My blogging frequency typically plummets this time of year, what with the start of a new semester and all. But the upside of all this academic activity is that I have a new crop of musical-theater majors who are actively sharpening their critical skills on a couple of exercises that I submit them to each semester. And the upshot of those exercises, dear reader, is a number of lists that I make a habit of sharing with you.
My most recent post enumerated the students' choices for The Bestest Musical Ever (subject to change by semester's end), and just today my students passed in their first paper, the assignment for which was to select and defend (emphasis on "defend") their choices for the "most overrated" musical ever.
When I mentioned this paper topic on Twitter, one of my followers wondered why I chose to "take the negative tack." "Why not ask about the most underrated musical and hear about virtues?" My prescient friend anticipated the next assignment facing my students: the most underrated musical. But his point is a fair one: why focus on the negative? Why not put the "underrated" paper first? Well, as we all know, for many people it's much easier to criticize than to praise, so this makes for a more accessible task to start with. And once they've ripped some poor unsuspecting show a new one, they're in a better position to discuss what makes the good shows good. At least that's the theory.
Below is the list of shows that students chose to write about this semester, as well as the number of students who wrote about that show. A few caveats: Based on previous experience, I actively discourage students from writing about certain shows, including Grease, Cats, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I'm not saying I think these shows are above reproach. Hardly. It's just that I've found that students have had a difficult time explaining what exactly is wrong with them. There have been exceptions: I had a terrific anti-Cats paper last semester, and one of the best papers I've ever received was about Joseph. But over the years, I've seen more students struggle with these shows, so I tend to steer students away.
Also, the list below is clearly influenced by my own personal biases, as well as what I've written about these shows on my blog. I even have my own list of The Most Overrated Musicals, which you can check out by clicking through on the link. (Equal time: I also keep a list of The Most Underrated Musicals.) So, in no way is this list a representative sampling of...well, of anything, really. It's just an academic exercise, more important for the process than the product.
All that said, let's take a look at the list:
3 The Phantom of the Opera
2 Bye Bye Birdie
2 In the Heights
2 Mamma Mia
2 South Pacific
One paper each: Aida, Annie, Curtains, Godspell, Footloose, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Nunsense, Rent, Side Show, Spring Awakening, The Pajama Game, Thoroughly Modern Millie
Now, Pippin has shown up before, but never quite to this extent. I do know that I steered at least two students toward that show. When students are having a hard time choosing a show, I ask them to send me a list of shows that they've done, and clearly I've been in an anti-Pippin state of mind. Which is funny, because it's one of the shows that I'm having the students in my criticism class write a review for. And since I have the DVD and script on reserve in the BoCo library, it was easy to steer students who were unsure toward that show based on available resources.
But I claim no responsibility for Bare being on this list, although, frankly, I'm not a fan of the show. I find it maudlin and cloying, and the songs simply don't grab me, despite multiple listenings. The show certainly has its ardent (rabid?) fans, and I've had many people defend it to me over the years, but the way I see it, the show has to make me a fan of itself, rather than relying on some outside PR job.
As for the rest of the list, these are fairly standard choices. I'm not sure how Footloose got past me, though. I usually steer students away from it, on the premise that criticizing Footloose is like shooting fish in a barrel. Is there anyone out there who genuinely thinks Footloose is a good show? Interestingly, one of the best papers I've read in the past few years came from a student who was defending Footloose as part of her "Underrated Musical" assignment. She did a great job of demonstrating some things about the show that are actually pretty good, including the arc for the character of the preacher's wife.
But, ultimately, it's not really about whether these shows are good or bad. The most important part of this assignment is how well they support their choices with cogent arguments and specific examples from the shows. And, as my past students will tell you, that has absolutely nothing to do with whether I happen to agree with their choices. Seriously.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have papers to grade.