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Musical Theater Exercises

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Musicals are a unique form of communication. How often do people in real life resolve conflicts through song and dance? When was the last time someone at the office burst into an intricately choreographed musical number? (When I did this at my old job, everyone just stared at me. No one joined in.)

Fortunately, drama class is a “fantasy-friendly” environment, the ideal setting for musical theater exercises.

Theme Music Improv

This improv activity is suitable for 2 – 3 performers. It requires theatrical music to be played while the actors perform. I recommend a simple keyboard and someone who can play impromptu background music. (Nothing fancy is necessary – just music that conveys different emotions.)

Have the audience members suggest a location. For example: library, zoo, kindergarten class, driving school, etc. The actors begin the scene with a normal, everyday exchange:

  • Hey, Bob, did you get that promotion?
  • Son, I got a call from the principal today.
  • Hello, and welcome to jury duty!

Once the conversation is underway, the instructor (or whoever is manning the keyboard) plays background music. The melody can alternate between dramatic, whimsical, suspenseful, western, science-fiction, romantic, and so forth. The actors must then create action and dialogue that matches the mood of the music. Whenever the music changes, the behavior of the characters change.

Emotion Symphony

This drama exercise is terrific for large groups.

One person (perhaps the drama instructor or group leader) serves as the "orchestra conductor." The rest of the performers should sit or stand in rows, as though they were musicians in an orchestra. However, instead of having a string section or a brass section, the conductor will create "emotion sections." Learn more about how your students can create an “Emotion Orchestra.”

Song Spoofs

It’s not easy to compose original melodies. (Just ask 80s band, Milli Vanilli). However, students can take their first step toward a song-writing career by spoofing existing songs.

Form the students into groups (between 2 – 4 people). They should then select a song with which they are each familiar. Note: It doesn’t have to be a showtune – any Top 40 song will do.

The instructor will give the song-writing groups a topic for their song lyrics. Because of the storytelling nature of musical theater, the more conflict, the better. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Getting “dumped” on Prom Night.
  • Being trapped in an elevator.
  • Getting caught shoplifting.
  • Saying goodbye to your dead goldfish.
  • Finding out your grandma is a vampire.

Students collectively write as much of the lyrics as they can, hopefully telling a story, or conveying lyrical dialogue. The song could be delivered by one or more characters. When the students present their work to the rest of the class, they can simply read the lyrics to the class. Or, if they feel brave enough, they can perform the newly created number and sing their hearts out!

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