Filichia Features: Just in Time for Back to School

Filichia Features: Just in Time for Back to School

You're a high school drama director who's also an English teacher. You get to stage a musical a year but you want your students to learn more about musical theater.

Get your cast albums, photocopy lyric sheets, bring them to class, walk the kids through the shows - and then make use of a splendid series called MTI Study Guides.

The authors of the Guides are esteemed musical theater authorities. Sarah Schlesinger, who wrote many, is the Academic Associate Dean, Arts Professor and Chairperson of the Musical Theatre Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

The Guides tell where history veers from reality. As much as we admire Jack Kelly, Newsies' Guide reveals that the young man who actually battled newspaper giants Pulitzer and Hearst in 1899 had only one eye. Doesn't that make his victory all the more impressive?

This begs a question that all Guides for historical musicals pose: "Do you think it is acceptable to rewrite history to make better drama?"

There are tougher ones that dispel that utterly incorrect notion that musicals are merely frivolous entertainments. Fiddler on the Roof's Guide states "Tevye's society is shocked at the idea of men and women dancing together. What jolt to tradition would shock you and your friends in a similar way today?" Even more pungent is Once on This Island's question: "Have you ever experienced prejudice because of your physical characteristics, religious beliefs or social class?" Sad to say, virtually all students will say yes to at least one of the three.

Many questions will interest teens. West Side Story's Guide flatly asks "Do you believe in the kind of love at first sight experienced by Tony and Maria?" Many probably will says "Yes" because they're experiencing such "love" right now; Those who have already been burned by First-Sight-itis may disagree.

Some questions will send students Googling. 1776 has Benjamin Franklin mention that he and his son - the Royal Governor of New Jersey - are at odds regarding independence from England. But 1776 doesn't answer the question that the Guide asks: "Did they ever reconcile?"

The Assassins Guide lets us see that Stephen Sondheim didn't arbitrarily choose the words "I Am Going to the Lordy," Charles Guiteau's song about his mortally wounding President James A. Garfield. These were the words that Guiteau actually wrote on the morning of his execution.

Each Guide contains a Bibliography. Once on This Island's mentions Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by Zora Neale Hurston. Considering that the Ahrens-Flaherty masterpiece deals with superstitions that will be atypical to American teens, this book can let students better understand where the show is coming from.

They'll get quotations from the musicals' authors. Stephen Sondheim in Sunday in the Park with George's Guide states "The main thing I wanted to do in the show was to enable anyone who is not an artist to understand what hard work art is."

(Sondheim's winning the Pulitzer Prize for that musical suggests that he succeeded.)

Ethical questions abound. The How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying Guide bluntly asks "Would you be spoiled by such rapid success" that J. Pierrepont Finch experiences, rising from window washer to Chairman of the Board in a matter of days? Perhaps your students will succeed after being inspired by "Have you ever used a self-help book?"

When a musical is based on historical events, a timeline is included. Les Miserables' Guide starts with "1789 -- The French Revolution begins" but is careful to note "1832 - Death of General Lamarque, a hero to the workers and students. His funeral degenerates into the Parisian June Student Rebellion that Les Miserables describes."

(Here's guessing that even after all these years of Les Miz' ubiquitous success, some still assume the musical deals with the 1789 fracas.)

Even the most silent kids will get animatedly talking when meeting the question in Damn Yankees' Guide: "Do you think that our national obsession with baseball and other sports is a positive aspect of American life?" Hold onto your hats for those answers.

Virtually every Study Guide suggests that the students "Create Your Own Musical." Well, why not? Tomorrow's great librettists, composers and lyricists have to start somewhere. Hairspray's Guide is one of many that ask the question: "Can you think of another place in the show where a song may fit?"

Wish I could be in your classrooms to hear the answers to that one …

Study Guides are available for $5.95 each, but $3.95 for 20 or more copies of the same or mixed titles.

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at . He can be heard most weeks of the year on

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