MUSC 310: History of the Broadway Musical

As the first installment in our Course Catalog series, History of the Broadway Musical highlights the benefits of living and studying on the cusp of one of the greatest theatrical cities in the world.

“Meet me on 42nd Street!”  — William Mulligan


Beneath the glitz, the glamor and the flashing lights of Broadway is a classroom unique to New York City, where history, economics and sociology come together through spoken word and song. Don’t believe it? Sit in on MUSC 310: History of the Broadway Musical, a course taught by William Mulligan, coordinator of performing arts and adjunct instructor of music at Manhattan College.

Using the resources of New York City, Mulligan immerses his students in the study of Broadway beginning with a trip to the Great White Way.

Rather than rush into the big name box offices of The Lion King and Wicked, Mulligan selects two musicals for the class that reflect sociological, political and ethnic themes — an experience that requires closer examination.

“We ask, ‘what does it mean to do theater that connects to the community?’" Mulligan says.

Past semesters have included the study of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a rock musical Mulligan related to the country’s political situation and In the Heights, the story of a Dominican community in Manhattan’s Washington Heights.

In the Heights was a show I wouldn’t have picked out to see by myself, and I absolutely loved it,” says Grace McCarrick ’11, who took the course as a sophomore in 2008. “It was really great to see it with all my classmates and to be able to spend class time discussing it. I still listen to the music today!”

One field trip that’s become a class favorite is a day at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, which houses one of the world’s most extensive and historic collections of Broadway-related material.

Here, the class is assigned to compare current revivals of Broadway musicals with their original performances, which can only be watched on tape exclusively at the library.

“When you’re able to go downtown and explore places you haven’t been — such as the library — with a class, you are then much more comfortable going on your own and have more tools for ways to use the city,” McCarrick says.

In MUSC 310, studying the people who make up Broadway is equally important as studying their song and dance.

Students get a firsthand look at the economics of a workers union with a trip to the Actors Equity Association in the heart of the Theater District, while downtown, a walking tour of the Lower East Side illustrates the prominence of Yiddish theater and its influence on Broadway greats such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin.

And occasionally, a Broadway star will visit the classroom to teach a truly one-of-a-kind lesson.

In spring 2009, actress Melba Moore visited the class to discuss her experiences in the original cast of Hair and as the first African-American woman to replace a white woman in a leading role.

“We’re in a great position in New York City,” Mulligan says. “No other city has this. They might have theater, but they don’t have Broadway.”

Now in its fifth year, MUSC 310 continues to be a favorite for Manhattan students who use the city as their classroom.

“They all come with a love of theater,” Mulligan says. “And I hope they leave with an appreciation that theater means something more than entertainment — that it has cultural, political and sociological implications.”