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B.A. in Broadway: Musicking the English Major May 14, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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A stack of student papers awaits my patient pen, which means I am putting off work on Ashbery and any new substantive post for a while. Instead, some fluff on the changing reputation of the English major as told through…Broadway.

There’s a whole literature on the “academic” or “campus novel,” but what about the “academic musical”? I’ve never seen Bye Bye Birdie (before YouTube), but judging from the song, an English professor wasn’t so ignominious a thing to be in the Fifties.

Bye Bye Birdie (Strouse/Adams), 1960

“An English Teacher” (2:59-6:39)

In this opening scene, Albert, a struggling music agent, has just lost his star singer Conrad Birdie (modeled on The King) to the draft. His lover and secretary Rosie convinces Albert to go back to school to become…an English teacher. Below, a production by Houston High School in Germantown, PA.

You were going to college and get ahead
Instead of being a music business bum
You were going to NYU
And become an English teacher

And furthermore, he wrote poetry. And in the NYU yearbook for 1952 under Albert Peterson’s favorite piece of literature do you know what it says? Little Women!

An English teacher, an English teacher.
If only you’d been an English teacher
We’d have a little apartment in Queens
You’d get a summer vacation
And we would know what life means
A man who’s got his masters
Is really someone
How proud I’d be if you had become one
It could have been such a wonderful life
I could have been Mrs. Peterson
Mrs. Albert Peterson,
Mrs. Phi Beta Kappa Peterson,
The English teacher’s wife!

And we would know what life means. That’s certainly why I signed up.

Rose sings about the glory of university life, but is there perhaps some irony in her words? Two years later, Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? comes to Broadway. It’s main characters are George, another hen-pecked intellectual, and his wife Martha. Between Albert the English major wasting his talents in business and George the jaded, tenured, history professor, we have something that looks like Clark Kerr’s diagnoses of “the knowledge industry” in The Uses of the University (1963).

Avenue Q (Marx/Lopez), 2003

“What do you do with a B.A. in English” (0:00-1:17)

Another number from an opening scene. Fresh out of college, Princeton moves to New York in search for his purpose in life–and an affordable place to live. The number, as presented by the UNLV Theater Class.

What do you do with a B.A. in English,
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge,
Have earned me this useless degree.

I can’t pay the bills yet,
‘Cause I have no skills yet,
The world is a big scary place.

But somehow I can’t shake,
The feeling I might make,
A difference,
To the human race.

Avenue Q is chock with musical allusions to the Sesame Street songbook. Princeton’s solo, I’m convinced, is a quiet homage to Kermit’s “Rainbow Connection.” Listen to the intro and the 3/4 (“waltz”) meter. Here’s Kermit’s duet version with Debbie Harry.

If you happen to know another musical that features an academic role, don’t keep me in the dark.

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