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Teaching through Musicals: Study Sociology & History with Movies

Teaching through Musicals will help bring to life the events and popular culture from 1776 to the 1960s for your teens!

If you are looking for ways to bring history and sociology to life for your teens, try teaching through musicals. The songs from these musicals have a way of “sticking” in our brains that textbooks just can’t replicate.

A couple of years ago (pre-pandemic) my family got together with another homeschooling family once a week during the summer to watch musicals. As homeschooling moms, we felt that our kids were missing a significant amount of “background” knowledge and idioms (or saying) in the English language that originally came from very popular Broadway musicals and that have worked their way into our culture. It was a very enjoyable way to spend a hot afternoon each week and our kids learned where so many of our phrases and saying come from.

I am sharing this list so other homeschool parents can also create a shared experience with their teens throughout the summer by teaching through musicals.

Teaching Through Musicals: A Vetted List of Movies

I have selected these musical movies as appropriate for middle & high school students (ages 12 and older). Most of them are set in the United States; I’ve noted which ones aren’t.

Parents should preview any movie that they feel is questionable for their children, however, as family preferences may differ. Common Sense Media and Plugged In are helpful sources of movie reviews.

Also, be sure to check out these four ways to incorporate movies into your homeschool (beyond reading the book and watching the movie) in this post:

Some links in this post may be affiliate links. This means that if you click on them, I may make a tiny commission, at no extra cost to you. For more info, check our privacy policy.

JustWatch is a good website for finding on which platforms a particular movie is currently streaming.

teaching through musicals for homeschooling teens: Newsies the musical

Teaching Through Musicals: History & Sociology by Time Period

1776 to Late 1800s

1776 1972 PG A mostly accurate, and funny, account of the Second Continental Congress drafting of the Declaration of Independence. The Congress actually met in secret, so many things are taken from personal diaries and such of the representatives. The movie is incorrect though, in regards to the issue of slavery. In the movie, the southern delegates walk out over the declarations denouncement of slavery, when in fact, no such walkout occurred. In reality, the clause was removed because both northern and southern representatives wanted it taken out. Streaming on most platforms.

Oliver 1968 G This movie is set in Dickinson’s London of the 1800s, but we can certainly imagine that life on the streets of cities in America was much the same way for orphaned children. This film won six Academy Awards and your kids will be singing these songs for a while. Mine even asked for the soundtrack! Streaming on most platforms.

7 Brides for 7 Brothers 1954 G Some people may think that the plot twist of this musical contains some questionable behavior, but you have to remember the time frame that this is from and the fact that it’s actually based on the ancient Roman legend of the Rape of the Sabine Women. Others LOVE this fun musical set in 1850’s Oregon. There was even a TV series in the early 1980s with the same name and storyline. Find it on most platforms.

Annie Get Your Gun 1950 G There are several versions of this musical, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Mary Martin, & Bernadette Peters. We chose to watch the one with Betty Hutton. This is a fun story about Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley and their “Wild West” show. The soundtrack won an Academy Award. You may be able to find it streaming on YouTube; Amazon has the DVD.

The King and I 1956 NR A schoolteacher goes to Bangkok in the 1860s to teach the King’s children where she falls in love with the king. It’s not set in the U.S., but it’s a great example of western culture vs. eastern. Find the version that stars Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr; it’s just amazing! Streams on most platforms.

Newsies 1992 PG There’s a newer version of this musical filmed in 2017, which I haven’t seen. We own the 1992 version because my oldest son thought for a while that it was the greatest musical of all time! This story is inspired by the true story of the 1899 New York City Newsboy Strike. Streaming on Prime, Disney+, and many other platforms.

Oklahoma! musical stamp teaching through musicals

1900 to 1920 Turn of the Century & the Roaring Twenties

Hello Dolly! 1969 G Starring Barbara Steisand and Walter Matthau. Set in the turn of the 20th century in New York City, Dolly is a professional matchmaker. This musical farce is based on the story, The Merchant of Yonkers. Streaming on Prime, Disney+, and many other platforms.

Oklahoma 1955 G There are newer versions of this, but we like the one with Gordan MacRae as Curly. Set in the Oklahoma Territory in the early 1900s. If your kids are really into theatre or dance, this musical was revolutionary in the way it integrated dance into the plot. Streaming on Prime, Disney+, and many other platforms.

Fiddler on the Roof 1971 G Set in pre-Revolutionary Russia where the Czar is trying to rid the country of the Jewish people. It’s a long musical at 3 hours, but it is a major classic that you don’t want to skip. Find it on Netflix, Hoopla, Prime and AppleTV.

Meet Me in St. Louis 1944 G Starring Judy Garland as a young woman whose father has been transferred for work from St. Louis to New York City in the early 1900s, right before the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. On the Library of Congress’ list of “Culturally Important” films. Steams on Prime, Hoopla, and many other platforms.

The Phantom of the Opera 1986 Be sure to look for the musical version, and not the regular film version. This musical is an Andrew Lloyd Webber production, so don’t expect the same heartwarming Roger and Hammerstein type of musicals that were typical of the 1940 and 50s. Don’t get the 1989 Robert Englund one; that is much darker. My teen girls like the 2004 version with Gerard Butler. Find it on Tubi, Hoopla and many other streaming services.

My Fair Lady 1964 G Starring Audrey Hepburn. Set in London, England in the early 1900s. A bet is made on whether a professor of phonetics can turn a young woman from the “wrong” side of town into sounding like a gentlewoman. This film has been dubbed “the perfect musical” and it won 8 Academy Awards. Find it on Netflix, Hoopla, Prime and AppleTV.

The Music Man 1962 PG A con man comes to town intending to scam everyone but ends up falling in love, with the town and with a girl. Set in small town Iowa in the early 1900s. My favorite scene is when the gossiping ladies of the town are compared to cackling hens. Watch for it; it’s very clever! Streaming on most platforms.

 teaching through musicals The tin man in the wizard of oz

The Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression

Singing in the Rain 1952 G Considered by many to be the greatest musical film of all time, but honestly, it’s not my favorite. 🤷 It’s a cute romantic comedy musical, set in the late 1920s Hollywood, produced by the MGM team, Freed and Brown.

Guys and Dolls 1955 PG-13 Starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, & Frank Sinatra. The plot of this musical revolves around gambling, so if you have strong feelings about that, you may want to skip this one. But everything works out in the end, with the “dolls” taming the wayward men, which is a very 1950s way of looking at life. Streaming on Prime, VUDU, and Tubi.

Thoroughly Modern Millie 1967 G Set in the Roaring Twenties in New York City, a flapper who is determined to marry a wealthy businessman. Not just a rom-com musical though, it also discusses the underbelly of NYC and human trafficking. My girls really liked this one. You’ll find the DVD on Amazon, but it’s not streaming anywhere currently.

The Wizard of Oz 1939 G One of the greatest films of all time and the most viewed movie ever made. Starring Judy Garland. Find it on most platforms, including Prime.

Annie 1982 G There’s also a 1999 and a 2014 version that are cute, but I grew up watching the 1982 one with Carol Burnett as Mrs. Hannigan, so it’s my favorite. Adapted from the comic strip, Little Orphan Annie. Available on most streaming services.

The Sound of Music  teaching through musicals

1940s & World War 2

The Sound of Music 1965 G This epic film is one that should be required viewing for everyone. Based on the true story of the Van Trapp family, this movie won five Academy Awards and is Julie Andews’ most famous role. Network television usually shows this every year around Easter, but it’s much more enjoyable without commercials. This musical is a gentle introduction to World War II for your younger kids as well. It’s a movie that never gets old, no matter how many times you watch it. Find it on Disney+, Prime and many other streaming platforms.

Holiday Inn 1942 G Featured the Irving Berlin classic Christmas song, White Christmas. This sweet song and dance movie is set at an inn that is only open at Christmastime. Stream it on BHD, Prime, and several other services.

Yankee Doodle Dandy 1942 G This musical is a biography of George M. Cohen the famous musical composer, playwright, actor, dancer, and singer, starring James Cagney. Available on Prime, GoogleTV, and several other platforms.

South Pacific 1958 PG I often get this one confused in my mind with the opera Madame Butterfly, which I once saw performed as a ballet in college, and which I did not enjoy. However, this movie is good; after all, it’s another Rodgers & Hammerstein blockbuster. It’s loosely based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific and is set during WW II on a south Pacific island. Includes the songs, “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair” and “Some Enchanted Evening” Find it on most streaming services.

Grease the musical  teaching through musicals

1950s and 1960s Culture

White Christmas 1954 G This one stars Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby and has a new version of the song, White Christmas. The original song was in the movie Holiday Inn (see above). This is a funny rom-com musical that my teens really liked.

Grease 1978 PG John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John star in this classic about high school in the 1950s. Full of rock ‘n roll and dancing and classic muscle cars. Grease is the word! Note: I haven’t seen the LIVE! version or Grease 2, so I can’t vouch for those. On FUBO, Sling, and many other services.

Viva Las Vegas 1964 PG Regarded to be Elvis Presley’s best movie, he co-stars with Ann-Margaret. Elvis plays a singing and dancing race car driver. We watched it as a way to learn more about the phenomenon that was Elvis during the 50s, 60s, & 70s. Find it on Prime and most other streaming platforms.

West Side Story 1961 PG This movie won 10 (!) Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It’s basically a re-do of Romeo and Juliet, but set in New York City, on the “wrong” side of town. It’s streaming on Prime, Watch TCM, and other services. For another Shakespearean play turned into musical, check out Kiss Me Kate, which is a musical about a cast of actors putting on the stage play, The Taming of the Shrew.

But wait, Jenn, you forgot these musicals!

So, there are a few movies that you are probably wondering why they didn’t make the list. Like all of the Disney Princess movies. Or Hamilton.

I figure most kids have already seen every Disney musical at least once in their lifetime. And Hamilton is one of those that people really love or really hate. I personally haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard that it is quite historically inaccurate, and I don’t recommend movies I haven’t seen.

Les Miserables didn’t make the list because of the theme of selling your body to protect your child, but if you feel your child can handle that, then definitely add it to your list. It’s a fantastic film about the human spirit (even though Russell Crowe isn’t the best singer ever to play the part of Javert) and it will stick with you long after you’ve finished it.

More American History Movies Lists

Colonial America up to the Civil War

Civil War up to World War I

World War I to World War II

Post-War 1945 up to 1970

Christmas Movies

Family Christmas Movies: Beyond Elf and Charlie Brown

Be sure to follow my Pinterest board Middle & High School History. You’ll get more great hands-on activities and ideas for teaching History, Culture, and Sociology to your homeschool teens!

Don’t forget to pin this post about Teaching Through Musicals so you can refer back to it later!

teaching through musicals pin

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