Then and Now: A Lecture on America Through the Lens of Music

Do musicals like “The Music Man” and “West Side Story” have any connection to today’s
political climate?

Both Dr. Carol Oja of Harvard University and Dean Peter Witte of UMKC’s Conservatory of Music and Dance discussed this, race and patriotism during a special lecture last Wednesday in the Miller Nichols Learning Center. The two speakers emphasized how much race relations and portrayals of race have changed in the U.S. over the past sixty years.

The lecture started out with a quick viewing of snippets from both “The Music Man” and “West Side Story.” Oja commented that each of these stories needed to be viewed through a historical lens.
“The perceptions of what might be a stereotype are different in the 1950s,” Oja said. As old as both musicals are, there were currents in both stories that are relevant today.

“We’ve reached a stage where red America and blue America are tropes,” Witte said. While other issues such as the Cold War and Sputnik were tossed around briefly, Oja mostly focused on how racial perceptions were starting to change in 1957.

Witte said that he had little confidence in the way things are debated in America’s current political landscape. He compared the Republican presidential candidates to an amateur barbershop quartet, an indirect comparison and reference to “The Music Man.”

After the lecture, Witte had some afterthoughts to share. “As Dr. Oja shared with our students, these two shows are strikingly different responses to the tensions of the day in 1957, and, sadly, in 2015,” Witte said.

Oja felt very similarly, although she emphasized history. “The Music Man – I think that it’s more hitting the default switch,”Oja said. The default switch seems to imply a reaction to new issues in America at that time and instead heading for the “default switch” of patriotism in an acceptable format.

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