Putting it Together: Words & Music

Disney Musicals

Walt Disney exported the musical to cartoons in the 1930s and returned it to Broadway by Disney in the 1990s


Age range: 15 to 18

Estimated Time: You can view all the videos in this series in about 30 minutes, but you may want to allow some time in between to reflect on what you hear.

Key Technology: This multimedia resource is bandwidth-intensive, requiring a high-speed Internet connection. Users should be equipped with speakers (or headphones in a lab or classroom setting) and will need iTunes or Quicktime installed on their computers

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This is part of a 6-part series that introduces middle and high school audiences to the many aspects of musical theater. Heather Nathans, Associate Professor of Theatre at the University of Maryland makes it easy to listen to and learn about musical theater in America. Using examples from Broadway, she talks about the history, structure and elements of musical theater, musical theater's role in making social commentary, its legacy and how you too can create a musical.

Think About...

Ready, Set, Learn!
Before you get started, think of what you already know about musical theater. Keep this in mind as you listen to the lectures. Pause the audio track now and then to sum up what you have learned or playback a segment to stop and think about what it means to you. Think about how your experience and what you know about musical theater matches what Heather Nathans is saying. Are you surprised by anything she says, does something feel familiar to you or validate your own observations?

Food For Thought
Take a look at the summaries of each of the lectures below. You may want to listen to each lecture one at a time and consider the questions that follow the summaries. See where these ideas may lead you and have fun!

Disney’s Role in Musical Theater in America

“Animation offers a medium of story telling and visual entertainment which can bring pleasure and information to people of all ages everywhere in the world.”

Walt Disney

There’s No Business Like Show Business
Music and dance have been part of American theater since the early days of our country. Think about what you heard from Heather Nathans and any Disney musicals you have seen. What do Disney musicals and Broadway musicals have in common?

What’s Good for the Goose is Good For the Mouse
When Walt Disney began making movies, that technology was in its infancy. Disney took the musical theater formula and put it into cartoons that were generally intended for children and families. How do you think Disney got the idea to do this? Were Disney’s musicals immediately welcomed by audiences or do you think they took some getting used to?

Think about the kind of entertainment that you enjoy, which is probably marketed to you and your friends. Can you imagine a way to repackage that same kind of entertainment to a different audience, say your grandparents or the military or factory workers?

Everything Old is New Again
In an odd turn, the Broadway musical exported by Walt Disney to cartoons in the 1930’s was returned to Broadway by Disney in the 1990’s. When musical theater hit a slump, Disney revived the business by bringing its cartoon stories to the stage. What do you think happened in America to make the musical theater go out of favor? Could it be because people were going to the movies instead? Or because the problems of society were too serious or not serious enough for the public to seek entertainment in the musical?

You’ve Come A Long Way Baby
Think about the long history of Disney; starting out in the animated cartoon business, then making feature length musicals, and then Broadway bound for spectacular productions. What do you think about a company that can be successful in so many ways? Why do you think Disney went back to Broadway with their musical know how? Was it an artistic ambition? Could it be because they saw an opportunity to make money? To capture a different audience? Were their movie audiences changing, thereby forcing them to reinvent their product?

Learn More

Dig Deeper!

The episodes in this series have dealt with the opening songs and the songs that tell the story. What about the big finish? Take a look at some of the finales in the shows mentioned or others you may know and see what patterns or themes you can find. Here is a brief list of shows with their finale number

  • The King and I ("Something Wonderful")
  • Beauty and the Beast ("Transformation")
  • Snow White ("Some Day My Prince Will Come")
  • Fiddler on the Roof ("Any Day Now")
  • High School Musical ("Get ‘Cha Head in the Game")
  • West Side Story ("Finale: Tony and Maria")
  • South Pacific ("Finale (Dites-Moi)")
  • Avenue Q ("For Now")

American culture has been exported all over the world through cinema. In particular, Mumbai, India has taken cues from the Hollywood musical to create their own brand of singing and dancing in the “Bollywood” musical. Take a look at how the Bollywood musical reflects and influences an international audience. For more information see this PBS link.

For the Educator

Take some time to preview the video interviews before presenting this lesson to the class/student. Think about questions/comments your students may have when they view it to be ready for a group discussion of the content.

Collect a variety of recent magazines, newspapers, and internet headlines.

Let’s Get Started

This in-depth series on American musical theater examines:

  • the history and metamorphosis of musical theater
  • analysis of a musical
  • the musical as social commentary
  • musical theater as a reflection of culture
  • storytelling through song
  • Disney’s contributions to musical theater

How to Teach It

There are so many ways you can use this series. Think about these options:

  • an introduction to a musical theater field trip
  • an introduction to staging a musical
  • for a unit on creative writing and storytelling
  • for a unit on music composition
  • a music appreciation lesson
  • to find out what’s on your student’s minds
  • to enhance an American history lesson

Listen First

You may want to listen to the lectures as a large group. When you hear a point relevant to your group pause the audio so you can discuss it. Stop in between lectures for guided group discussion. Use the questions in the tab above to get the conversation going if you need to.

Instructional Strategies

Decide if you would like your class to work individually, in small groups or as a large group.

  • Individual or small group – each student/group would create a mini musical theater piece including:
    • A story concept
    • A plot with a beginning, middle and end
    • Cast of characters including main characters and supporting characters
    • Three songs including: an “I want” song, a song to move the plot along, and a finale number. The songs can be original or new lyrics written for existing popular tunes or existing popular songs which are appropriate to tell the story.
  • Large group - as a group the class would create one musical. Assign the following jobs to individuals or partners:
    • Producer – organizes the deadlines of the various jobs and over sees that everyone is progressing towards meeting their deadlines
    • Writer/s – develops the story concept, development of characters, dialogue, develops the plot which includes a conflict, climax and resolution
    • Composer/s – develop songs including an “I want” song a song to move the plot along, and a finale number. The songs can be original or new lyrics written for existing popular tunes
    • Technician/s – designs any needed technical support i.e.: sound, lights, special effects,

Supply your students with a selection current magazines, newspaper or Internet headlines.

Direct your class to choose a story from headlines and turn it into a musical by writing an “I want” song, a song to move the plot along and a finale. Come up with an idea of your own or choose one of the following ideas:

  • a crime
  • human interest story
  • sports story
  • weather story
  • odd ball story
  • political news



Ann Reilly


Editors & Producers

Richard Paul
Audio Producer


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