“They Bow…Just Like Us”-The High School Musical as Project Based Learning

April 3, 2012 — Leave a comment

It is high school musical season-the best of

It’s the final act; the final musical number. It is 9:30 PM Eastern Standard Time and Reno Sweeney leads the chorus in the rousing reprise “Anything Goes”. It is  9:30 PM Central Standard Time, and Mother Superior exhorts the Von Trapps to “Climb Every Mountain”. It is  9:30 PM Mountain Standard Time, and the Pink Ladies and the Greasers be-bopp their rendition of “We Go Together”. It is at 9:30 Pacific Standard Time, and the fiddler plays the final wistful strains of “Anatevka” as the villagers sadly leave their homes as part of a great migration.

Across America, it is spring; it is high school musical season.

Just as the snowpack melts in some communities, or the holiday decorations are finally removed from front doors or trees, the lawn signs advertising the upcoming show at the local high school pop up like spring flowers.  The Pajama Game, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat, West Side Story, and Hello, Dolly! all have their turns gracing the stage in some auditorium, or maybe a cafe-a-torium. Students who have read The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella, Peter Pan or Beauty and the Beast take on the roles they once imagined. So popular is the idea of a high school musical that Disney created its own successful franchise based on the common high school experience of the High School Musical. 

Each winter, students go through the painful process of auditions. A select few will be thrilled, others will accept those thankless roles in the chorus or the nominal speaking parts. By the time ticket sales start, students will have had eight to twelve weeks in rehearsal, usually in the evenings, often after sports or other school activities. The lead roles will have rehearsed several days a week more than those with those cast in thankless chorus roles. Those with thankless chorus roles will have been working almost exclusively with the choreographer and rehearsal pianist. The set designers and construction crew will have drilled, nailed, and painted the sets; the technical crew will have laid out the miles of cables for sound systems and C-clamped the par-cans in place to highlight sections of the stage. The costume crew will have organized a wardrobe for easy backstage changes, while the stage manager(s) will have clearly labeled set pieces with “do NOT touch” signs. The musicians will have learned their individual parts with the ability to play softly under the spoken lines of dialogue.

Two weeks after those lawn signs advertising the show appear, the technical (lighting and sound) and dress rehearsals begin, and everyone associated with the production will be spending many more hours than anticipated rehearsing scene changes, re-blocked exits and entrances, and correcting dropped lighting or musical cues. The work is collaborative, the responsibility is shared-adult and student alike- and those thankless chorus roles are now critically important.

If authentic experiences are what educators want for students, then the high school musical, an extra-curricular activity for most school districts, is the ultimate project based learning experience. Everything a student does in a high school musical, from the start to the finish, is as authentic as a professional production-from audition through rehearsal to performance, from design to construction to set strike. Long after the set is struck, the pictures from the local paper fade on the bulletin boards, or the advertising lawn signs are removed, students remember their turn upon the stage in ways that defy the best classroom instruction. Everything about the high school musical- a wonderful blend of drama, music and dance- is “hands-on”.

A March 2012 study by the National Endowment of the Arts titled  The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies finds disadvantaged students do better academically if they are intensely involved in the arts; music, dance, and drama are specifically targeted in the charts and data.  The report states that for low socio-economic status students,”Both 8th-grade and high school students who had  high levels of arts engagement were more likely to aspire to college than were students with less arts engagement.” But even students from high socio-economic status groups benefit:

“Arts-engaged high school students enrolled in competitive colleges —and in four-year colleges in general—at higher rates than did low arts-engaged students. Even among high-socio-economic status individuals, college-going rates were higher if students had engaged in arts-rich experiences in high school, according to a separate database. Ninety-four percent of the high-arts group went on to a four-year college, versus 76 percent of the low-arts, high-socio-economic status group.”

Years ago, I took a group of my 8th grade students who had recently completed three sold-out performances of The Apple Tree at their junior high school to Broadway to see How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. At the conclusion, as Matthew Brodrick and the cast  lined up for curtain call, a student grabbed my arm in excitement, “They bow!” she stage-whispered to me, “just like us!” To her, there was no difference between their musical and the one they had seen, and in truth, outside of the quality of their performance and the quality of the Broadway set, costumes, lighting, and ticket price; there was no difference. The high school musical memorably combines learning with performance; the high school musical is an American tradition.

Imagine the synchnonicity -a sort of live streaming-  of one musical as performed by high schools across the United States…imagine South Pacific. While one East Coast high school male chorus is stomping and singing, “There is Nothing Like a Dame”, a West Coast high school cast is just opening their production with two of the smallest cast members singing “Dites Moi”.  While the Mid-west actress Nellie Forbush is “Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair”, the East Coast Cast actor  Lt. Cable is singing, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” Each production will have some variation of  dance numbers featuring Sailors, Seabees, and Marines. There will be a backdrop for Bali Ha’i . And, in the final scene of each performance, sometime around 9:30 PM, the student playing Emile will reach for the student playing Nellie Forbush’s hand, under the table, while the band swells with the strains of “Some Enchanted Evening”…. the enchanted evening of the ultimate “project based learning” …the high school musical.

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