With all due respect, songs at school don't have to be bad to get message out

June 18, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

WHAT EVER HAPPENED to show tunes?

I realize this is going to make me out to be cranky. A frump. One of those mothers who clucks her tongue at the back of the auditorium. But why don't school children sing show tunes anymore?"

Songs from "The Sound of Music," "West Side Story," "Carousel" or "Cats?"

Why don't school children sing those kinds of songs anymore?

My daughter was preparing for the year-end chorus concert at her elementary school and she was dancing around the house singing songs about respect that weren't made famous by Aretha Franklin. And she was singing songs about racial tolerance that were not sung by Mitzi Gaynor in "South Pacific."

Songs you never heard of before.

She was singing songs that not only did not have a catchy melody, but which did not have a melody at all. Songs that are what my friend Nan calls "message-driven." Songs that sound like polemics with notes attached.


"No one can stand in my shoes. No one but me. No one can know what I feel or see what I see. No one is made of the things in my recipe: My culture, my country, my school, my friends, my family. My own identity is reserved for me."

Won't those lyrics just stick in your head all day?

The point of this, I'm sure, is to use music to plant the seeds of self-esteem, a childhood commodity that seems to be in short supply in every household.

"There's new wind that's a blowing, and it's meant for you and me. We'll value one another, that's the way that it should be . . . R-E-S-P-E-C-T. What I want from you! What you want for me!"

(Those parents who would rather listen to yet another rendition of "Hakuna Matata" please raise your hands now.)

And I am certain educators hope to use music to defuse social tensions in our increasingly tense public schools.

"Keep on moving, don't give in and sooner or later you will win. That is what we call teamwork! If we put our hands together and we set our sights real high, we can solve our problems when we reach for the sky."

Poor Stephen Sondheim. He wrote all those songs for Tony and Maria never knowing it was this easy.

Just how dense do we think these kids are that we have to bury these messages of self-respect and peaceful co-existence in every activity?

Why do we believe that these ideas must be delivered like medicine -- with a spoon full of sugar? (Speaking of which, why don't school children sing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" anymore?)

Can't we teach these kids to love themselves and tolerate each other and still give them a taste of musical theater, America's great gift to the world? Can't we separate these tasks?

"Kids, this is the principal speaking. Fight, and you're in more trouble than you knew existed.

"Now, everybody report to the cafeteria to rehearse 'Side by Side by Sondheim.' "

Respect -- self and other-directed, as teachers might say -- is a very important lesson for children, but so is their cultural history, our cultural history.

OK, so maybe it is "Be Our Guest" or "Colors of the Wind" for this generation and not "Over the Rainbow" or "Singin' in the Rain." But the list of Academy Award nominees is not a bad place to start when you are trying to teach music to children and when you hope they learn something else besides.

My friend Sally, who prepares musically precocious children for theater auditions, can carry on a conversation using nothing but the lyrics from show tunes. And she easily put together a list of songs that would allow you to raise a child using nothing but the lyrics from show tunes:

"You'll Never Walk Alone" from "Carousel"; "Open A New Window" from "Mame"; "I Have Confidence" and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" from "The Sound of Music"; "Tomorrow" from "Annie"; "Heart" from "Damn Yankees"; "Put on a Happy Face" from "Bye Bye Birdie"; "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Getting to Know You" from "The King and I"; "I Believe in You" and "Brotherhood of Man" from "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"; "Friendship" from "Anything Goes"; "Who Can I Turn To" from "The Roar of the Greasepaint"; "On the Street Where You Live" from "My Fair Lady"; "Castle on a Cloud" and "Do You Hear the People Sing" from "Les Miserables."

These songs and the Broadway shows and movies they come from represent a melodic synthesis of how Americans view themselves. I know this sounds cranky and pedantic, but this music is part of our cultural heritage and it is the job of parents and educators to convey this heritage to children who might rather get their culture from music videos.

The songs my daughter and her friends are singing carry important messages, too. But writing a tune to go with a message is not the same as letting children learn what music and musicals have to teach. It is like a Berenstain Bear version of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

"Gonna make the right decision. Gonna have a clearer vision. Gonna look before I leap. Think about the consequences. Gonna use my head this time. Make things work out real fine."

I can't help but think these lessons would stick better if we let Rodgers and Hammerstein teach them.

Pub Date: 6/18/96

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