The Trouble for Musical Theater in Schools

The Trouble for Musical Theater in Schools

Spencer Lau

At this time of the summer many students are enjoying their vacations, many directors are worrying about their program’s short and long-term futures. Let’s face it, there are so many obstacles facing theatre education and the arts on a national scale. Over the past month I have interviewed fifty musical theater directors from four countries. The musical theater educators in the US represent elementary, middle, and high schools from all regions of the United States. We discussed what is working in their schools, districts and community, but we also discussed pitfalls, misconceptions obstacles and future needs. I wanted to share my findings because they are quite interesting in how far we have come but yet how musical theater in schools have to go. So in this highly charged political climate, I will deliver my first “state of musical theater education”. Please keep in mind, I will not be using names of the educators in order to protect their candid answers.

“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”

There are things that are positive for programs across the country. There are all the statistics you can find online or through websites about how the arts improve test scores, attendance, student morale, behavior and discipline but the universal answer to what is working is that all these programs are safe spaces for their students. The children are free from testing, bullying, strains their home lives and are able to express themselves in multiple ways. Generally there is a lot of community support for the programs as they have all enhanced the school districts and the Boards are quite pleased with having the programs for the students. Parents and families are grateful for the programs because their child is not an athlete but can take part in a fun activity and learn multiple skills and it is a welcomed activity to keep children active. All of the programs actually have parents who help build sets, make costumes, and manage some type of need within the program. Educators (in many of the programs that I interviewed) maintained summer programs as well that are well attended.

They are essentially providing an all year education. In addition to that, about two thirds of the educators I interviewed said their administration is either supportive or incredibly supportive of their programs. About thirty of the fifty mentioned that they had a large free and reduced lunch or transient population and many of their students represent that socioeconomic group. They have found some of their greatest joys with those students who, often times, were not necessarily leads but found the greatest love of theater, personal and spiritual growth. Social media has greatly helped link the musical educators across the world. There are multiple groups that have hundreds of directors sharing ideas, solution, and even set up pipelines to help rent and or borrow costumes, props, set pieces, etc. Half of the educators reported that they had community sponsorship in some way through gift cards, ad sponsors, or reduced rates for services, materials and products for their productions. All of the educators did report that they had students continued performing after graduating from their programs and that those alumni actively seek the chance to help with other programs. While musical theater has made tremendous strides in schools, unfortunately there are still many ways it is still prolong it from having a much stronger impact.


If you have seen or know the musical “In the Heights,” you know that when this song is being sung, Usnavi has just found out that he has sold a lottery ticket worth $96,000 and everyone who live on the block dream about how they would spend that if they won it. In the middle of every summer, every teacher starts to think about their next school year in bits and pieces. Often times they try to answer the question “How do you do more with less in your budget, if you HAVE a budget?” In fact, did you know that in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2015, the arts have “ equal billing with reading, math, science and other disciplines? This designation is an acknowledgement of the relevance of the arts in a complete education and means that the arts may be eligible expenditures of funds for federal education programs (such as Title I, teacher training, and school improvement).” This is according to the website Upon further inspection of inflation-adjusted education per student per state, in 2014 Utah only contributed $6,500 compared to New York’s $20,610 per student ( Of course there are hundreds of reasons why the costs vary from school needs, revenue, taxes, cost of living, demographics, etc. but how does that trickle down to the performing arts and musical theater? Performance ensembles aren’t necessarily part of what they consider a necessity or cost effective. Federal, state and local funding also has a lot to do with the distribution of wealth among the districts as well. Take for instance New Jersey, which is embroiled in a battle of “fair funding”. Of the teachers I spoke to from twenty-five different states in every region of the country, budgets have been a large part of their problem.

In the New York City Public Schools it is the principals who serve as the business officer once they are allotted their money from the city department of education. In some instances teachers have been cut to part time or less, to save money or to hire teachers in other desperately needed areas. In some districts all extra curricular programs are cut to save money or they resort to the “pay to play” format or cut stipends for coaches/directors, effectively cutting the programs. To meet the federal (and some state) standard for fine and performing arts, schools have done things like make districts adopt an arts appreciation class. These classes save money, cover each of the fine and performing arts areas and requires no budget outside of a class budget. A final major reason given to me through my interviews was the increased needs of the various departments. With the increased need for other students, and a lack of funding from any other department or education level, arts programs take a massive impact. While many districts have supportive Boards and administrations, often times they cannot monetarily support the programs due to these constraints. One common misconception that almost forty-five of the directors I surveyed was that people assumed that the school district funded their program in some way. While, in actuality, only twenty of the educators I interviewed received any funding from the school. All of the educators I have spoken to have applied for scholarship or grant money but I found in my research, there actually is not a lot of that readily available for programs. Many of the schools get shut out because they are not a nonprofit with a 501C designation. For many of the programs the teachers have to serve as the grant writers, monitors, and various other restrictions that make them near impossible. Actually if you do a Google search you will find it quite difficult to find them for the school levels. But on a broad level, it is quite difficult to find grants that will help with funding a program. There are minor grants/scholarships that are often applied for in the community but must be shared across the board of the other arts programs within the community. In Part Two I hope to offer some solutions to these problems are a bit unorthodox but in times like this, they will hopefully cause a discussion to commence.

“Waving Through a Window”

The most obvious obstacles continue to be the stigma around being a musical theater performer. Thirty directors have reported that the stigma still exists but there are multiple forms of it. They exist as:

  • Why do you want to sing, dance, and act
  • Musicals are only for girls and gay boys
  • Only white kids do musical theater
  • There aren’t a lot of shows that have parts for minorities
  • Musical theater is only for the kids who don’t fit in anywhere else

Yes ladies and gentlemen, we are still battling the same five stereotypes we have been since musical theater started in schools. Even though have been lucky enough to see some of music, TV and movies finest grace the stages of Broadway, we still have to battle the ignorance of a society. Why is that? Why is it that with shows like The Color Purple, In the Heights, Miss Saigon, Hairspray, Rent, The Lion King, West Side Story, and Hamilton do we still have those stereotypes hanging over us? Is it that we aren’t reaching out enough as educators? Perhaps educators, directors, administrations aren’t willing to take chances because of the chance of controversy. Is it because of lack of shows available? No because many titles are available through the various licensing companies that exist, some (like Music Theatre International) advocate or require diverse casting (in accordance to the creator’s wishes) in some of their shows. This quite probably is the most disturbing of all the negatives I have heard about. While I don’t think the current social/political climate helps matters any, we have to find ways to combat these issues within our society. Musical theater has reflected our society’s progression, (whether positively or negatively) and it will continue to do so. We have had a bit of a renaissance on Broadway with Allegiance, Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen and Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, in the  

fact that these shows are spotlighting minorities and unique storylines that are connecting with new audiences. Even though these are all being celebrated in theatrical circles, it still seems like musical theater is trying to break through that window of mainstream theater. There are some major cracks and it is happening little by little but we still have a ways to go to overcome these ignorant stereotypes that are a bit older but still existing. We need to find ways to overcome these barriers that are placed in the way of progress by students, colleagues, administrators, coaches, families and sometimes communities.

“If Only You Would Listen”

There is still a stigma against musical theater programs still. Believe it or not the internal interest groups such as administration or other educators in buildings are also hinder programs. As mentioned before, two thirds of the educators surveyed agreed that their administrations/colleagues were supportive of the program. Many of those educators cited the fact that although the administrations were supportive of the program, that was only in verbally and through providing means of allowing the program to exist. For many of the programs they have to be fully self funded in order to exist. Musical theater programs help diversify and provide another outlet for student productivity and achievement but if they cannot self sustain then the program would be phased out leaving those to fundraise or be at the mercy of programs like a PTO/PTA or alternative means. This leaves another half that were not funded. So why would they not be supportive? Why would they question the need for such a program? Here are some of the answers I have found and let’s be honest, you should be seated, in a room where children cannot hear you yell and maybe pour that extra glass of wine before continuing. Let’s use the first and obvious answer. Some schools have an emphasis on sports more than anything. Half of the educators interviewed have said that there is an imbalance of funding where the sports programs include transportation, equipment, uniforms, facilities maintenance, and multiple coaches. Meanwhile those schools’ musical programs have to pay for everything out of their own pocket, pass the cost off to the students and their families or pay out of pocket for improving facilities, transportation etc. In fact, five of the directors reported that the schools actually restricted charging students for their participation for their show needs while the athletic programs were almost fully funded or the costs could be deferred by parents clubs. This is just a subject that merits discussion and more research. The arts programs used to be described as a luxury but after the countless years of research, it is moving to being a need in school. One of the needs is that in the future it becomes a necessity and is funded as such. Let’s use the age-old adage that if you had a star athlete, who came from a lower socioeconomic stature, there is inevitably a coach or teacher who is able to convince school officials or community members to help that student. How many movies can we refer to that do that? Now can you think of as many situations for children of the arts? Before you bemoan the sports programs, they were given their abilities when the department of education called for an increase in physical activity in schools post Civil War. With the increase of music education as part of the  

National Core, hopefully this will mean that schools will have to find better ways of funding their programs. Nevertheless, the stigma is still there and needs to be addressed, as it is still rampid in places like the South and Midwest according to my findings.

Another administrative problem that some of the directors have encountered was that they understand musical theater. Don’t challenge the kids; don’t give them materials that would be considered controversial, etc. Now obviously we don’t want elementary and middle schools doing “Heathers 101”, but Hairspray JR was considered too out of the box for some educators’ districts. Now the educator has an obligation to their students, families, district to pick something that is developmentally appropriate, and to sit down with the administration and discuss the show but there are a few programs that deal with an administration that wants absolutely no waves or discussion. In some instances the administrators have asked, “Why do you need to practice so much?” or “Do you really need to lights, sound or to use the stage?” Questions like these, and so many more that were brought up truly make me feel like there is a disconnect between some administrators and the theater programs they have in their building. Often times have said to new theater directors or college students, you have got to be able to explain your program in terms your administrator can understand. Whether it’s cooking, make up, sports, automotive, or statistical terms. Actually half of the educators mentioned that they almost never see their administrator at performances! That certainly sets a tone for your building if your administrator doesn’t attend or sits in their office the entire time. What does that say to the staff, parents, and other students? There is a trickledown effect there and honestly it gives the appearance that you don’t appreciate your musical theater educator.

Half of the educators cited scheduling as an issue. Some of the directors have said that during study skills they may have to attend any variety of activities, meetings or assemblies. Some shows are scheduled based around the ridiculous amount of state or district testing that students go through. In fact forty of the educators I spoke to test their students at least 3+ times a year. Many of them also stated that they have concerns that after school rehearsal times get cut down by any number of reasons. Some schools only allow groups to rehearse a certain number of days, some coaches force the students to choose the sport or other programs (even in elementary and middle school), or the students are overextended with other activities. Some administrators use the performing arts educators for coverage in a school that they would not give to a common core classroom teacher. Because of budget cuts and lay offs there are necessities that the specials educator might have to cover like being an aide in an English class setting but covering a lunch or hall duty is far less helpful to the district and to their individual program rather than using their particular skill set to help improve the school. Before you yell at me, yes I understand that there are some responsibilities that need to be covered but I would argue that there is a way to kill two birds with one stone. At the high school level some directors are forced to have rehearsals later in the evening, which potential causes a transportation issue

for cast members. Again my disclaimer is that this is a general state of the programs and yes I do understand that there is a fundamental philosophical difference of making a young person choose their activity vs. allowing the student to have multiple experiences and later choosing what they wish to do.

“What is this Feeling”

There were twelve directors who cited colleagues as one of their biggest obstacles to their program. Some of the programs are fortunate to have study skills or zero periods where they could work with their directors. Unfortunately there are teachers who say things to the students like “you know you need to pass the state tests”, “it’s just theater anyways”, and a couple teachers actually mentioned colleagues have said to their students “it’s not something that you will be help you the rest of your life”. Ok reader, take three deep breathes. I actually had to take a time out from the interview to just calm one director down because they were crying while telling me this. Let’s file this under professional jealousy. A musical theatre program will give your school recognition in the community, amongst the parents, perhaps locally, regionally or even nationally. The students may want to run to the arts programs because they aren’t being drilled for “almighty test”. In any event this is the reality.

Another battle twenty of the directors were faced with was that they had colleagues who were non-collaborative or unwilling to be a part of the process. Of those twenty directors about ten of them have mentioned that they had directors above or below them who were unwilling to collaborate with them in any way. While we all know that there are coworkers we cannot work with, can we agree that what musical theatre programs in schools are doing is for the best of the students? While this may point to professional jealousy (again) it can also signify a multitude of other issues. But there is a lot of pride and ego associated with the work school directors do. This is something that could be seen by students, parents and the community and become part of a negative culture that many of you probably see in school and community theatre. If you take the time and ask Broadway professionals, you will find that collaboration, respect and a high work ethic are the ways you maintain a long career. The other ten musical theatre educators found that they work with colleagues who are unwilling to be part of the production. Why use the word unwilling? There are multiple reasons, such as 1. They are unwilling to put a lot of effort into the show or 2. Unwilling to adhere to the copyright laws set forth by the various licensing companies. A handful of the directors have colleagues that believe “the parents will clap for whatever the children will do on stage”. This is a bit cynical and while you naturally support your child, you also want your child to get something meaningful out of the experience of performing. Everyone encounters the person who is at work to “collect a check” or more realistically now “has healthcare” but there should be more as musical theater is an art and the arts are supposed to help us express what words sometime cannot. How can children be taught how to do that without guidance and careful mentorship? The other reason of unwilling to

follow the rules of the show copyright raise serious questions. Of the ten musical theatre educators who mention this, half of them had to adhere to the colleague for some reason or another. There were incidents of adding scenes or songs from original shows or from the movie or choreography from the same. The interview educators cited that their colleague wanted to make a name for him or herself or more money or felt they knew better in all cases. Don’t worry, I’m already working on that article and interviewing all the licensing companies to address this in the near future. But rather than be creative, there are educators out there who would rather copy than be creative. Unfortunately they are doing no better than cheating on a test. Teach that as a lesson to your students. What would you do if you were in that situation? Please consider this, often times production teams in school are chosen by administrators or based upon longevity a school, not always based on expertise in that field.

“The Room Where it happens”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a stage and wings, fly space and all the things you would like to have to stage a professional production? Sadly many musical theatre programs just do not have that. While the majority of the educators I spoke to at least had a stage, that was about where the similarities ended. Actually about half of educators had a stage in the cafetorium. Many of you may remember a cafetorium, or auditeria or a multipurpose room. You would do your assemblies, lunch, maybe even gym or school basketball game in those rooms. They came into style roughly in the early 1950s. These rooms were quite fashionable in the 1950’s-1970’s school design because they would help lower the cost of building another large space that wasn’t thought to be used often. Presently, these rooms are available at the mercy of scheduling. Depending on where schools are, there can be up to three or four events held in them during a school day. For musical theater educators this makes it difficult for them to hold rehearsals, build sets, block shows, and keep the set on stages. In addition to that, cafetoriums notoriously have very little wing space and no fly space whatsoever. Ten of the educators surveyed actually mentioned that their schools are used for township committee meetings, PTO/PTA meetings, etc. They serve as the community center for their respective districts. Because of their multipurpose use, there can be many restrictions put on the space. For instance six directors were told they cannot keep their set pieces on the stage and they would have to be moved almost daily. In addition to that, three of the six mentioned that those other groups have used the equipment and have deleted all the cues that were programmed into the system previously. Twelve of the directors have to sign their spaces out A YEAR in advance and several directors have to deal with their stage being used as a storage facility for the entire school. Finally there were three directors who did not have an auditorium or cafetorium in their school so they perform on the gym floor or cafeteria floor, which provide a totally different set of problems to discuss at a later date. There were some programs that were not allowed to use the lights and sound for their stage until the last rehearsal before the first performance because the administration did not want to over use their

equipment and some programs had to pay a staff member to run their lights and sound as well. Twelve of the educators have actually mentioned that their lights and sound barely exist or are the original pieces that were installed when their schools were built. Another eight of the directors mentioned they had to rent lights and sound equipment for their shows because they did not have any of that equipment in their performance space. Due to budgetary cut backs, some of the schools could not make improvements to their auditorium or provide upgrades in equipment that already exists in their space. While these are some major roadblocks, educators have said that it has caused them to become quite creative to make things work but on a yearly basis.


By now you must feel like this is a list of grievances that musical theater educators have about their jobs right now. Actually this is quite the opposite. Every educator has emphatically said they love what they do and wouldn’t change it for the world. When I started this survey it was to inform people that there are a lot of things going on behind the curtain. Many of the educators are doing any number of jobs at the same time on top of teaching in their classrooms or running other parts of their music program. In addition to that, many of these educators are trying to find grants, scholarships, and alternative funding. In the end although these programs are spread all over the country (and a few internationally), we generally have the same problems. We have come a long way since musical theater started in the schools and there is respect building in our communities and school districts, but there is a long way to go. Even with all the statistics, facts, figures and research showing how musical theater and the arts contribute to reading, language arts, and math classes as well as help develop students just like sports, it’s still a long road before it will be accepted as a part of the school on a daily basis with equal funding, respect and treatment. There are many programs that do in fact support musical theater programs on all these levels but we continue to hope and write about attaining that utopic hope. Remember theater is a means of expression and in this age of twenty four-seven social media, many of your children are losing the ability to express themselves or communicate. As educators, they need their administrators, families and communities to know that they are doing the best that they can and trying to solve as many problems as possible but you need to know what we as educators are faced with and need your help to overcome these obstacles in maximizing musical theater (and the arts) in our schools.

Next week I hope to provide some answers and out of the box ideas for educators, programs and communities to help bridge some of the gaps this article discussed. In the end, my very unofficial survey turned into some major insight and hopefully will bring about some discussion about what to do next.


Spencer Lau is a fourteen-year public school teacher, producer, music education advocate, clinician, writer and musical theater director. He can also be followed on

Twitter (@njdlau)

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