Broadway metaphors for online teaching

The usual dumpster fire of news was quenched slightly this week by this announcement: CBS Will Replace This Year’s Tony Awards With a Grease Sing-Along.

(Fun fact: I stage managed St Catharine’s College’s one-day only May Week production of Grease in 1997 at the West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, in which we used a motorbike as “Greased Lightening.” I had to bring a fire extinguisher on stage and try not to make it too conspicuous because fire regulations.)

Anyway, it struck me that the substitution of a Grease sing-along for the Tony Awards is an apt metaphor for online ESL teaching. You have questions? I thought so. In the remainder of this post, Grease Sing-Along will mean new online ESL classes, while the Tony Awards refers to traditional face-to-face ESL classes.

Is watching the Grease Sing-Along the same as watching the Tony Awards?

No. They will be different experiences for the audience.

Can’t they just hold the Tony Awards anyway?

No. It would be imprudent and probably illegal to hold the Tony Awards this year.

Can’t they just broadcast the Tony Awards live on Zoom with everyone in their own homes?

Well, yes, they could, but watching a live awards show for hours on Zoom would be exhausting, Zoom would probably crash, and nobody would come back to watch another awards show ever again. Plus someone would inevitably give their acceptance speech with their mic muted.

Which is better: the Tony Awards or the Grease Sing-Along?

That’s a tough question. Some people will definitely prefer the Grease sing-along because they can participate either live or later at their own convenience, practice singing
“Summer Nights” without fear of embarrassment, and skip past “Beauty School Dropout.” (I have a fun fact about a mic cable that was too short for Teen Angel, but I’ll save that for another blog.) On the other hand, some people will yearn for a return to the Tony Awards, because of sentimentality, musical quality, the intimacy that an awards show brings, or the unpredictability of live TV on a 7-second delay.

Aren’t sing-alongs solitary experiences that lack the community and interaction of a good awards show?

That’s certainly a danger. Although let’s face it, some awards shows can be pretty host-centric. But you can also design your Grease sing-along to involve lots of interaction among viewers, including regular “live” watch parties with your friends.

Can I really learn to be a triple-threat in musical theater by watching the Grease Sing-Along?

Let’s set reasonable expectations! Your singing, dancing, and acting will probably improve about as much as they would from watching the Tony Awards, although perhaps in different ways.

Do I need any special technology to participate in the Grease Sing-Along?

You need a suitable device to connect to the broadcast, and if you want anyone else to hear you, a microphone. If other people are also singing in the same room, you should probably all wear headphones. While there are lots of fancier, higher-tech options with more bells and whistles, I’d suggest keeping it simple, especially if it’s the first time you’ve had your ears pierced.

Are there any experts in sing-alongs I can turn to for advice?

Yes! Sing-alongs aren’t a new concept, although it’s definitely unusual to use one as a substitute for an awards show. You’ll find lots of advice out there on running your own sing-along. Some of it is even quite good. A lot of it relates to sing-alongs for other musicals though, so you might need to adapt it to for Grease. This isn’t the Sound of Music, for goodness’ sake!

How should I assess the quality of vocal performances in the Grease Singalong? Can I use the rubrics I prepared for the Tony Awards?

I guess, if you really want to. But you might find better ways to evaluate the singing in Grease. You don’t need to change your criteria or standards, but you should probably look at performances of many different numbers and not just one showstopper.

Can I require everyone to buy the $60 full-color Tony Award 2020 viewing guide that’s only available in print?

No. But you can ask them to buy an international edition ebook of the lyrics to Grease for a reasonable price. Just don’t encourage anyone you know to download a pirated PDF, please.

Can I charge advertisers the same for spots on the Grease Singalong as the Tony Awards?

I don’t see why not, especially once you’ve explained all the selling points of the Grease sing-along. After all, the technicians, support crew, rights holders, writers, Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta, and all the extras all deserve to be paid.

Should CBS send out evaluations at the end of the show?

Yes, it’s important to hear what their audience thought. But the responses shouldn’t be used as part of any employee’s annual evaluation without their consent.

Is it OK to be sad because the Grease Singalong won’t be the same as the Tony Awards?

Yes, go ahead. It’s raining on prom night.

Will we always need to watch Grease Singalongs, or can we go back to holding the Tony Awards?

No, I’m sure the Tony Awards will be back as soon as it’s safe. There will always be demand for ritzy, self-congratulatory navel gazing. But you might find that there’s also a complimentary market for singalongs of this and other cheesy musicals with questionable endings, one-dimensional characters, and gaping holes in their plot structures.

Do you actually like Grease?

It’s the one that I want.

Photo credit: Augustin Villa, Flickr

(For the purpose of journaling, as of today 5/17/20, over 7600 Delawareans have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 290 people have died. Although the number of hospitalizations for COVIDS-19 is dropping, the virus is far from controlled. UD plans to open the campus in time for the Fall semester, but my own department continues to develop online ESL courses, expecting that we’ll be singing along to a whole lot of Grease for the rest of 2020.)

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

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