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Musicals on the AP English Test

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Dear College Board,

On the Advanced Placement English Literature and Comprehension test, the students are given a list of authors that are considered “AP quality.” This includes a long list of playwrights, from classic writers such as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson to the more modern examples such as Tom Stoppard. These authors represent a wide range of quality material in the English language, but there is one glaring oversight when it comes to determining material suitable for use on the AP test. There are no examples from a well-established, well-respected genre of drama: musicals. Using the examples of Carousel , My Fair Lady , and Hamilton , I will attempt to shatter whatever misconceptions you may have about musicals as an art form and convince you of the necessity of allowing musicals to be used on the AP English Literature and Comprehension test and in the respective course.

One common misconception when it comes to people's’ attitudes about musicals is the assumption that musicals are just fluff, without any deeper meaning. This can come about because of the common idea of musicals being more popular with the masses than straight plays. While there are a great many comedic musicals, especially in recent years, there are many classics that have the deep themes that the College Board seems to desire. Among these is the popular 1945 musical Carousel , with music by Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Carousel touched upon the important issues of domestic abuse and people’s capacity for change and redemption with its story about the love of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan. In the musical, Billy is ill-tempered and once even hits Julie, but she is willing to love him anyways, say that “it’s possible for someone to hit you, very hard, and for it not to hurt at all.” After he takes his own life, Billy is given a chance to redeem himself by God, and in the end he succeeds and is allowed into heaven. This challenging material is perfect for a feminist, historical, or psychological reading, but people are prevented from using it on the AP test simply because it is a musical.

Another common argument used to dismiss musicals is the fact that many of them are adaptations of previous works. While this is true, it is not always a bad thing, as seen in the case of My Fair Lady , the 1956 musical with book and lyrics by Alan J. Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. Though based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (a playwright, I must note, that is on the list my teacher gave me to AP representative authors), it is a masterpiece in its own right, with an ending completely different than that in Shaw’s play. In Shaw’s play, the two main protagonists, Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, do not end up a romantic pairing, with Eliza running off with her friend Freddy Eynsford-Hill. The musical, on the other hand, ends on an ambiguous note, but one that is hopeful for the eventual love of the two protagonists. This change in the ending makes all the difference, with many still being divided on which ending is the better or “truer” one. Not all musicals that are adaptations change such big things, of course, but the addition of songs to narrate the plot of the narrative make musicals a distinct art form that should be respected and represented on the AP test. In addition, I feel obliged to point out that Shakespeare himself, love of English teachers everywhere, based his famous play Romeo and Juliet off another play that premiered less than 30 years earlier, Arthur Brooke’s 1562 The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet.

Many more modern productions use nontraditional musical stylings that may make the College Board hesitate to introduce musicals into the canon of classic English-language literature. Likewise, many are under the impression that musicals are somehow simpler or less intellectual than poetry or drama. An excellent example of a musical that defies these expectations and shows how silly they are is the 2015 musical Hamilton , with book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Not only does Hamilton use musical styles, such as hip-hop and rap, that are still rare even within the musical theater community, but it also contains enough examples of complex literary devices to make it intellectually stimulating from an analysis perspective. For example, the number “Take a Break” uses a complex metaphor-allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth to explain the postures of the other characters in relation to the title character and to foreshadow his tragic end. At other instances, poetic devices are used to enhance the value of the lyrics, with alliteration being used in “Right Hand Man” to describe George Washington as a “venerated Virginian veteran” and assonance in “Alexander Hamilton” when he is said to have been “dr o pped in a forg o tten sp o t in the Caribbean.” This marriage of poetic complexity and narrative power is something that has hitherto only been acknowledged in narrative poems, but can also be commonly found in musicals, which are in general longer and thus have a greater opportunity for analysis.

The exclusion of the many talented men and women who create musicals from the canon of AP English Literature and Comprehension is, in my opinion, a grave oversight. Not only do musicals include serious themes and clever adaptations of previous works, but they also present an almost unique opportunity to combine the strengths of both poetry and drama. Including the option to use musicals as well as plays and novels on the AP test would create a new dimension in the analysis of English literature and enhance the overall quality of the AP program in general.