Skip to main content

Fine Art as Global Perspective: Musical Theatre in America

Maria Szasz, 
Core: Fine Arts


“The Broadway musical has always reflected different social and political forces—patriotism, skepticism, commercial consumption, escapism, revolt and globalization. The musical defines our culture and is, in turn, defined by it.”   --Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon, Broadway: The American Musical

Fine Arts as Global Perspective: Musical Theatre in America will carefully consider one of America’s unique contributions to the fine arts. We will read, listen to, and watch excerpts from the most revolutionary musicals from 1904-2015, concentrating primarily on American works. The class will extensively discuss the background and major accomplishments of the twentieth and twenty-first century’s most significant musical theatre composers, lyricists, writers, actors, dancers, choreographers, directors, designers, and producers.

This class is, first and foremost, interdisciplinary. We will frequently discuss how the disciplines of theatre and history interact and co-exist. For instance, what do musicals say about American history? South Pacific suggests that American racism “has to be carefully taught”; Hair defiantly and poignantly protests the Vietnam War; Guys and Dolls celebrates American energy, drive and spirit. Our discussions will pay special attention to the ways musicals engage and respond to the major historical, political and social issues of their day. 

We begin in the early years of the twentieth century, with the charismatic “song and dance man” George M. Cohan, whose upbeat, sassy songs and heroes in Little Johnny Jones (1904) and George Washington, Jr. (1906) jump-started American musical comedy. Through Oklahoma! (1943), South Pacific (1949), and West Side Story (1957), we explore what made the “Golden Age” of American musical theatre so rich, creative, and admired. In the 1960s-1970s, we determine why both the form and content of musicals radically changed, with the bold introduction of “rock musicals” such as Hair (1967) and “concept musicals” such as Company (1970) and A Chorus Line (1975). In the 1980s-1990s, we focus on the “British Revolution,” with the arrival of the “megamusicals” Cats (1982), Les Misérables (1987), The Phantom of the Opera (1988), and Miss Saigon (1991). We conclude by examining the most recent developments in musical theatre that invigorate theatergoers, such as Wicked (2003), Memphis (2009), Million Dollar Quartet (2010), Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark (2011), The Book of Mormon (2011), Once (2012) and Hamilton (2015).

Our primary goal is to reach an understanding and appreciation of this eclectic, vibrant, innovative form of theatre that entertains and challenges audiences worldwide.

George M. Cohan, Little Johnny Jones (1904)

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat (1927)

Cole Porter, Anything Goes (1934)

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Oklahoma! (1943) and South Pacific (1949)

Fred Saidy, E. Y. Harburg, and Burton Lane, Finian’s Rainbow (1947)

Frank Losser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, Guys and Dolls (1950)

Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story (1957)

Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot, Hair (1967)

Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, Company (1970)

James Kirkwood, Nicholas Dante, Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, A Chorus Line (1975)

Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, Les Misérables (1987)

Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, Miss Saigon (1991)

Jonathan Larson, Rent (1996)

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton (2015)


Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) 

Show Boat (1951)

South Pacific (1958) and (2001)

West Side Story (1961)

Finian’s Rainbow (1968)

Hair (1979)

A Chorus Line (1985)

Oklahoma! (filmed live on stage in 1999)

Les Miserables (Two versions: filmed live on stage in 2008 and the 2013 film)

Rent (filmed live on stage in 2009)  

Reliable attendance and consistent, thoughtful contributions to class discussions; two 2-3 page response papers; attendance at a local production of a musical; a group project: a sixty minute oral presentation on a musical theatre show, composer, lyricist, writer, performer, designer, director, choreographer, and/or producer; a two page proposal for a research paper; a ten minute conference with the instructor on the research paper topic; a six to eight page research paper.

Maria Szasz received her MA in Theatre Education from Emerson College and her PhD in English from UNM, where she specialized in Drama and Irish Literature. Her love for musical theatre began with her discovery of the little known musical comedy The Robber Bridegroom.