Musicals are an important part of our popular culture and our musical heritage. School musicals are often limited, however, to only those students and faculty participating in staging the production. Unfortunately, students and faculty rarely do anything related to school musicals in their classroom work. Musicals are rich sources of thematic and interdisciplinary learning that can easily support lessons in more than a dozen secondary subjects that connect musical theater to academic learning.

Musical theater as we know it is a tradition that first solidified in the mid-1800s. These musicals have found a place in U.S. high schools and in other countries’ schools as well. My school wanted to integrate our school musical productions into the high school curriculum and support New Jersey curriculum standards. We participated in a competition sponsored by the Paper Mill Playhouse—its Rising Star Awards program recognizes excellence in musical theater at New Jersey high schools. Other states offer similar theater-centric programs, although the Paper Mill Playhouse is unique in having “educational impact” and “lobby display” award categories, in addition to traditional acting and staging categories.

I directed a unit for musicals involving curriculum and lobby displays while colleagues were dedicated to staging the musical. We were successful in our endeavors—we received eight awards for educational impact by integrating our productions of “Carousel,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “The Boys From Syracuse,” “The Music Man,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “Anything Goes,” “Into the Woods,” and “The Boy Friend” into our high school classes. Later integrations were particularly successful, in that they included more projects and students, and they encompassed several subject areas. Even with this success, there is always room for improvement by exploring ways to create a more far-reaching curricular impact and influence even more students. Have the people who choose the school musical each year consider curriculum integration in addition to the talent pool for staging the various musicals available. Many musicals invite creative and innovative curricular initiatives for integrations.

Be a Catalyst

A principal’s support is essential to the success of a musicals integration program. They can:

  • Ensure adequate funding for supplies for projects, displays, and other expenses.
  • Seek a stipend for a faculty member who coordinates the integration, similarly to how faculty who stage the musical are compensated.
  • Secure grant money from associations that support education and arts initiatives, and encourage fundraising to support curriculum integration.
  • Guarantee that safety issues are adhered to when placing lobby or cafeteria displays.
  • Support faculty who are eager to innovate in their curriculum through consultation and observation.
  • Help publicize the program through news outlets, the internet, and publications that help describe the integrations.
  • Encourage faculty to share success stories with other faculty through blogs, publications, meetings, and workshops.
  • Embrace and praise a variety of curriculum frameworks, such as multiple intelligences, concept-based curriculum, habits of mind, project-based learning, differentiation, learning styles, STEAM, and other approaches that can bring your school musical to the classroom.

Keep the following focus questions in mind when devising your musicals integration:

  • Which musicals are most conducive to encouraging a high-quality integration?
  • What subjects ideally can be impacted by school musicals and how?
  • What types of lessons can tie musicals to curriculum standards?
  • How can study guides be used to enhance learning?
  • How can faculty be convinced that musicals integration is worthwhile? How can faculty concerned about an already overloaded curriculum still embrace lessons and activities tied to the musical?

(See sidebar for helpful hints on integrating musicals into your curriculum.)

Educational Impact

For us, curriculum integration always began the summer before the March musical. I would undertake a research phase by reading books, digital sources, musical study guides (if available), the libretto, and the complete vocal score. I would also locate cast and soundtrack albums, as the recorded music and liner notes were helpful in designing integrations. I wrote study guides for teachers for all eight musicals. For six musicals I also created abridged study guides for the cast members and made these available to students doing projects in their regular classes. The guides included background about the show and its creators, musical score details, photos, interdisciplinary ideas for more than a dozen secondary subjects, curriculum standards, familiarization activities, a resource list, and a musical theater glossary of terms. For “The Music Man,” many references to people and things from an earlier time within the dialogue and songs inspired an additional glossary.

Once each study guide was completed, I would design projects for all of my Spanish and Italian classes, aligning them to New Jersey curriculum standards. Musicals integration can impact numerous subjects. Start by giving students a context for activities inspired by musicals. This includes settings, time periods, and main plots. I often showed students a clip from a film version of the musical and played a cast album or soundtrack of the score while they were working.

In my Italian and Spanish courses, the students completed activities and projects that tied concepts and songs from the musicals to their language learning. A number of projects were conducive to strengthening students’ language skills—especially writing—as well as helping them gain an understanding of musicals as part of the arts and popular culture. My students completed three fabric arts projects that had them research a topic, write text in either Spanish or Italian, add art components, and place all of these pieces on fabric with fabric markers. A colleague sewed together each of the six quilts once students did their part. The resulting projects were quite attractive, and the projects promoted cooperative learning. Students also completed show programs, calendars, storybooks, musical cast assignments, and language lessons.

U.S. history students created collages of various musicals, demonstrating how the productions teach history. Science lessons in physics, biology, and chemistry linked the acoustics of musical instruments, the botany of plant life, and the chemistry of fragrances to a “Hello, Dolly!” integration. Language arts students analyzed lyrics (similar to analyzing poetry), and visual arts students completed paintings, drawings, or murals in class or as part of the lobby display committee (see below). The culinary arts class baked tea cakes, popular during the Victorian setting of “Hello, Dolly!” and made Western-style food for “The Music Man.”

What made the curriculum pop was seeing students engaged in lessons tying the particular subject area with the school musical—reinforcing both subject area concepts and skills while concurrently learning about musical theater. While I have described musicals that we staged, the possibilities are endless. Just think about the hundreds of other musicals that invite exploration within the high school curriculum! Consider musicals that your school has already staged. How would you approach those shows with curriculum integration in mind?

Keith Mason, PhD, a former high school language teacher for more than 20 years, is the recipient of eight Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards for Educational Impact.

Sidebar: Lobby and Cafeteria Displays: Making Musicals Come Alive

To tie in with musicals integration, each year students on a lobby display committee have helped execute art displays to adorn the front and back lobbies near the school auditorium and the cafeteria. The themes and settings of each musical invited many concepts to come to life in museum-type displays. Students had full input on how the displays would materialize. “Carousel” featured a carnival scene with a vivid painted mural and calliope music playing. The “Bye Bye Birdie” display showcased the fictitious town of Sweet Apple, OH, with a series of stores, a newsstand, and murals. “The Boys From Syracuse” display outlined a Mediterranean village with an arched building, indigenous artistic plant life from art materials, and a Greek-style display case with urn-shaped signs with facts about the musical. “The Music Man” featured patriotic bunting and a Victorian house mural. “Hello, Dolly!” presented Victorian-style motifs and silhouette murals of main characters and dancing waiters. For “Anything Goes,” students created nautical displays including a ship mural, sailor silhouettes, and a nautical display case. “Into the Woods” capitalized on folklore with witch and wolf silhouettes, a “woods” mural with trees and folktale characters, and an ominous display case featuring artificial trees, a gingerbread house, witch, and related print materials on a bed of leaves. For “The Boy Friend,” the display case offered a beach scene of terra-cotta-roofed, white buildings and cabanas made of paper, sand, beach umbrellas, and the sea using three tinted film papers. Silhouettes of elegantly dressed art-deco-style people matched the 1920s setting of the musical.

The lobby displays were typically unveiled a few days before performances and helped stir up school spirit, advertising for the upcoming performances, and most importantly, offering opportunities for students to shine through visual arts. For “Into the Woods,” two of four judges from the Rising Star Awards panel recommended us for nominations for our lobby and cafeteria display.

I had the pleasure of seeing some lobby displays in my local area: one for Whippany Park High School’s “The Sound of Music” and one for Union Catholic High School’s “Anything Goes.” Whenever I see a musical, I always imagine what I would design for a lobby display. So many possibilities exist!

Sidebar: Making It Work

Helpful Hints for Ways to Integrate Musicals Into Your Curriculum

  • Encourage faculty to participate in musicals integration. It shows support for the initiative and those who stage the musical.
  • Advocate for musicals integration in meetings and professional development programs. Public forums allow discussion and exchange of ideas.
  • Use study guides and provide lesson plans to encourage successful lessons.
  • Reach out to elementary and middle level principals in your district to see how their faculty and students can benefit from curriculum integration of your high school’s musicals.
  • Don’t exclude anyone from participating in the integration.
  • Don’t worry that the integration takes away from regular curricula; it’s a form of repurposing.