2009-10 OFA Flashback: Composing culture with Miranda and Schmidt

by Guest Blogger

This post is another in a continuing series on the Harvard Arts Beat blog taking a look back at significant events and program highlights sponsored by the Office for the Arts during the past academic year. Guest blogger Lesley Bannatyne, Managing Communications Coordinator at the Harvard University Department of Music, recounts visits by composers Joshua Schmidt and Lin-Manuel Miranda to a course on musical theater, both arranged by the OFA's Learning From Performers program.

Lin-Manuel Miranda stands at the front of a Harvard lecture hall fiddling with his iPod and staring at the clock in the back of the room. Twelve noon, the official start time of Professor Carol Oja’s course, "American Musicals and American Culture." There’s no one there.

Literature and the Arts B-85 Head Teaching Fellow Ryan Bañagale leans over and explains about Harvard time.

"We’ve got seven minutes?" Miranda asks. "Great. I’ll play DJ for seven minutes." He pops his iPod into the sound system and the room comes alive with a hip hop bass beat.

Miranda is the multi-Tony Award-winning creator and one-time star of In the Heights, a musical that blends hip hop with the Latin music Miranda knew as a child growing up near Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. In The Heights (music and lyrics by Miranda, book by Quiara Alegría Hudes) tells the story of three generations living in a tight-knit Dominican/American community coming to terms with gentrification and the tensions of cultural traditions in flux. Miranda was on campus on April 6 as part of the Office for the Arts’ Learning From Performers program, and he’s a guest in Oja’s seminar because the students have been studying cultural events—the Red Scare, social protest movements, AIDS, race—and the musicals that comment upon them, such as Wonderful Town, The Cradle Will Rock, Rent, and Show Boat. In the Heights was part of a section on immigration and ethnicity.

"The show’s been criticized because there are no drugs or crime. I wasn’t interested in that side of the neighborhood," says Miranda, arching an eyebrow at the class. "West Side Story did that pretty well, don’t you think?"

Which is one of the points the seminar raises: American musicals comment on an ever-evolving landscape of politics and social change and, despite when the piece is written, they resonate beyond a specific historical period.

"In a strange way, dealing with contemporary musicals, and talking to their creators, helps students put a new spin on the standard Broadway repertory," suggests Teaching Assistant Matthew Mugmon. "It puts into focus the fact that, like In the Heights, musicals such as Show Boat and West Side Story were made by real people who were dealing with real issues."

Like joblessness.

"The plot of Adding Machine is simple," says its composer/lyricist Joshua Schmidt during his visit to Oja’s seminar on March 23. "[The protagonist] Mr. Zero kills somebody and he pays the price. His job was ripped away. It’s not just his generation. This happens repeatedly."

Schmidt turned Elmer Rice’s 1923 Expressionist play of the same name into a musical using everything he knew as a pianist, synthesizer programmer, and composer of contemporary and electronic music: eclectic tools for an eclectic score. A score based as much, says Schmidt, on the music he listens to as it is on any Broadway tradition.

"All the music I do is based on the Pixies’ Motorway to Roswell," Schmidt confides. "I listened to that until my CD player died."

"The students see how these composers capture and relate concerns of American culture today through their musicals," says Bañagale. "Even though Adding Machine takes place in the 1920s and Heights focuses on a single community, they both comment on relationships, home, the human condition, and belonging."

It also puts a face on the phenomenon of Broadway and art.

"For most students, professional musical theater productions exist as downloads on their iPods or occasional viewings of video recordings; if they're lucky, they might attend an occasional live performance in Boston or New York," says Thomas Lee, Manager of Learning From Performers. "That's why it's so important to bring in artists like Josh Schmidt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who embody the sense of creativity and collaboration necessary to mount a musical. The experience and point of view of the professional artist—in any art form—produces a spark that resonates and enhances what the students read in books and hear in lectures, and gives them a true sense of the creative process."

Scheduling guest artists helps students concretize how works of art are made, but Oja’s seminar goes one step further. Music-making is an integral part of the class, and students are invited to perform works from the current musical they’re studying.

"The student performances have been a big success," says Mugmon. "They are integrated into the professor's lecture on a particular musical — sometimes as a way to get the sound of the musical into the students’ ears at the beginning of class, and sometimes to demonstrate a particular point. It really brings these shows alive in ways that YouTube clips and MP3s can’t, and it gets the students involved with the material in a physical way, which isn't possible in many courses."

[Caption: Lin-Manuel Miranda at Harvard Hall, April 6. (Photo courtesy Dept. of Music)]

[Caption: Joshua Schmidt]