Fifth grade teacher Jeff Lantos doesn’t want kids to just read about history. He wants them to sing along. That’s how 100 of his students found themselves onstage at Paul Revere Middle School in Los Angeles, California, this past spring in a musical about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the Brown v. Board of Education case. Titled Carry On, the show featured jazz, blues, and rock songs about the turbulent period in the 1950s, including a doo-wop number, “Separate But Equal Must Go.” Like the cast of a Broadway play, the students even recorded the soundtrack on a CD.
The musical was the fourth written and produced last year by 50-year-old Lantos, who teaches at the K-5 Marquez Charter School in Pacific Palisades, California. His students also put on shows about the Constitution and the Industrial Revolution.
Lantos started writing historically based musicals six years ago because he was bothered by the blank looks he sometimes received from kids during social studies classes. “History is best told through bio,” says Lantos, who took play-writing classes in college and completed a writing seminar with a Broadway director. “That’s what I’m doing in my plays. You learn through real people.” His friend and former piano teacher, Bill Augustine, an L.A.-based jazz musician, sets the teacher’s words to music.
Because the shows are meant to be educational, Lantos creates as few fictitious characters as possible. But he’s not above making concessions to keep audiences interested. Last year’s Louisiana Purchase musical, for example, featured a romance between explorer William Clark and his Shoshone Indian interpreter, Sacajawea, during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. (While there’s no proof that such an affair took place, at least one historical novelist has theorized that it may have occurred.) “Most musicals need a romance,” Lantos confides. “It creates drama.”
Recently, UCLA psychology Professor James Stigler tested area middle schoolers’ knowledge of the Constitution, Lewis and Clark, and the Industrial Revolution. Students who’d studied with Lantos scored more than twice as well as kids who’d studied history more traditionally. “When you are rehearsing it and when you’re playing it out,” says former Marquez student Rachel Levitan, 11, “you seem to understand it a lot more.