5 Broadway Musicals for Teaching Literature

5 Broadway Musicals for Teaching Literature

Musicals aren’t just for the drama club kids anymore. With their knack for blending different genres of music with unusual subject matter, it’s no wonder that musicals’ relevance extends beyond 42nd Street. In fact, a significant number of hit Broadway shows find their origins in classic literature, proven by the much acclaimed Les Mis.

I’ve also used a couple of songs from Hamilton when I introduce my rhetorical analysis unit. I have students compare some of the lyrics to the Federalist Papers.

Because musicals operate by using music to clearly and concisely tell an exciting story, using Broadway cast recordings to supplement lessons can be an excellent way to encourage enthusiasm and understanding of great literature. Tip: Having students compare and contrast scenes from the novel with songs from the musical adaptation provides a fun, fresh approach to assigned reading!

Here are five musicals based off of classic novels:

1. Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 by Dave Malloy, based on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace

The one whose Tony got away. Don’t be thrown off by the long title - this musical is all kinds of incredible. Offbeat and magical, The Great Comet combines elements of Russian folk music and electropop and manages to dance its way through torrid affairs plaguing the Russian aristocracy in Tolstoy’s (in)famous tome with extravagant mania and irony.

Standout Song: ‘Prologue

Before your students begin chipping away at the many, many chapters, have them listen to the show’s opening number, which lays out the names and roles of all the major and minor characters in the novel using a catchy refrain to drill the information into their memory.
5 Broadway Musicals for Teaching Literature

2. Austen’s Pride, A New Musical of Pride and Prejudice by Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs, based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

In this adaptation inspired by a love of both Jane Austen as a feminist icon and her work, Austen’s Pride follows Jane as she writes her classic novel, discovering her characters and herself along the way. With catchy melodies and beautiful piano, the musical carries the listener on a mellow, enthusiastic journey through the intricacies of Austen’s engaging and elegant book.

Standout Song: ‘He Thinks/She Thinks

This number brings to life one of the most iconic scenes in Pride and Prejudice, in which Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy sit at the piano and argue about their opposing philosophies. The beautiful music contrasted with biting arguments demonstrates how high society women often had to fight their battles while still maintaining their good manners, as well as the passionate misunderstandings that colored much of the book’s overarching romance at the start.

3. Little Women, book by Allan Knee, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, and music by Jason Howland, based on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

Carried by Sutton Foster and boasting a pleasant, if simple score, the musical adaptation of Alcott’s Little Women shifts between dreamy and dreary, with the tenacious Miss Jo March at the center. This musical does not shy away from its literary roots; many of the numbers feature Jo penning her melodramas and revolve around her love of writing and books.

Standout Song: ‘Our Finest Dreams

In this number, Jo and her sisters perform one of her short stories. Not only does it introduce the audience to Jo’s brand of stubbornness, self-possession, and flair for drama, it also emphasizes the importance of the March sisters’ bond. Girl power through and through!

4. Big River, book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by Roger Miller, based on Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Big River stays true to Twain’s novel in a myriad of ways, especially in the sense that it is both lighthearted and tragic, always engaging, and thought-provoking. The musical features elements of bluegrass and country music, diving into the story’s fast-paced adventure with no small amount of enthusiasm and nerve.

Standout Song: ‘Worlds Apart

This song corresponds to a very pivotal moment in the plot, in which the titular protagonist recognizes the fact that although Jim is a slave, he is a human being with feelings and a life, just like Huck. The heartfelt duet between the two boys is not only a sign of Huck’s character development for the better but the true beginning of the friendship at the heart of Twain’s story.
5 Broadway Musicals for Teaching Literature

5. A Tale of Two Cities by Jill Santoriello, based on Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities

The sweeping, romantic quality of this musical’s score and lyrics convey the beauty and finesse of that has allowed the novel to withstand the test of time. Additionally, I should think any student would be glad for a musical guide to clarify some of Mr. Dickens’ more wordy passages.

Standout Song: ‘Reflection

James Barbour’s dulcet tones allow this mournful ballad to pluck gently at the heartstrings, as Sydney Carton reflects on his own bitterness and despairs at his unrequited love for Lucie Manette. This song is the perfect choice to reveal to students the softer, human side that lies beneath the gruff exterior of the novel’s unlikely hero.
5 Broadway Musicals for Teaching Literature