Best Educational Movie Musicals for Kids

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all looking for ways to pass of educating to someone else…and why not with the best educational movie musicals for kids?

Occasionally musical theatre is the best story-telling medium to contextualize and educate kids and adults about history.

Many musicals are a delectable treat for sheer escapism. You can watch 42nd Street and She Loves Me on “Great Performances” on PBS. (And that’s a worthy investment of minimal monthly dues.) They meld acting with singing and movement, they’re a feast for all the senses. Further, they demand our children pay more attention than with typically schizophrenic movies.

But others are able to convey more emotion and drama to teach us all more about our ancestors and historic figures.

BroadwayHD is a streaming service presenting dozens of Broadway plays and musicals, mostly in their stage-presented context (as opposed to re-made in a Hollywood studio like Les Miserables.) Disclaimer – this is not a sponsored post pushing BroadwayHD. (Though fellas: gimme a kickback, eh?) It just happens to be about the only place you can watch some of these historic musicals.

Many old classics can be found on library websites. (HBO and Netflix don’t have a lot in the way of obscure musicals beyond Mamma Mia and Disney.)

And in some cases, you might need to seek out YouTube productions, snippets and videos. But that leads to a fun and educational deep-dive down the YouTube dumpster of endless clips. And that’s not a bad thing, if they’re focused and don’t end up on a some weirdo’s site.

Even if they get bored or fidgety, our kids often don’t care as long as there’s a moving image in front of them, amiright? Most of all: they can just learn to be patient and focused.

“Really? You’re bored? Would you rather I get you a stick and a ball and you just go make your own fun like I did as a child?”

(Even if none of us actually didn’t just watch hours of television…albeit not on demand.)

Here is a list of a a few of the best educational movie musicals for kids to entertain/educate them while you go on auto-pilot during COVID Curriculum.

Please share your thoughts and suggestions for more scholarly musicals in front of which we can just park the kids with less guilt and pour ourselves a drink.

I’d start this list for kids 6 and up. Some are heavy topics. But musicals make it art. Push the kids a bit. Should 6 year-olds be taught about Presidential assassins and public lynchings? These aren’t as graphically violent as any of the Marvel movies. Plus it helps teach about injustice, morality and history. So go ahead – push them with the best educational movie musicals for kids.

1776

This is a slightly lesser-known piece of brilliance from 1969 that exquisitely teaches more about the nuances in American history. Before Hamilton re-wrote the musical theatre history books, 1776 illustrates the many different personalities that formed our independence – especially the irascible (but irreplaceable) John Adams. The songs highlight the debates at the heart of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, especially the song about slavery, “Molasses to Rum” sung by delegate Edward Rutledge from South Carolina.

Most important, the musical shows that the debate surrounding the declaration were nuanced and extensive – about political issues, egos, personalities and principle.

Newsies

Definitely a way to teach your kids about workers’ rights, how the “man” will always keep the “little guy” down, and how grit, principle and passion can unite down-trodden folks to over-come injustice.

And it’s got awesome singing and dancing to entertain the most Scrooge McDuckiest of rapacious capitalists.

Available on DisneyPlus and on YouTube clips by hundreds of high school productions.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Let’s be honest – explaining Holy Week and the impact Jesus had on his contemporaries is very difficult to explain as adults, let alone understand as children. This musical, over-wrought though it may be, does a great job of contextualizing Jesus’ impact on his local society. Further, the show briliantly conveys the cult of personality in which human pbeings love to deify leaders and equally lovs to watch them torn down. JCS is true to the title showing how Jesus was treated like a rockstar of his era and inspired jealousy and fear in the leaders who felt threatened by his cult of personality. Easiest to access on the NBC streaming platform, this version of the Andrew Lloyd Weber rock opera is excellently conceived and stars pop folk your kids might already know: John Legend and Sarah Bareilles. And they both clearly did their homework to give powerful performances.

Assassins

This is an extra-credit, over-achiever assignment for you. Byond Tony awards snippets (see below) this show is super-smart and super-poignant. It’s almost a psycho-sociological study of the minds of all those who attempted (successfully or not) to assassinate American presidents. The album is badass and is over-flowing with historical trivia that will definitely help your kids (and you) eventually win Jeopardy. (The revival in 2004 starred Neil Patrick Harris when we still thought of him as a washed-up Dougie Howser.) Pop that album into your music-player for a road trip or, hell – you don’t have anything to do during the pandemic. This is excellent for laying on the couch and letting the words, music and history wash over you.

A musical about Presidential assassins? Just trust me. You’ll learn a lot.

Hamilton

Obviously this is the new gold standard for musicals that teach history as well as historical revisionism. It’s safe to say before the award-winning musical (based on the award-winning book by Ron Chernow), Alexander Hamilton had fallen to a secondary position in U.S. history books. But the musical, through deft musicality and astounding vocabulary displays, shows the pivotal role Hamilton played in our nation’s founding. Enjoy a deep-dive into stories about the making of the musical, listen to the album, and even give a stab at reading Chernow’s book. It’s excellent.

Carousel

One of Rogers & Hammerstein’s best works, Carousel teaches children about life in a New England fishing village at the turn of the century. There are, admittedly, some real clunkers and eye-rolling songs. However, the version on Broadway HD stars Kelli O’Hara, which means the lead character is as good as it gets. It’s old-fashioned, but sumptuous. Go ahead: expand those kids’ horizons.

Pippin

Available to view on BroadwayHD. This performance of Pippin is not only historic in Broadway history, but it’s also the story of Charlemagne’s son. Now, there’s not that much for historical accuracy, here, but it is based on ancient literature and fables sure to add to any child’s trivial and cultural knowledge. It’s also freakishly 70’s-esque. You’ll love the guitars and laugh at it’s charming datedness.

Les Miserables

Okay. This one’s a toughy. It’s too long, too dramatic, and too much. But you’ll cry in all the right spots in spite of your (my) cynicism. Despite trying to melt a 1,000-page French tome into 2.5 hours of musical, much of it is thrilling. The performances pale in comparison to actual Broadway performers (Sorry, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway.) But the movie version gives an excellent visual rendition of French revolutionary history. To see the barricades in actual streets, to see the utter squalor in said streets, to see the mud and filth in which these people lived..you really see how misérable were these folks.

For a fun dive down YouTube, check out these best education musicals for kids in snippets, Tony Award highlights and bootleg videos:

Ragtime

Here’s another that’s not based on any actual history but does an amazing job of contextualizing American history in a beautiful package. Unfortunately, you’d have to venture to the NY Public Library to watch it in the confines of a booth where you can only watch it once. But a deep dive on YouTube can thrill you, as well. The album is genius and the original book is one of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. So there’s plenty to expand your cultural understanding of the conflict between whites, blacks and immigrants in New York at the turn of the 20th century.

Parade

The true story of a trial and hanging of a Jewish factory manager who was unjustly accused of raping a young female factory worker in 1913 in a small Georgia town. a racism and anti-Semitism that gripped a small Georgia town in the 1920’s. Yeah – not uplifting. But spectacular music and performances.

Side Show

The musical based on the real-life Vaudeville lives of the Hilton sisters, conjoined twins exploited on the Vaudeville circuit. (They became the biggest stars of their day, as well.) Some of the songs are confusingly “on the nose”, but “I Will Never Leave You” sung by the (again: conjoined) twins is a classic in the modern American musical cannon.

Titanic

Okay – bear with me. This one is, well…over-wrought. However, don’t we all go through a slight Titanic obsession at one point in our youth? This one does bring together storylines and costumes! of the many different demographics who went down (or escaped) the ill-fated liner. But for a REALLY fun YouTube moment, pull up a glass of champagne and feast your eyes on this gem from a few summers ago at a regional theatre who staged and ACTUAL sinking of a “ship” into the lake behind the theatre. OMG. I love this.

What about you? Have you got more suggestions for this list of best educational movie musicals for kids?

This post was previously published on E.C. Knox and is republished here with permission from the author.

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Photo credit: E.C. Knox

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