The Sound of Musicals


Children of Eden

Photo: CC 4.0 VillageTheatre

Religion-themed musicals in the Catholic curriculum

By Keith Mason, PhD

Musicals can serve as powerful resources for student learning. Several religion-themed musicals demonstrate aspects of Catholicism and Christianity and are worth including in lessons to enrich the Catholic school curriculum. Because religion ideally can be integrated into instruction in several subjects, religious musicals can inspire powerful, memorable learning opportunities.

Religion-themed musicals in the Catholic curriculum

The 20th century saw hundreds of musicals staged on Broadway, in London, and at theatres globally. A prime musical for teaching Catholicism appeared in 1959 when Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, starring Mary Martin, debuted on Broadway. The 1965 film version starring Julie Andrews became an international success.

Several religion-based musicals emerged in the early 1970s through the early 1990s, including Two by Two (1970), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1970), Godspell (1971), Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (1971), and Children of Eden (1991). Composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz contributed to three works (Godspell, Mass, Children of Eden), and Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice created two works (Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). NBC aired Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert in April 2018, receiving 13 Emmy nominations and winning five awards.

These musicals can foster the study of religion because their plotlines depict reenactments of Bible stories and God’s role in an individual’s life. Consider two types of religion-themed musicals for your curriculum: Bible-based and Catholic life.

Bible-based musicals encourage reading Bible passages as literature and the history of religion.
Children of Eden. Based on the first nine chapters of Genesis in the Old Testament, including Adam and Eve, the Serpent, and Noah’s Ark
Godspell. Based on the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, with a few parables from the Gospel of Luke
Jesus Christ Superstar. Depiction of the last seven days of Jesus Christ’s life
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The Old Testament story of Joseph, his jealous brothers’ mistreatment of him, and his forgiveness of his brothers’ actions
Two by Two. Genesis from the Old Testament, with Noah’s preparation for the Great Flood and its aftermath

Mass and The Sound of Music are strongly based on Catholic life and premises.

Mass. A Catholic-style Mass addresses the necessity of God in people’s lives and the role of the Mass. Conflict is ultimately resolved with a hymn of praise to God restoring the faith of the three featured choirs.  Leonard Bernstein created an innovative work based on the Tridentine Mass of the Roman Catholic Church. Liturgical passages are sung in Latin, while the rest is performed in English. Bernstein composed the music and co-wrote English texts with Stephen Schwartz and Paul Simon.

The Sound of Music. Maria is a novice nun who goes to serve as governess of an Austrian Naval captain’s seven children. She is torn between being a nun and expressing her love for the Captain. This takes place before the Nazi takeover of Austria. The score includes songs in Latin, inviting the study of the language, its tradition within the Roman Catholic Church, the development of Romance languages from spoken Latin, and Gregorian chant and choral music. Consider “Dixit Dominus,” “Morning Hymn,” “Alleluia,” “Gaudeamus Domino,” and “Confitemini Domino.”

Curricular considerations

Musicals as part of the arts and performing arts can be bridged across the curriculum in numerous ways and can impact various subjects. Educational, motivational, and engaging lessons that emphasize religious musicals can be tailored to accommodate different grade levels, subjects, and student abilities.

The biggest impact is a school integration whereby the school stages one religion-based musical and students in various subjects complete related activities and projects that demonstrate deep understanding. Watching a full-length musical is similar to reading an entire novel: analyzing characters, settings, time periods, main themes and messages, songs, and plot.

Single subjects and interdisciplinary lessons or units can be fostered using musicals. Interdisciplinary lessons can be formulated for the entire class or mixed and matched for different students or groups to encourage differentiation. Consider the following subjects as material for lessons tied to the musicals.

Art and architecture. Visual arts — including religious paintings, frescoes, drawings, and sculptures — can connect to musicals. Many artistic works of Western civilization are religion-based. Consider the architecture of cathedrals, basilicas, and shrines. Bulletin boards, art display boards, murals, and a display case showcasing students’ creative work and projects are possible. Paper dolls of key biblical or other characters in musicals could be created with text to promote writing skills.

Catholics often use statues and other icons in the same way others use photographs to revere saints or other prominent figures.

Crucifixes and other religious icons can be integrated. Consider Michelangelo’s religious art (his painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, two statues known as Pietà), da Vinci (The Last Supper fresco), or Bernini’s work at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Students can explore one or more religious figures from a Bible-based musical, such as Jesus, saints, apostles, biblical figures, and the Virgin Mary, and see how they are represented in works of art.

Fabric arts projects worth considering might include scapulars, quilts, or creating Joseph’s “amazing technicolor dreamcoat” with text and art panels. Combining artwork and text on fabric panels using fabric markers can bring art and linguistic skills together. A digital project with similar goals is also possible. Consider decorative arts such as stained glass windows, artistic aspects of churches and cathedrals, mosaics, and decorative detailing of public buildings.

Language arts. The Bible can be read and analyzed as literature. Other options include analyzing musical libretti or film scripts compared to biblical passages. Lyrics to traditional Catholic hymns may be analyzed in a similar fashion to poetry (stanzas, rhyme patterns, line repetitions). A storybook with illustrations and text can be created based on the main plot of a specific religion-themed musical. Students can create comic strips or fairy tales that outline the main plot of a specific musical scene or entire musical. Essays are undoubtedly desirable, including topics such as a review of a religion-themed musical for an online blog, a print ad or video commercials for a specific musical, a written song analysis, or an oral presentation describing one or more religion-themed musicals.

Logic and mathematics. Connect mathematics to music by analyzing tempo, rhythm, and time signature. Students can show a logical progression of ideas in written narratives and use careful planning in the layout of tech projects with space limitations.

Music and performing arts. Musical scores of religion-themed musicals are primary components for analysis and can particularly foster musical intelligence. Both vocal and instrumental music is worthy of study. The use of certain instruments such as bells or pipe organs can enlighten students on liturgical music and hymns. The Angelus bells, Latin for “angelic bells,” are particularly noteworthy because they are used in Catholic Masses, and they also can be found in the Sound of Music score. Consider organ music and Gregorian chant, named after Pope Gregory — both are included in The Sound of Music.

Modern types of music, such as rap or hip-hop, can be utilized by having students create songs that connect to a musical’s theme.

Students can perform musical scenes or songs. Theatre arts can be fostered through role play: encouraging students to act, sing, or play a song instrumentally.

Physical education can be fostered through dance or the blocking of scenes to encourage student movement and kinesthetic abilities.

Religion. Warren Nord and Charles Haynes support the inclusion of religion across the curriculum in Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum (todayct.us/2pomKwD). Because most musicals presented here are Bible-based, they invite analysis of specific Bible readings. Yet a history of the Catholic Bible is also a possibility. In Catholicism for Dummies (todayct.us/2PNMptU), Fr. John Trigilio Jr. and Fr. Kenneth Brighenti address the Gospel, the Bible’s history, the Catholic Bible, and the types of Catholic Masses. These can be bridged with one or more musicals.

Science and technology. Science can be linked to musicals to reinforce scientific concepts.
Biology and zoology. For Children of Eden and Two by Two, study the animals that went on Noah’s Ark.
Chemistry. Investigate the chemical properties of art materials such as paints, tints for glass, marble, and the like.
Physics. Study acoustics applied to music, musical instruments, and the human voice, especially the singing voice.
Anatomy and physiology. Learn about the vocal cords and how they vary when people sing in the various voice ranges.
Environmental science. Study flora and fauna mentioned in the Bible or in Austria (The Sound of Music), including the edelweiss flower. Learn about glaciers and the geology of the Alps, another Sound of Music tie-in.
Color, light, optics, and electricity. Tie these studies to stage or film musicals. Investigate the science of filmmaking or stage a theatrical musical.

Social studies and history. Use religion-themed musicals to introduce key concepts in social studies. Focus on biblical times or the development of the Catholic Church. Perform a psychology study on a specific character from one musical: character motivation, character flaws, habits of mind, and personal characteristics. Explain the importance of the specific character in developing the musical’s plot.

World languages and cultures. Complete activities in a second language with art components based on a musical’s themes. Focus on the role of Latin in the Catholic Church, the development of the Romance languages from spoken Latin, and Latin lyrics featured in The Sound of Music and Mass.

Keith Mason, PhD, specializes in interdisciplinary curriculum, Romance languages, linguistics, and musicals integration. He received eight Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards for musicals integration.

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