Shen Curriculum for Musical Theater celebrates its 10th year

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A student performs at the end of semester Shen Curriculum concert last month. (Photo by Harold Shapiro)

When Theodore P. Shen ’66 decided to help launch the Shen Curriculum for Musical Theater a decade ago, he wanted “to elevate American musical theater as an integral part of liberal arts education at Yale.”

While the curriculum began as an extracurricular activity, it has evolved into an interdisciplinary course of study that examines American musical theater as an indigenous American art form, influenced by changing cultural, socio-economic, and musical tastes and styles.

The curriculum now includes seven to eight courses offered annually and a master class series, “Fridays @ Five,” that bridges the academic world of liberal arts with the professional world of musical theater. Shen faculty members have a wide range of backgrounds, including scholars and professional composers, directors, lyricists, librettists, directors, and performers.

Alumni-organized Yale Musical Theater of the Air presents ‘The Music Man’

Creative Yale alumni will join with current students, faculty, and staff stage onstage at the University Theatre Jan. 23–24 for three performances of a new production of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man.” The production will feature Broadway’s David Loud ‘83 leading a 37-piece orchestra of Yalies past and present.

The performances are the third presentation by the Yale Musical Theater of the Air (YMTA), which has previously come together to offer productions of “Kiss Me, Kate” and “My Fair Lady” in New Haven.

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Daniel Egan, coordinator of the Shen Curriculum, teaches courses in American musical theater history and the work of Stephen Sondheim. He said the curriculum’s growth has been “gradual,” paralleling the emergence of musical theater as a “new sub-field of cultural study.”

“The creation of song, character, and narrative intersects with traditional notions of society, culture, context, and form to provide a disciplined platform from which students can explore themselves as creative thinkers and the world around them,” Egan said. “Yale’s tradition of academic excellence and passion for musical theater puts the university at the forefront of this new field.”

The program is administered jointly by the music department and the theater studies program. Students who focus on music are able to take courses in composition, history, performance, and lyric and libretto writing. Students who choose to explore the art form via theater studies program can take courses in acting, directing, performance studies, and theater history. Together, the curriculum honors artistic technique “as a set of ideas to be critically examined within social, historical, and cultural contexts,” Egan said.

Mary Jo Shen and Theodore P. Shen ’66. (Photo courtesy of Theodore Shen)
Mary Jo Shen and Theodore P. Shen ’66. (Photo courtesy of Theodore Shen)

Students also share their work in a concert at the end of each semester, showcasing new musical theater songs, lyrics, and librettos. According to Egan, between fall 2011 and spring 2014, 20 new musicals were produced on campus. While some musicals were produced outside the Shen Curriculum, Egan said, the overall increase is reflective of the growing interest in musical theater.

Work created by Shen Curriculum participants has also increased steadily since 2008. After graduating, participants have performed in theaters, on film and television, and in recording studios and concert halls; started theater companies, written plays, and composed scores; and served as literary managers and music directors. Others have entered graduate school as musicians, actors, or directors, or have become teachers.

The success of graduates is a reflection of the curriculum’s emphasis on giving students access to a diverse faculty that has worked in theater professionally, said Egan. The master class series “Fridays @ Five” brings leading professionals in the musical theater field to work with the students on their projects, offering critiques and guidance, and to “provide a bridge between the liberal arts study of the genre and the professional world beyond Yale,” according to a 2014 curriculum report.

Other initiatives spawned from the curriculum include the 2013 Cole Porter Centennial celebration and the Yale Musical Theater of the Air — an initiative that brings together musical theater alumni from Yale College, the School of Drama, and the School of Music with current students to help mount a professional quality concert version of a classic American musical — while curriculum students also participated in the Shakespeare at Yale series in 2012. Egan said the Shen Curriculum continues to advise students post-graduation and looks to increase collaboration across a wide range of disciplines at Yale.

“Musical theater has always been a passionate and committed aspect of the Yale experience and an important part of learning about ourselves while exploring the join between intuitive and reasoned intelligence,” he said. “In this generation, as never before, the confluence of campus passion and a flourishing field of academic study makes Yale the appropriate leader in bringing high-level musical theater to the academy.”

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