Volume II - 1994

Teaching English Through Broadway Musicals
by Gina Milano

      Gina Milano, a graduate of Columbia University, teaches ESL at Hunter College in New York City and at various corporations throughout New Jersey. Fluent in Italian and Spanish, she was a presenter at TESOL Baltimore (1994).

      Using songs and videos of well known musical plays can be a stimulating alternative for ESL classes at any level of proficiency. The language in musicals like Oklahoma and Singin' in the Rain is straightforward and idiomatic; the plot is easy to follow; and drama, romance and beautiful music are plentiful. As a supplement to the classroom, it is a source of exceptional energy and excitement that almost always meet with success.

      Bringing musicals to the classroom provides wonderful opportunities to expand vocabulary and gain familiarity with colloquial expressions and certain grammatical structures. Exploring musical videos can also create an awareness of American speech patterns and nonverbal expression. Furthermore, students benefit from exposure to the variety of soci-cultural issues that are addressed in many musicals.

      Not to be underestimated is the musical itself. Think of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Summertime," "If I love You," "Singin' in the Rain." These timeless classics are a part of us, our culture, even language. Many of our students are also familiar with these melodies, and for them it is especially satisfying to learn the words. For those who are unfamiliar with American musical theater, it is an important introduction and one that has added a new dimension to some lives.

      I began working with musicals when I was teaching an elective course entitled "English through Broadway" at Hunter College in New York. Actually, the inspiration came from the students themselves--particularly those from Japan--who expressed great interest in musical theatre. They had often asked where they could get inexpensive theatre tickets and what the best shows on Broadway were. At the time, I was involved in a community theater group that performed shows, so I had an interest in and a familiarity with the subject.

      I chose eight different musicals that were on commercially available videotapes. I would first summarize the story and talk briefly about the characters. Then we would listen to one or two of the songs and do exercises such as the one described below. From there, we progressed to watching a few important scenes and discussing them in terms of plot, historical context, social implications, and cultural relevance. After the students had become familiar with the musical as a whole, we practiced and performed songs, dialogues and even dance steps. The class culminated in an afternoon at a live performance of a Broadway show. The musical is the United States' most significant contribution to the theatre. It is purely American as an art form with a broad appeal, not only to sophisticated music lovers, but to ordinary citizens. Undoubtedly, much success with this genre has been due in part to the richness of the material--beautiful songs, humor, powerful dialogue, and love stories, all readily accessible to the teacher on the video.

      This form encompasses a wide variety of topics, some quite serious: racism and prejudice in South Pacific; religious persecution in Fiddler on the Roof; the tragedies of war in Hair; the rise of Nazism in Cabaret and The Sound of Music; American farm life in Oklahoma; and show business in Gypsy. Even if the story takes place in another country or culture, it can be used as a basis of comparison with the USA. For example, My Fair Lady can be used to illustrate differences between American and British English or simply to emphasize clear, deliberate pronunciation. ( A favorite clip with students from this movie is the scene in which Eliza Dolittle finally perfects her "refined'" English and sings "The Rain in Spain." Our students can easily relate to Eliza's struggle and frustration with the language, are also inspired by her success.) West Side Story can highlight tensions between Anglo and Latino culture. The movie Hair depicts life in the 1960's including Hippies, long hair, the Vietnam war, and defiance of authority. All of these issues have had a lasting effect on the American psyche and are very adaptable to the wide variety of content areas discussed in the ESL classroom.

      Although actual experience with musicals is welcome, any teacher with or without a musical ear can use this method. Simply choose excerpts of dialogues and songs from musicals that are in some way related to a vocabulary lesson, pronunciation emphasis, grammatical structure or subject of topical interest that is being covered in a particular class. Then, transcribe the lyrics or dialogue and work it into as few or as many classes as you like. To minimize teacher preparation, publications of musical plays in their entirety can be acquired (addresses given below).

      Using musical theater is not contrived as so many ESL lessons can be. It's authentic English, educational, gives cultural insights and frequently brings joy to the classroom.

Teaching Techniques

      The following is a typical lesson plan using the song "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music.

1. The students are briefly given background about the musical itself: the story, the context in which it takes place, and the pertinent characters.

2. They listen to the song on cassette tape and arrange the phrases in the order in which they are heard.

3. After hearing the song several times, the students are familiar with the melody. They are then asked to write their own stanza to "My Favorite Things" substituting their favorite things while maintaining the rhythm of the music. (This is quite a difficult task, yet some students are extraordinarily creative with this exercise. One student commented that he now understands the challenges that song-writers have of putting words to music. Incidentally, you can apply this technique to almost any kind of music such as rap, rock, country, and pop as long as there is some consistency in the rhythm and lyrics.)

4. Finally, and regardless of who can or cannot carry a tune, we sing the song together.

"My Favorite Things"

Raindrops on roses
And whiskers on kittens,
Bright copper kettles
And warm woolen mittens,
Brown paper packages
Tied up with string--
These are a few of my favorite things.

Cream colored ponies
And crisp apple strudel,
Doorbells and sleighbells
And schnitzel with noodles,
Wild geese that fly
With the moon on their wings--
These are a few of my favorite things

. Girls in white dresses
With blue satin sashes,
Snowflakes that stay
On my nose and eyelashes,
Silver white winters
That melt into springs--
These are a few of my favorite things.

When the dog bites,
When the bee stings,
When I'm feeling sad,
I simply remember
My favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad.

My Favorite Things

      Listen to the song and put each stanza in its proper order by numbering each line.

_______ Bright copper kettles
_______ Raindrops on roses
_______ And whiskers on kittens
_______ And warm woolen mittens
_______ Brown paper packages
_______ These are a few of my favorite things.
_______ Tied up with string

_______ Cream colored ponies
_______ And schnitzel with noodles
_______ Wild geese that fly
_______ And crisp apple strudel
_______ These are a few of my favorite things.
_______ With the moon on their wings
_______ Doorbells and sleighbells

_______ That melt into springs
_______ Silver white winters
_______ These are a few of my favorite things.
_______ Snowflakes that stay
_______ Girls in white dresses
_______ On my nose and eyelashes
_______ With blue satin sashes

_______ My favorite things
_______ When the bee stings
_______ When the dog bites
_______ I simply remember
_______ And then I don't feel so bad.
_______ When I'm feeling sad

      Now write your own stanza to "My Favorite Things." Write about the things which are favorite, but remember that you must keep the rhythm of the music.

__________________________ and _________________________
__________________________ and _________________________

      These are a few of my favorite things.


      Musical Sources:

OKLAHOMA Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein
SINGIN' IN THE RAIN Arthur Freed, Nacio Brown
SOUTH PACIFIC Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick
CABARET John Kander, Fred Ebb
THE SOUND OF MUSIC Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein
GYPSY Jules Styne, Stephen Sondheim


Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Lowe
WEST SIDE STORY Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim
THE WIZARD OF OZ Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg
CATS Andrew Lloyd Weber, Tim Rice
PORGY & BESS George and Ira Gershwin
CAROUSEL Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein
PETER PAN Betty Comden, Adolph Green
SHOWBOAT Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein

      Individual Show Tunes That Can Be Used In the ESL Class


Musical, Writers and Composers
"Put an a Happy Face"
Bye, Bye Birdie, Charles Strouse, Lee Adams
"Good Morning Starshine"
"Easy to be Hard"
Hair, Galt MacDermont, Gerome Ragni, James Rado
"I'l Do Anything"
Oliver, Lionel Bart
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow"
"If I only Had a Heart"
The Wizard of Oz, Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg
"The Rain in Spain"
"I Could Have Danced All Night"
My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Lowe
"If I were a Rich Man"
"Sunrise, Sunset"
Fiddler on the Roof, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick
"I Won't Grow Up"
Peter Pan, Betty Comden, Adolph Green
Cats, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Tim Rice
"All I Ask of You"
The Phantom of the Opera, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Charles Hart
"Oh What a Beautiful Morning"
Oklahoma, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein
"Ole Man River"
Showboat, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein
"Singin in the Rain"
"Good Morning"
Singin' in the Rain, Arthur Freed, Nacio Brown
West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim
"Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend"
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Jules Styne
Cabaret, John Kander, Fred Ebb
Porgy & Bess, George and Ira Gershwin
"Try to Remember"
The Fantasticks, Harvey Schmidt
"Let Me Entertain You"
Gypsy, Jules Styne, Stephen Sondheim

      If you teach children, some of the Disney musicals would be wonderful: Mary Poppins, Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Alladin, etc


Gottfried, Martin. Broadway Musicals. Harry N. Abrams: The Netherlands, 1979.

      Complete librettos or screenplays are available from the following sources:

Actors' Heritage

The Drama Bokshop

262 West 44th Street 723 7th Avenue
New York, NY 10036 New York, NY 10019
(212) 944-7490 (212) 944-0595

(cataogues available)

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