Reflections of American Society on Stage (Spring 2018)

Class meeting times: Katzen 151, Tuesdays and Fridays, 9:45–11am • Instructor: Nathan Beary Blustein | nblustein@american.edu • Syllabus: pdf | html • Office Hours: Sign up • Teaching module topics and schedule: view • Group presentations: requirements | groups

On this page:

  1. Welcome to Broadway
  2. Making Art
  3. New York, I              You
  4. Making a Home
  5. Do You Hear the People Sing?
  6. Finale

Overture

Week 1
January 16: Intro/Pulitzer discussion/survey and contract

Unit 1: Welcome to Broadway (Back to top)

January 19: Early musical theatre
Assignment due: “American Dream” paper (pdf | submit on Blackboard)

Minimum: 550 words; maximum: 750 words. Be ready to informally discuss something from your paper—or the experience of writing it—in class.

What does it mean to be an American, and how would you define the American Dream? Make your answer personal. You may be pragmatic or idealistic, patriotic or cynical, witty or impassioned. Be specific and detailed both in your definitions and in your use of personal examples/connection. Please provide at least one example from the arts—visual arts, theatre, dance, music, film—that exemplifies, encapsulates, or inspires your definition. Specifically describe (or quote from) the art work and explain why you chose it.

You will be graded on (1) your personal investment and (2) the persuasiveness and clarity of your writing. Write what you feel and believe, rather than attempting to give me the answer you think I want. Invest of yourself. Write well.

Remember: Twelve-point Times New Roman. One-inch margins. Include a header with your name and ID, a title (more creative than “Writing Assignment” or “My American Dream”), and the course number. Please upload your assignment to Blackboard.

Week 2
January 23: How to read a scene
Preparation: Read/listen to/view scenes—In the Heights (Cast Recording: YouTube | Libretto: pdf / Course Reserves) and Dreamgirls (Clip: YouTube). Read Guidelines for Writing Papers about Musical Theatre (pdf).
Discussion:

We are analyzing two scenes for today’s class, from two different shows. For the first, we have the libretto and cast recording. For the second, we have a video of a live performance.

1. Provide a succinct summary of each scene. Who are the characters? How do they relate to each other? What are their objectives?

2. Compare the experiences of familiarizing yourself with each scene. We might presume that watching is easiest; reading is hardest. Is this the case? Why? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each medium—dramatically, aesthetically, and commercially?

January 26: Broadway’s artistic/commercial/geographic history
Assignment due: Film or live show one-page response (pdf | hard copy submissions only)

Minimum: 400 words; maximum: 450 words. Single-spaced. Be ready to discuss your response informally in class.

The first response paper is for a production of your choice. It may be a musical film (in which case, you obviously do not need a ticket stub). DVDs are available in the Katzen and Bender libraries, as well as through interlibrary loan; you are also free to acquire a musical yourself. The musical On Your Feet at the Kennedy Center is also acceptable for this assignment. The event promotion website Goldstar provides some slight discounts for tickets.

Requirements:

Address the ways the musical and production reflect(ed) American society and values. Any plot summary you include should be brief—no more than three sentences. As you write your response, cite multiple, specific, detailed examples in the performance. These may include:

•  The script (storyline, character development,
•  The score (musical styles, use of orchestra),
•  Choreography,
•  Design choices (sound, lighting, scenery), and/or
•  The actors’ performances (singing styles, dialects/accents/languages).

Your paper will be graded on:

Cohesiveness…

This means that you should not try to address every point above. Rather, center your response on a single argument, and trace one or two of the threads above. For instance, you may follow the dramatic development of a particular character through three songs and/or scenes; or, you may outline the relationship between location and scene in the story, and lighting/scenic design in the show.

Clarity…

Proofread your response. You are free to let your subjective experience of seeing a production inform your writing. At the same time, a reader should understand what elements in the show you are evaluating with little trouble.

and style.

Each response paper should be publishing-ready. Aim to write for a readership with interest in the production to which you are responding. Proofread your work. Avoid overfamiliar language.

Before you write:

Do the preliminary research before you watch: the creative team (composer, lyricist, bookwriter/playwright, director), the plot of the show, etc. This will help a great deal as you write your response.

Week 3
January 30: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961)
Preparation: Watch musical film (Bender Library DVD | Katzen Library DVD); read Mead excerpts (pdf)
Discussion:

1. Read the above excerpts from the 1952 Shepherd Mead satire on which this musical is based. (How) Do these excerpts come to life in the film? How do Loesser’s music and lyrics, and Burrows/Weinstock/Gilbert/Weinstock’s book, heighten Mead’s text?

2. What is the main object of satire in this musical? Does the delivery of this satire land in 2018? How is it more forward-looking than some song titles may suggest?

Teaching Modules begin

Minimum length: 5 minutes; maximum length: 7 minutes (excluding Q&A). Submit an outline or presentation file along with your module.

The teaching modules are individual presentations about figures, musicals, artistic movements, or social/cultural/political issues relevant to the shows we are studying in class. Your module should succinctly summarize your assigned topic, and include a critical reflection of the musical we are watching or reading at that point in the semester. Make your presentation compelling and engaging. These teaching modules will invite you to proactively explore diverse perspectives and experiences.

You do not need a PowerPoint, but if you use one, please email it to me 24 hours in advance to staff off any technical issues in setup.

Your module will be evaluated out of fifty points on: • preparation • time management • mastery of content • clarity of the relationship between your topic and issues/concepts discussed in class.

February 2: How to Succeed… continued
Preparation: Watch Mad Men, Episodes 1 & 2 (Bender Library DVD).
Quiz 1: Early Musical Theatre; How to Succeed (Streaming audio)

Listening quizzes are 30 points each. There is one at the end of each unit, covering two musicals (except for the first, which will cover one musical and several key songs from other shows). Quizzes are closed-note and cannot be made up.

Each quiz will have four excerpts. You will be asked to identify some basic factual information for every excerpt:

•  The title of the show;
•  The year it premiered on Broadway;
•  The song title, the character(s) singing, and the circumstances of the show’s plot during the excerpt; and
•  The composer, lyricist, book writer/librettist, and (possibly) notable performers.

Make sure to consult the selected slides posted to the course page after every class for much of this information.

You will also be asked to address one or two issues per excerpt that zoom out to the course’s General Learning Objectives, including:

•  How it relates to the source material it was based on, or similar works of art and entertainment; and
•  How its aesthetic and expressive elements fit within the traditions of musical theatre.

The songs will consist only of numbers we have discussed in-depth in class. Every excerpt will include the lyrics in print, though characters’ names will be redacted. An example from How to Succeed…:

CHARACTER 1:
And when my faith in fellow man
All but falls apart,
I’ve but to feel your hand grasping mine
And I take heart,
I take heart…

To see the cool clear eyes
Of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet with the slam, bang, tang
Reminiscent of gin and vermouth…

Follow-up questions may include, say, how the character singing (Finch) compares to the protagonist of Mad Men (Don Draper), one of the unit’s viewing assignments—or, how this musical number subverts the idea of a typical dramatic love song. Some of these questions will have been addressed in class; some will require some critical thinking on the spot.

Unit 2: Making Art (Back to top)

Week 4
February 6: A Chorus Line (1975)
Preparation: Read libretto (“book” and lyrics [pdf]); listen to cast recording (Streaming audio); watch the opening number at the Tony Awards (YouTube). Do NOT watch the 1985 film, which departs in many ways from the original show.
Discussion:

1. A Chorus Line is a quintessential “concept” musical. In three words, what is this musical “about”? Relatedly: Is this a musical that relates to you? What specific moments or characters do you identify with (or not identify with), and why?

2. What do we miss while reading through the script and listening to the cast recording? What can we gain from watching live clips from the show?

February 9: A Chorus Line continued
Preparation: Watch Every Little Step (Bender Library DVD)

Week 5
February 13: Sunday in the Park with George (1984)
Preparation: Watch live musical film (Bender & Katzen Library DVDs)

February 16: Sunday in the Park… continued
Preparation: Watch excerpts from Six by Sondheim (YouTube): Beginning – 20:10 (on “Something’s Coming” and “Opening Doors”) and 1:17:50–end (on “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park…). For the live musical film of Sunday, be ready to discuss a specific Act I – Act II parallel in class on Friday: “No Life” (around 14:30, two minutes) / “Gossip Sequence” (around 35:00, ten minutes) and “Putting it Together” (around 1:45:00, twelve minutes). Check the slides from today’s class for specific elements to focus on.
Quiz 2: A Chorus Line (Streaming audio); Sunday in the Park (Streaming audio)

Week 6
February 20: Assassins discussion
Assignment due: Assassins one-page response (hard copy submission, with ticket stub)

Unit 3: New York, I              You (Back to top)

February 23: Fiorello! (1959)
Preparation: Read libretto/listen to cast recording (Blackboard Course Reserves).
Discussion:

1. Choose one of the leading women to trace over the course of the show: Dora, Thea, or Marie. How does Bock, Harnick, and Abbott’s writing give this character independence and agency? How does the character exert political power—covert, or overt? How do they move in personal and political spaces—and how believable is their storyline?

2. A lot of songs in Fiorello! are indirect, in the sense that people onstage are singing about people offstage. These aren’t ambiguous examples—the people being sung about are conspicuously absent. What songs fit this category? Choose one song in particular, and describe what is effective (or ineffective) about it.

Week 7
February 27: Fiorello! continued
Preparation: Read Life with Fiorello—choose chapters 4&5 OR chapters 11&12 (archive.org, downloadable as a PDF). Watch A&E Biography: Fiorello LaGuardia (streaming video | 27 minutes).
Group 1 presentation: Guys & Dolls (1950)

March 2: Rent (1996)
Preparation: Watch live musical film (Bender Library DVD)

Week 8
March 6Rent continued
Preparation: Watch Paris is Burning (Bender Library DVDs | 76 minutes).
Group 2 presentation: Gospel at Colonus

March 9: Rent continued
Preparation: Watch La bohème (Streaming video | 148 minutes). In particular, watch 17:30–37:15 (Mimi and Rodolfo’s meeting), ca. 40:00–55:00 (the latter part of the scene at Momus), and 1:55:00–end (finale)—all told, about 75 minutes.
Quiz 3: Fiorello! and Rent

March 13 Spring Break!
March 16 Still Spring Break!

Unit 4: Making a Home (Back to top)

Week 9
March 20: South Pacific (1949)
Preparation: Watch musical film (Bender & Katzen Library DVDs)

March 23: South Pacific continued
Preparation: Read Tales of the South Pacific chapters: “Our Heroine” and “Fo’ Dolla” (Blackboard Content | 80 pages)

Week 10
March 27: South Pacific continued
Preparation: Watch The War: A Deadly Calling (AU Streaming Video)
Group 3 presentation: On the Town (1944)

March 30: Next to Normal (2009)
Preparation: Read libretto (ebook)/listen to cast recording (available in the Katzen Library, CD 5166; also on YouTube)

Week 11
April 3: Next to Normal continued
Preparation: Continue discussion of show
Group 4 presentation: In the Heights (2008)

April 6: Next to Normal continued
Preparation: Read articles (and view embedded clips) on Dear Evan Hansen (New York Times) and Crazy Ex Girlfriend (Vulture). Read “Media’s Damaging Depictions of Mental Illness” (psychcentral). Watch one of the most famous clips of ECT in film: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (YouTube). Based on your knowledge of musical theatre, what was groundbreaking about Next to Normal? What has carried over into subsequent depictions of mental illness in popular culture—including on Broadway and on TV?
Quiz 4: South Pacific and Next to Normal

Unit 5: Do You Hear the People Sing? (Back to top)

Week 12
April 10: Of Thee I Sing
Preparation: Read libretto (Blackboard Course Reserves)/listen to cast recording (YouTube playlist)

April 13: Of Thee I Sing continued
Preparation:

  • Read/listen to excerpts of Let ’Em Eat Cake (Lyrics and libretto excerpts on Blackboard Content; cast recording in playlist above). Why was this show less successful than its predecessor?
  • Read Of Thee I Sing Act II Scene I, focusing on one particular excerpt (choose from [1] the beginning to p. 44, before Jenkins and Miss Benson’s entrance; [2] their entrance on p. 44 to p. 49, before the Newspaper Men’s entrance; or [3] from WINTERGREEN: “What’s on your mind?” to the end of the scene. Be ready to discuss how you find this operetta relevant (or not) today—in terms of musical style, storyline, politics, and the roles of those with/without power. Be specific in your examples from this scene.

Group 5 presentation: Porgy and Bess (1935)

Week 13
April 17: Hamilton
FINAL ESSAY—first critique due [pdf]
Preparation: Read libretto [genius.com]/listen to cast recording [YouTube playlist]

April 20: Hamilton continued
Preparation: Listen to Hamilton Mixtape [YouTube playlist]; watch Hamildrops [YouTube playlist].
Group 6 presentation: Fun Home (2015)

Week 14
April 24: Hamilton continued
Watch TBD
Quiz 5: Of Thee I Sing and Hamilton

April 27: The Wiz discussion
Assignment due: The Wiz one-page response

Finale/Bows/Exit Music (Back to top)

Tuesday, May 1, 11:59pm: Final essay due [pdf] Friday, May 4, 8:10–10:40am: Final exam