Wednesday, March 24, 2010

American Musicals Project

We went to our last concert sponsored by the N-Y Historical Society and the City's American Musicals Project on Monday night. It was a tribute to the 1927 smash musical "Showboat" and the show's lyricist and librettist - Oscar Hammerstein II. Of course, that remarkable Hammerstein would go on to many other even greater triumphs (?), but in terms of its place in American musical history, "Showboat" remains a truly epoch-making production. With music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Hammerstein, and book by Edna Ferber, it was a star-struck show, made even more so by its legendary producer and bank-roller - Florenz Ziegfeld. In part because of unanticipated delays and in part because they were such perfectionists, Kern and Hammerstein labored over the songs and overall production for years, revising everything many times over until it was about as good as it could be.

Frankly, I don't think it is that great a show in terms of its music. Doesn't come close to Oklahoma, for instance. But it does have some very beautiful songs - especially "Make Believe," "Cotton Blossom," "After the Ball," and "Can't help lovin' dat man." And, need I add, that it also has "Ol' Man River," one of the greatest, most iconic songs ever written. The people who were on hand to sing these songs at N-Y performed them to perfection. I don't really expect to enjoy the music from this show any more than I did just the other night. Indeed, all of the musical performances that were staged at N-Y over the last four weeks have been superb.

I have now written about this a few times, but I think I've been a bit vague about what it's all about. The American Musicals Project is a special curriculum written for 7th and 8th grade social studies students to make historical subjects more accessible and interesting by teaching them through American musicals. So Showboat teaches about slavery and life in the South. Oklahoma and Paint Your Wagon teaches about westward expansion. West Side Story teaches about immigration and South Pacific about World War II. The project has enlisted dozens of musicals to make history come alive for young students and now apparently has been used by something like 3000 teachers to teach over 50,000 students. It is a fascinating idea that according to an interesting video that was shown the other night really has made a considerable difference in engaging the interest of middle school students in history and in musical theater.

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