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The Impact of Contemporary Broadway Musicals (Interview Part 2)

In addition to his research on British classical music, Professor Nathaniel Lew has also recently started teaching a new course: Cultures and Controversies in Contemporary Broadway Musicals. I got to hear all about the interesting features of this course in my interview last week with Professor Lew.


Here is the rest of my conversation with Professor Nathaniel Lew.


Could you tell me about your Yale Alumni College course: Cultures and Controversies in Contemporary Broadway Musicals?


Currently, at St. Michael’s College, I teach a history of Broadway course that covers the time frame 1900 to 1990. This covers the origins and growth of American musical theatre. However, the musicals that my students know best are more recent than that period – either because those recent musicals are the ones they grew up with or they are the musicals they performed in high school.


So when the opportunity came up to develop a new course I thought how interesting it would be to teach a course that addresses musicals performed in the last twenty years. What has happened on Boardway in the last twenty years includes shows that touch on issues that are more controversial than more classic musicals. For example, the musical “Spring Awakening” is a fantastic show that also addresses issues like teen suicide and despair. Another example is “Next to Normal” which addresses issues of mental illness that previously had not been addressed in a musical.


Musical theatre has opened up to talking about issues that are very timely. So, I developed this course as a fourteen-week undergraduate course that I have taught at St. Michael’s College. When the Yale Alumni College approached me, I thought it was a great opportunity to engage in an abbreviated version of the course, discussing not only the issues that these shows raise but also what is some of the cultural work that these shows do.


This has been really interesting to me because I did not know these shows as well as the classics, and before I put the course together I had to read up and study more than twenty shows. Anyone who loves Broadway is the target audience for this course. My goal for the course is to move people from thinking about how much they enjoy a musical to thinking about what the music could possibly mean. I am an art historian, and my contention is that art means something; art is also entertainment but these shows are all trying to do something much more than just entertain us. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. My goal for this course both for my undergrads and for the Yale Alumni College is to raise the level of conversation intellectually around an art form that sometimes people treat as bubble gum. These shows are trying to move the dial by making you think… and feel. There are so many interesting issues that come up – we are talking about modern America when we are talking about modern American musical theatre. And the music employed in these shows is used to clue the audience into who the characters are, what they are feeling, and what they are like. I get excited about teaching the musical component to these shows and opening people’s ears to how the music is affecting them.


Professor Lew has done such amazing work – from research on British classical music to the cultural impact of modern American musicals. But Professor Lew is just getting warmed up -- he’s got some major projects on the docket. For instance, Professor Lew is joining the effort to rewrite how music theory is being taught in college. He is involved in a project called “decolonizing” that is taking the subject of music theory and teaching it in a way that attempts to undermine its Euro-centric vision of it. Music theory as it has been taught historically leaves the incorrect impression that music outside of the West does not have structure or theory. Nothing can be further than the truth, and Professor Lew is joining the effort to teach music theory in a way that attempts to undo the Western bias.


Hopefully, we’ll be hearing more from Professor Lew and he can continue to give us updates on his future classes, research projects, and writings.


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