Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is Musical Theater Valuable?

In considering the whole picture of education, educational psychology, and observing the Arts’ place in an educational context, it appears our culture and the powers that be do not place value on the Arts. This is easily supported by the plethora of press surrounding the proposed budget cuts, the publication of proposed budgets, and the amount of commentary generated in the backlash of the announcements (Hale, J, 2011).

From this evidence, it is obvious that our society does not recognize the untapped power the Arts have to transform a failing education system. And while an “educated” America is the supreme goal of the United States, the irony is that test scores reveal the lowering of intellect.

Based on the earlier discussion of creativity, it would seem that the lowering of intellect (knowing and understanding)—what is “prized” by American society, is directly affected by the critical thinking levels to which students are being taught.

Since Sternberg (2009) states that intelligence is linked to culture, and knowing and understanding is the American standard, then this would suggest that students will never “go beyond” those levels. They will instead seek to rise to them, thus developing the mindset that they must memorize and only understand the knowledge.

What this means is that more and more knowing and comprehending will be accumulated, and those learners will only achieve a thinking level at the second level within Bloom’s Taxonomy. They will not know what to do with the knowledge, how to analyze a problem and apply the knowing, evaluate their application of knowledge or create new information or solutions. It makes the world of education and the picture of future learning look very bleak.

There is no doubt that knowing and comprehending are valuable, but these abilities become far more valuable when they are used in higher levels of thinking. The analogy of “not seeing the trees for the forest” is helpful to illustrate my point because knowing and understanding is analogous to knowing about one “tree”, not “trees”, and completely missing the “forest”. Knowing and comprehending break down the parts of the whole, and the education and curriculum that exists now does not provide opportunities for learners to experience the whole, unless there is arts-based instruction, or students experience one-on-one or group lesson experiences that are found in music, visual art, dance and acting.

Putting on a high school musical teaches the highest levels of critical thinking with a gestalt, hands-on learning experience. It teaches many lessons across many disciplines from many perspectives through its process. Just in the area of the Arts alone, a musical production will encompass music (the songs with lyrics and band parts), dance, and drama (the interpreted, spoken words). The creative teams will access knowledge of the visual arts through the design of sets, props, costumes. In larger auditoriums or facilities, the design of lights and sound access technology.

In creating the gestalt experience of a musical, students break down every note and every word of the musical. It is a necessary process because the musical only exists theoretically in a vocal/piano score and must be learned at a knowing and comprehending level in order to produce it. The participants must derive an interpretation from the creator’s words and music through analysis, and put all of the pieces together into a live production (application). In other words, all of the “parts, nuts and bolts” can be understood completely because the directions have been given to them in a script, which has been interpreted through the collaboration between the director and musical director and applied into a performance. This in itself is a valuable learning experience crossing all disciplines within the Arts because the learning happens through a community, and this community is guided by the wisdom of people, the director and the musical director who have had previous theater experiences.

When doing any musical, the story itself can be considered part of the gestalt learning experience too. Depending on the musical, the subjects can range from the stories about World War II, such as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” (IBDB,2011) or “Cabaret” by Kander & Ebb (IBDB, 2011), to “Once on This Island” by Ahrens & Flaherty (IBDB, 2011), a Haitian folk tale that explores the clashes between class systems through a tragic love story. Because students are playing roles from different time periods and different countries, they are connecting physically to another time period and those cultures through their imaginations, language and music.

Use of mathematics is also important for the set designer and set crew, who must work with scaled models and floor plans to design and build set pieces from an artist’s renderings and build a believable world in which the play will live. Outside of the creative domains, Math must be used to figure out break even points, percentages of audience attendance in order to design a ticket price, advertise and market the show. Budgets become extremely important. Rights and royalties from the use of intellectual property are figured from specific industry formulas, which teach business practices and economic forces. Even the sciences can be involved in a musical production when there is a need to understand a natural phenomenon referenced within a score, or an unfamiliar object is mentioned, such as the “betel nuts” that the character, Bloody Mary, chewed in “South Pacific”.

These simplified summaries of a musical play in production demonstrate the completeness of higher levels of thinking because a musical show is broken down into its basic elements from its abstract and theoretical form, and assembled (if it is its premiere) or reassembled into a gestalt experience for an audience to see and hear.

What the musical does for a society is provide experiences in which their knowing and understanding can be applied. The act of putting on a show both motivates and builds a community of people who work together to achieve a common goal. When the show comes together in a live performance, the audience adds an additional element of a shared experience and an evaluation process begins as audiences judge the construction of the story/play, the performers and the experience. Their reaction to the experience creates another language which communicates a consensus of thoughts to the performers. This language is embodied in their laughter, applause, and silence or booing. The observers are exposed to a play’s topic, stimulated by the way the story is told, and they live an aesthetic experience through their own visual interpretation.

To my knowledge, there are no other professions or learning environments that can accomplish as much as the dramatic arts do ... and musical theater has the greatest potential of all.


Hale, J. (2011). Arts & cultural council calls for state budget parity. Retrieved from

IBDB. (2011). Cabaret. Retrieved from

IBDB. (2011). Once upon this island. Retrieved from

IBDB. (2011). South pacific. Retrieved from

Sternberg, R. J. (2009). Cognitive psychology (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. ISBN 9780495506294.

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