Racial issues told through Broadway Musicals
Subject Area and/or Course Title:
Music & Dance
Targeted Grade Level:
8 class periods
Alignments: Pennsylvania Academic Standards for the Arts and Humanities
9.1.12.A – Know and use the elements and principles of each art form to create works in the arts and humanities.
9.1.12.B – Recognize, know, use and demonstrate a variety of appropriate arts elements and principles to produce, review and revise original works in the arts.
9.1.12.C – Integrate and apply advanced vocabulary to the arts forms.
9.1.12.D – Demonstrate knowledge of at least two styles within each art form through performance or exhibition of unique works.
9.2.12.A – Explain the historical, cultural and social context of an individual work in the arts.
9.2.12.B – Relate works in the arts chronologically to historical events.
9.2.12.C – Relate works in the arts to varying styles and genre and to the periods in which they were created.
9.2.12.D – Analyze a work of art from its historical and cultural perspective.
9.2.12.E – Analyze how historical events and culture impact forms, techniques and purposes of works in the arts.
9.2.12.F - Know and apply appropriate vocabulary used between social studies and the arts and humanities.
9.2.12.G – Relate works in the arts to geographic regions: North America.
9.2.12.J – Identify, explain and analyze historical and cultural differences as they relate to works in the arts
9.2.12.L – Identify, explain and analyze common themes, forms and techniques from works in the arts
9.3.12.A – Explain and apply the critical examination processes of works in the arts and humanities.
9.4.12.A – Evaluate an individual’s philosophical statement on a work in the arts and its relationship to one’s own life based on knowledge and experience.
9.4.12.B – Describe and analyze the effects that works in the arts have on groups, individuals and the culture
9.4.12.D – Analyze and interpret a philosophical position identified in works in the arts and humanities.
Nathan Hart, 2015
Introductory Narrative to Lesson:
This unit will take a look at how four particular musicals (Show Boat, Big River, Ragtime, and Hairspray) have addressed the issue of race on the Broadway stage. While only Show Boat was written in a present day tense, the other three take a look at three differing perspectives on race in American history (rather than just a superficial look at the history of Broadway as in previous years). In addition to learning songs from each show, students will learn songs from the Voices Across Time curriculum that tie directly to the time in history in which each musical is set. Students will use a “K-W-L” graffiti wall to monitor their learning throughout the entire unit.
Lesson #1: Deep River/Ol’ Man River
Duration: 40 minutes
Learning Objectives/Outcomes: Students will gain an understanding of Negro spirituals and compare and contrast it to Kern & Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat. Students will be able to identify who Paul Robeson was and facts about his life, his career as a performer, as well as his activism.
1. The students will fill in any information they may know of Broadway’s addressing of race on the “Know” portion of the graffiti wall and discuss their submissions.
2. The teacher will play the song “Deep River” sung by the Paul Robeson.
3. The teacher will follow the prompts outlined in Step One of the I Can Hear It Now protocol and play the song a second time.
4. The teacher will follow the prompts outlined in Step Two of I Can Hear It Now and students will write a first-person narrative from the perspective of the character singing the song.
5. The teacher will follow the prompts outlined in Step Three of I Can Hear It Now.
6. The class will listen to “Ol’ Man River” sung by Paul Robeson and compare the two recordings. How are the recordings similar? How are they different? How different are the River Jordan and the Mississippi River figuratively?
7. The teacher will share how Broadway musicals have used the art of musical theater to address the issues of race and immigration over the past nine decades. The teacher will also share the common practice of blackface in minstrels prior to the modern day musical.
Lesson #2: Show Boat
Duration: 40 minutes
Learning Objectives/Outcomes: The class will be able to identify Show Boat is a musical that takes place from 1880 to 1927 and is set in Natchez, Mississippi and Chicago, Illinois. The students will also demonstrate and understanding that the show premiered on Broadway in 1927 and is considered to be one of the first modern day Broadway musicals. Students will learn who Homer Plessy is and his historical legal battle (Plessy v. Ferguson).
1. The class will review “Ol’ Man River” and who Paul Robeson was.
2. The teacher will introduce a history of Show Boat and its storyline. Facts will include that the show takes place from 1880 to 1927 and is set in Natchez, Mississippi and Chicago, Illinois, premiered on Broadway in 1927 and is considered to be one of the first modern day Broadway musicals.
3. The class will discuss the fact that black actors actually played the rolls of the black characters, life in the Jim Crow South, and people of mixed races.
4. The teacher will show video clips will include “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from the San Francisco Opera’s 2014 production of Show Boat.
5. The teacher will show a picture of Homer Plessy and have students state what race they believe him to be.
6. The class will discuss the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and compare it to the storyline of “Julie” from Show Boat. How are they similar? How are they different?
7. The class will discuss if/how people of mixed race are seen differently now.
Lesson #3: Ragtime
Duration: 40 minutes
Learning Objectives/Outcomes: The class will be able to identify Ragtime is a musical written in 1998 that takes place in 1906 and is set in New Rochelle, New York. The students will identify Scott Joplin as the foremost composer of Ragtime music.
1. The teacher will play Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” as students enter.
2. The teacher will ask the students what they know about Ragtime music.
3. The teacher will share a brief history of Scott Joplin and Ragtime music.
4. The class will watch “Ragtime” (from the Tony Awards) and discuss what story they could already see through the staging of this opening number.
5. The teacher will introduce a history of Ragtime and its storyline.
6. The teacher will ask: How does it compare to that of Show Boat? How are the perspectives of the North and the South different? How are they the same?
7. The class will watch “Wheels of a Dream” (from the Kennedy Center Honors).
8. The class will listen to “Till We Reach That Day.” Would everybody have been singing the latter song, or just some of the people? Why?
Lesson #4: Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Duration: 40 minutes
Learning Objectives/Outcomes: The class will be able to identify Big River is a musical written in 1985 that takes place from 1835 to 1845 and is set in Missouri and Arkansas. The students will have an understanding of Stephen Foster and some of the songs he wrote. The students will be able to identify “Free at Last” as a spiritual associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
1. The class will listen to “Hard Times Come Again No More” and discuss what they think the meaning of the song is.
2. The class will share what they know about Stephen Foster (a Pittsburgh native).
3. The teacher will ask who has read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
4. The teacher will introduce a history of Big River and its storyline.
5. The class will listen to “Worlds Apart” and discuss the likelihood of an actual friendship between persons such as Huck and Jim.
6. The teacher will share facts that will include that the show takes place from 1835 to 1945, is set in Missouri and Arkansas, and premiered on Broadway in 1985.
7. The teacher will ask: Why does the class think so much time went by with so few Broadway musicals tackling the issue of race?
8. The teacher will play “Free at Last” from Big River. Does the song sound familiar? In what famous speech was that song quoted?
9. The teacher will tell the students to remember “Free at Last” for tomorrow’s discussion.
Lesson #5: Hairspray
Duration: 40 minutes
Learning Objectives/Outcomes: The class will be able to identify that Hairspray is a musical that premiered on Broadway in 2002 based on a 1988 movie musical, and that the story takes place in June of 1962, set in Baltimore, Maryland. The students will be able to identify “Free at Last” as a spiritual associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
1. The class will listen to a portion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech where he quotes “Free at Last.”
2. The class will share what they know about the Civil Rights Era. When we consider the song “Free at Last” from Big River and compare it to its use in the Civil Rights Era, has its meaning changed?
3. The class will listen to “I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray and “We Shall Overcome” and compare/contrast them using a graphic organizer.
4. The teacher will introduce a history of Hairspray and its storyline.
5. The class will watch Hairspray (2007) in its entirety.
6. Upon completion of the movie, the class will discuss the “fictional” Baltimore of 1962 with the riots that occurred in 2015. Have things really changed?
7. The students will complete “Learned” section of their graffiti wall one last time.
Additional Broadway shows for future consideration:
Porgy & Bess (1935), Carmen Jones (1943), Dreamgirls (1981), Parade (1998), The Civil War (1999), The Scottsboro Boys (2010), Motown (2013).
Alpert, Hollis. Broadway!: 125 Years of Musical Theatre. New York: Arcade, 1991. Print.
Flaherty, Stephen, Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, Brian Stokes. Mitchell, Peter Friedman, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Mark Jacoby, David Loud, John Mauceri, Stephen Flaherty, and E. L. Doctorow. Ragtime the Musical. RCA Victor, 1998. MP3.
Henderson, Amy, and Dwight Blocker Bowers. Red, Hot & Blue: A Smithsonian Salute to the American Musical. Washington: National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American History in Association with the Smithsonian Institution, 1996. Print.
Hoffman, Warren. The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2014. Print.
McLamore, Alyson. Musical Theater: An Appreciation. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004. Print.
Miller, Roger, William Hauptman, Daniel H. Jenkins, John Short, Linda Twine, and Mark Twain. Big River the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Original Broadway Cast Recording. MCA Records, 1985. MP3.
Shaiman, Marc, Scott Wittman, Mark O'Donnell, Thomas Meehan, Marissa Jaret. Winokur, Harvey Fierstein, and Lon Hoyt. Hairspray Original Broadway Cast Recording. Sony Classical, 2002. MP3.