Tiny Theater HIstory Nerd

A while back, Silas listened to the sound track for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It blew his mind. He started asking, “When did people begin making plays like that? Are there lots of plays like that? How are they made?”

He’s seen musicals before, and listened to the soundtracks, but he was suddenly asking a host of new questions. So I decided to take him on a journey through theater history. I asked my theater nerd friends on Facebook to help me generate a list of the seminal shows. This list had far more expertise going into it than your average elementary school project–some of the people who responded teach musical theater at the college level, and others are performing professionally. To get the list down to a manageable number, I had to edit it a lot. My major criteria were:

  • Is there anything here I’m completely not ready to discuss with Silas?
  • Is this play not just good, but a turning point or development in the history of the theater?

Here’s the final list:

  • 1880: Gilbert/Sullivan — Pirates of Penzance
    1927: Kern/Hammerstein — Show Boat
  • 1943: Rodgers/Hammerstein — Oklahoma
  • 1950: Loesser — Guys and Dolls
  • 1957: Bernstein/Sondheim–West Side Story
  • 1964: Bock/Stein — Fiddler
  • 1975: Hamlisch/Kleban — A Chorus line
  • 1980: Schonberg/Kretzmer — Les Mis
  • 1981: Andrew Lloyd Webber — Cats
  • 1984: Lapine/Sondheim: Sunday in the Park w George
  • 1996: Jonathan Larson — RENT
  • 1997: Elton John — Lion King (if I can find a decent video of the stage production)
  • 2003: Ahrens/Flaherty — Ragtime (it’s playing near us this summer)
  • 2017: Marlow/Moss — Six

We’re listening to the soundtracks and sometimes watching video clips. So far, I think he’s really enjoying it. I have to fill in the blanks on the stories at some points, but he understands enough about narrative that he can follow how a story should go really well.

I also have him doing a theater history notebook, where he has to follow a template and answer some questions about each play (and we’re also doing this with plays he sees as well as listens to). His pages are *hilarious*. Here is a sample.

This was for an all-female Taming of the Shrew that we saw at Quill Theater, in Richmond. “The worst character is Petruchio because he is mean to women…a lot…Petruchio made Katerina lie.” He decided to draw a scene from the play…with everyone as vampires. It’s an intriguing concept, I might steal that.

Showboat–we just listened to it, didn’t watch it. And he didn’t understand until I showed him some pictures exactly what a showboat was. He was imagining a Viking longship (it would have an “ubducted captive audience”). Once again, stealable concept. “My favorite song was ‘Old Man River’ because I was wondering how they got an actor with such a deep voice.”

Here’s the page on Antony and Cleopatra. “I love the scene on Pompey’s boat because of the crocodile joke. If I were in a production of this play, I would play the Asp because it has no lines. I liked Enobarbus because he’s funny. The only way to know where a scene is set is when Octavius Caesar says, ‘Welcome to Rome.’ For the sea battle, they used only noise. The silks were used for magical effect.”

I think he captured Antony’s performance of that crocodile joke perfectly.


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