I'm getting the feeling that the "overrated musical" assignment that I charge my students with each semester is becoming less and less representative. In other words, the exercise is becoming less about what the students genuinely think is overrated and more about what they think *I* think is overrated.
First of all, the shows that students are choosing to write about seem to be coming almost exclusively from my own list of The Most Overrated Musicals. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I certainly don't want to develop into a benevolent dictator. (Well, more of a benevolent dictator...)
Here are the shows that students chose to lambaste this semester, along with the number of students who chose to write about each:
And here are the shows that received only one "vote" each:
The Producers, The Wiz, The Phantom of the Opera, Annie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sweet Charity, South Pacific, Man of La Mancha, Passion, Footloose, The Wild Party (Lippa), Big River, Mamma Mia, Les Miserables, Legally Blonde.
The only shows listed above that aren't on my own overrated list are Sweet Charity, Annie, and The Producers. (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is on my list of The Musicals That Suck. The movie is fun -- albeit lo-o-o-ong -- but the stage show sapped whatever life the movie may have contained.) I suppose it's perfectly natural for students to want to try to please me. But I think that they'll find that it's not really the show choice that determines their final grade, but rather how well they've supported their arguments. I've given out A's to people who've torn apart shows that I personally love, and low grades to some who've ripped a new one for shows I despise.
Another factor that makes this exercise less than representative is the fact that, in my discussions with my students, I usually try to steer them away from particular shows, ones that I've found previous students have had difficulty with. For instance, every year a number of students initially propose Grease, which I try to discourage. It's not that I think Grease is a good show, but I've never read a strong paper about Grease, one that really captures what's wrong with it. Students seem to focus mostly on the "message" at the end, when Sandy becomes a skank to attract Danny. Well, the show isn't necessarily condoning that choice. It's saying, "Isn't it interesting what kids of the time felt they needed to do in order to fit in?" Grease is a soft-pedal satire of the 1950s, and in order to criticize a satire, you first need to understand what it's satirizing.
Other students propose writing about shows that aren't very well known, like Lone Star Love, Zanna Don't, or Little Mary Sunshine. Well, who's overrating these shows? For a show to be considered overrated, it needs to be relatively well known, either by the general public or by theater insiders. And none of those shows really fits that bill. Yes, the paper is more about how well the students defend their choices, but they need to start with a show that fits the general premise.
And then there's Cats. Every semester, Cats rears its fur-covered head, and it's another choice that I strongly discourage. Again, I'm not a great fan of Cats, but I've found that students have a difficult time specifying what's wrong with the show. They often focus on the fact that it has very little, if any, plot. Well, the same could be said of A Chorus Line. In fact, the shows have pretty much the same plot: a bunch of characters meet up and take turns talking about themselves in the hope of winning a particular honor. And then the sentimental favorite gets picked at the end. I did have one student this semester who had some solid ideas about the real problem with Cats, mostly stemming from the fact that the creators chose a literal translation of T.S. Elliot's poems, which results in a lot of third-person narration, and robs the characters of any dimension or relatability. I haven't read her final paper yet, but based on our discussions, it did seem like a promising tack to take.So, what do you think, dear reader? Are my students onto something here? Or are there some other show choices that would make for more deserving targets for the "overrated" treatment?