A “Fly-Over-View” of Musical Theatre History


The students will demonstrate their understanding of the roots of musical theatre history up to the Civil War era by filling out a worksheet.


Materials Needed

Pictures from each era, C.D. player, music selections from the various eras (Medieval Choral pieces, opera clips showing arias vs. recitative, Blue’s music clip) copies of worksheet


Related Documents

• Musical Theatre History Worksheet/Quiz  1.MusicalTheatreQuiz.Worksheet


Lesson Directions

Anticipatory Set/Hook
Students arrive to the seats set up in rows like on an airplane (the teacher should feel free to do as much set up as they want to add to the ambiance). The “Captain” (teacher) welcomes them, thanks them for flying with “Great White air-Ways” and asks them to take their seat since they will be departing shortly for New York. S/he informs them that it may be a long flight of a couple of weeks (depending on how long the unit takes) since they will be making several layovers on their way to New York City.



Step 1: The teacher then explains that they will need to gather information at each of their stops in order to enhance their trip to Broadway. The teacher then passes out the history worksheet and asks them to be patient and they will be at their first stop shortly.


Step 2: Athens. The teacher welcomes them to the birthplace of theatre; Athens, Greece. Being that they are advanced students they should already know most of this section so instead of lecturing on Ancient Greece, verbally quiz them to see how much they already know from the worksheet.


Step 3: Rome. Talk to them briefly about how the Roman Empire adopted many characteristics of Greek culture including Theatre but how they tweaked it to make it their own. The Romans took out the morals and lessons that Greek theatre was so well-known for and left only the scandal and the smut that was entertaining to the masses. What was left was a base form of Burlesque. Ask the students their opinion on why we do theatre. Ask them their opinion on what art is and if they would consider the Roman’s version of theatre art.


Step 4: Medieval Europe. Discuss how the Christian church largely ran European society and how they went in the complete opposite way from the Romans. Almost all music was religious and that the choirs would put the same Latin lyrics of Alleluia, adoramus dei Christe etc. to different tunes. Street performers started putting on morality plays based on the Bible. Dance was considered evil and so if there was any dancing in these plays it would have to be by the performer portraying the devil.


Step 5: Italy. Discuss how the Renaissance was a time of “rebirth” that started in Italy. The Italians loved the Greeks and emulated aspects of their culture much like the Romans. However the Renaissance version of Greek plays, evolved into what we know as Opera. A monologue became an “aria” which was one person singing alone. Dialogue between two people became a “duet” and the conversation or chorus parts became what is known as “recitative”. As you describe each of these aspects of opera, play a short clip from an opera so they can hear the difference between them.


Step 6: Pre-Civil War South. Discuss how the Northerners had their roots in Puritanism and so not a whole lot of development in the musical theatre field was occurring there. The slaves in the South, however, were from Africa and music, dance and theatre were an imbedded part of many tribal cultures. To pass the long hours spent doing hard labor in the fields, many slaves would sing. At nights they would entertain themselves by singing and dancing. One artistic form that came out of this era was tap dancing. They would sprinkle sand or dirt on a hard surface which made the sounds more distinct and take turns developing intricate rhythms. Their songs often acted as a way for them to vent their sorrows. This was the beginnings of Blue’s music. Play the students a brief clip of some Blue’s artist (Louie Armstrong etc.)


Step 7: Talk about how the slaves, encouraged by their masters would have competitions to see who could do the best impersonation of their master. This is called a cake-walk because the winner was awarded with a cake.


Step 8: Divide them into two groups and have the first group stand in a line and ask them to give their best impersonation of some authority figure (i.e. principle, a well-known teacher, you etc.). Have the other group act as the judges and then switch.


Note: Students should keep their worksheets since they will finish them and turn them in at the next lesson.