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Musicals Have the Power to Change Minds

• March 01, 2012 • 3:59 PM

New research finds a work of musical theater can impact the way audiences think about a social issue.

Broadway musicals are often thought of as lightweight entertainment. In fact, from South Pacific to The Book of Mormon, many of the greatest shows incorporate serious themes and challenge audience members’ assumptions.

But can minds really be opened through story and song? Newly published research provides evidence that will warm the hearts of cockeyed optimists.

“Musical theater may be a promising method for promoting attitudinal change,” write Frederick Heide, Natalie Porter and Paul Saito of Alliant International University in San Francisco. Their study, published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, describes how a new musical changed people’s attitudes toward hunters and hunting.

The show, co-created by Heide, Lee Becker and composer Paul Libman, focuses on three men with varying attitudes toward the sport, plus “a magical talking white buck who articulates the philosophy that hunting has ancient and noble roots.” Its title, which manages to evoke both Bambi and Broadway, is Guys and Does.

“The main protagonist models ethical hunting behavior and is rewarded both emotionally and financially,” the researchers note, “whereas an antagonist models unethical behavior, is punished and then becomes a transitional model toward positive behavior.” (Specifically, he is a rich Texan who learns to respect nature only after “falling into a nest of bobcats.” Cats in a musical — where did they come up with that idea?)

“Although the play also explored multiple themes unrelated to hunting, such as male bonding, generosity and forgiveness, there was sufficient focus on hunting behavior to predict that audiences would develop more positive attitudes toward it as a result of attendance,” they write.

The researchers surveyed 200 people who saw a 2009 production of the musical at the American Folklore Theater in Ephraim, Wisconsin. (The show sold out its 54 performances, in spite of the fact it was marketed as “the deer hunting musical that promises more bang for your buck.”) Before the performance, they filled out a questionnaire that gauged their attitude toward hunting and hunters.

Within 24 hours after seeing the show, these same audience members filled out and mailed a second survey. They were asked to rate the show using a variety of measures, including the extent to which they found it intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging. They also retook the hunting-attitudes questionnaire.

The researchers found “an increase in approval of hunting” in the post-show survey. Specifically, they found a shift in attitudes towards three of questionnaire’s assertions: “Hunting is cruel and inhumane to animals,” “Hunting teaches skills needed to get by in life” and “Hunting has heritage and cultural values worth preserving.”

“All three items relate directly to points modeled by characters in the show,” they note.

The researchers found a correlation between this change in attitude and an audience member’s “strength of emotional response to the production.” While careful not to claim cause and effect, they found a link between experiencing an intense gut-level response to the material and shifting one’s position on the issues it brought up. (Of course, whether that changed viewpoint sticks is another matter, and perhaps fodder for a foll0w-up study.)

While those who reported complex, conflicting emotions towards the show were no more likely to change their minds about those issues than those whose responses were uniformly positive, “they were more likely to report being absorbed, provoked, emotionally involved, inspired, connected with others, given insight and impressed,” the researchers write. That’s an interesting insight in itself: It suggests material that provokes thought makes for a more memorable, engaging experience.

Heide and his colleagues add a couple of cautionary notes. First, the audience was of a specific (and, to American theaters, familiar) demographic: “white, older and mostly college-educated.”

Second, the study did not address the extent to which audience members’ intellectual and emotional response was impacted by the score. As a follow-up, the researchers suggest comparing reactions to musical and non-musical versions of the same material, such as Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, or George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and My Fair Lady.

A definitive answer to the question of whether music not only intensifies drama, but also inspires us to rethink rigid opinions: Wouldn’t it be loverly?

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

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