead and listen to the original cast recording through at least once to avoid a messy situation with parents!). Read reviews, watch clips, get your hands-on materials like Broadway.com’s Group Guide to Broadway booklet. Released in the fall and spring of each year, this handy guide lists statistics, such as recommended ages, run time, theater, and more about each show featured on Broadway and is available in print or digital form.
If you’ve done all of that and still feel at a loss, now it’s time to consult with your student tour operator, colleagues, and friends who have already seen the show. Video clips and brochures are of course valuable planning materials, but the opinion of someone you know more than likely carries more weight. This step can give you key insight into specific content in the show. Consider what content is acceptable not only to your school board but to your parents. Good judgement about content is important when selecting a show as what might be appropriate for some students might not be for others and might not be for parents or board members in general. Consulting with a someone who can tell you what specifically is said, sung, and done in a show is vital to making sure your Broadway trip starts off smoothly and you don’t run into trouble later on once your return home!
That being said, when you do start looking into shows and their content, it’s important to keep an open mind. When it comes to Broadway, even the silliest of ideas can translate to success. For example, fresh off a rather explosive debut in Chicago, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical has been drawing extremely positive reviews. Speaking from personal experience, I was apprehensive about the show until I saw it with my own two eyes and subsequently couldn’t stop smiling for its two hour and fifteen minute run. The score is an amalgamation of hit tunes from singer-songwriters like Panic at the Disco’s Brandon Urie, Cindy Lauper, John Legend, and even the late David Bowie. There’s a rap breakdown that’s just as good as anything happening down the street in Hamilton (there, I said it!), the tap number is one of the most colorful and athletic things I’ve seen, and the actress playing Pearl sings with a power that reminded me of Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar worthy Dreamgirls belting. Overall, the production kept the humor of the cartoon and created a show that had you rooting for a simple sponge to come out on top and save his home.
As far as a takeaway for students, the production even explored themes of immigration and displacement. I know, I was shocked about that too, but it worked really well in that “only on Broadway” kind of way. Had I decided to skip out based on the source material, I would have missed an opportunity to have a wonderful, thought-provoking, and emotional night of theater. I would have missed a night of smiles and chills, all because I couldn’t let my preconceived notions fall away. When it comes to Broadway, the suspension of our day-today pessimism is important. If you go into it with a certain set of ideals, I can guarantee both you and your students will be worse off for it. In short: the bigger blockbusters are indeed there for a reason, but keep an open mind and your ensemble’s needs at the forefront when choosing a show.
Headed to the Theater
Okay you’ve looked into all the shows, chosen your first choice (and second and third), and your tour operator has the tickets set. You hold out for a while before telling your kids but soon enough the anticipation gets the better of you and you tell them amid a resulting flurry of excitement and, more than likely, a few eye rolls. Now you can start preparing them to see the show. More than likely, the show you’ve chosen has some sort of source material that is already readily available for consumption. If it’s based off a movie or book, your task is simple enough: have the students watch or read it. If the source material isn’t readily available or if it’s too dense (i.e. Victor Hugo’s fourteen thousand page Les Miserables), create your own lesson plans! Teach a history lesson based on the era the show is set in, analyze music from the show (if you can find and or transcribe the score), or a general lesson on the history of musical theater stemming from opera to Broadway would be wonderful.
Beyond written and reading-based assignments, there are also lessons you can present and work through as a class. Programming music from the show is a possibility, depending on the age of the show as well as how appropriate the selection would be for your ensemble’s level. Choral medleys are readily available for most shows or you could assign solo selections from the show if applicable. Perhaps you could even hold a small benefit concert for your trip to allow students the advantage of learning and connecting with the music on a deeper level while also helping defer the cost of the trip. Now that’s a win-win situation!
If the music is just a little out of reach for your students, assigning a listening project would be your next best bet to get them engaged. Most shows have an original cast recording available within a month or two of their premiere; sometimes recording are even released before the show opens to be used as promotional material. Have your students compare and contrast ballads or dissect finale numbers in groups. Alternately, have your students approach the music without any knowledge of the plot or characters and have them try to infer the storyline from the music. Often, the shows with the strongest scores allow for the drama to unfold purely through the music versus the more dialogue heavy shows that rely on monologues that are often left out of the cast recordings. This also ramps up the anticipation to see the action in person and validate or negate their inferences. Whichever and whatever approach you choose to prepare your students for their show, any time spent in preparation is time well spent in ensuring that they have the best educational theatrical experience.
With your newly-developed lesson plans enacted, now is also the time to think beyond the show and look into booking a group workshop or tour. For a nominal fee, students have the opportunity to work with Broadway performers in workshops that focus on singing, acting, directing, movement, and more. There are even workshops that cover stage makeup and stage combat and Q&A sessions with the actors. If a workshop is a little more work for your group than you were planning, behind the scenes tours of select theaters are also available. These tours give students a sneak peek of the day to day goings on of a real Broadway theater. These tours and workshops are educational and exciting and could potentially be the cherry-on-top of your Broadway trip!
The Day is Here!
The night of the show has finally arrived, and your students are more than prepared. Even though it’s likely your students are experienced concert attendees, having a short theater etiquette lesson on the bus ride or walk to the theater couldn’t hurt. Once you’re at the theater and have confirmed everyone is sitting where they’re meant to be, it’s time to relax and enjoy until intermission. Intermission would be a great time to start gathering your own thoughts about the show for discussion later. After all, even after the lights have dimmed and your students amble out of the theater, there is still a learning opportunity to be had. That first fifteen minutes post-show back might be your best chance to leave your students with a lasting educational impact.
Your conversation could be as simple as asking them what they liked or didn’t like about the show. Ask them to consider what could be improved and/or what they found most effective about the production. These kinds of questions are important because it will help them process their experience. It’s an opportunity for you to bond with your students as both performers and academics. With that in mind, asking your students to think critically about the performance is a good point of reference for how they should be assessing their own performances in the future. Self-assessment post-performance is an incredibly important skill for young musicians to develop and certainly one that can be applied to a review of a Broadway show. Beyond the surface benefits of your post show chat with your students, it also shows your students that you value their thoughts and opinions. This type of honest conversation will hopefully foster positive theatrical experiences in their future.
Although there are many factors that go into planning a trip to New York with your ensemble, it’s important to remember the purpose for your trip. You want to expose your students to new experiences and you want the educational and emotional impact of those experiences to be as effective and long- lasting as possible. Making sure you pick a show that will reach your students is the first part of that process.
Creating and enacting assignments and lessons before your trip will allow your students think more deeply on the show and ramp up anticipation. And finally, reflecting on what you’ve seen as a group after the show will help you all bond as musicians as well as force your students to think more critically about performances in the future. A little preparation and a little thought is truly all it takes to the most of your Broadway show experience. Now what are you waiting for? It’s time to start planning your next trip!
Amanda Leah Davis is a festival director at Performing Arts Consultants. She graduated from the University of Arkansas with her Master of Music in 2017 and is a member of Pi Kappa Lambda National Music Honor Society and an alumnae member of Sigma Alpha Iota. Amanda currently teaches voice lessons and performs professionally in choirs throughout Greater Philadelphia.