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“If I were a rich man” – what Broadway musicals can teach us about economics

This fun website takes songs from some of the greatest musicals and uses them to explain how the economy works

Broadway is big business! The total revenue from musicals alone in 2014/15 was over $1.1 billion. But these shows don’t just make money, they can also teach us about it.

Broadway Economics is a new website that does just this, featuring classic tunes that provide interesting insights into how the economy works.

From ‘Money Money Money’ (Mamma Mia) to ‘You Gotta Get A Gimmick’ (Gypsy), the site features a stack of songs from many different Broadway shows, from Evita to Once, and provides ways in that make concepts like a little less intimidating.

We spoke to the person behind the site, economics professor Matthew Rousu.

So, can you tell us about Broadway Economics?

I started the website in 2015. The idea is to teach economic concepts through show tunes. I think economics is the greatest subject in the world, but for many it's a difficult one to master. By illustrating economic ideas through music, I’m hoping to make the subject more accessible and fun! The site currently has about 40 songs, with new songs being added monthly. In addition, each song has a description of the economic lessons that are contained in it, along with a PDF that contains discussion questions that economics teachers can assign their students.

When did you first have the idea and what inspired it?

The idea formed in 2014. It was inspired largely from working with great economists who love teaching and who've done interesting things to help teach students using pop culture. I’ve become friends with the economists that developed websites using TV shows (The Office and The Big Bang Theory) to teach economics. I thought those were fantastic, and that a site that focused on the economics of Broadway songs could be great too.

What is your favourite musical and what does it tell us about economics?

That’s not a fair question - that’s like asking to pick a favorite child! If I’m forced to choose, however, I’d probably say Les Misérables. It has great music, a fantastic story, and one of the best bad guys (Javert) ever. Plus, there are a lot of economic themes in the show. You can find two songs from Les Misérables, 'Lovely Ladies' and 'Stars', on the site.

Stars - Philip Quast - Les Misérables - 10th Anniversary Concert

Why do you think it’s important that people learn about how the economy works?

I’m biased, of course, but I think economics is the best subject as far as explaining how the world works. Further, many politicians, who need votes from an often uninformed public, sometimes propose policies that economic analysis shows are harmful to society. A public that better understands economics should mean a better world!

What is it about musicals that makes it possible to explain economic ideas (and does it work in other art forms)?

Musicals tell stories, and many of the stories involve economic themes. Songs from musicals often have a point that involves an economic concept. Further, sometimes songs get caught in your head, so that you sing the same one over and over, which helps for making things stick!

As far other art forms, I try to teach my students that economics is everywhere – and it certainly is present in other cultural output. I recall being fascinated when I found out you could use paintings to teach economics at an academic session with the late Michael Watts (economist from Purdue University). He helped show professors how we could use paintings and drawings to teach economics.

Have you ever been stumped, and not actually found an economic angle in a musical?

Most shows have something I could use – but sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch. I try to limit myself to using clips that have an obvious connection to an economic idea. In 2015 I saw many great shows, but for some of them I don’t plan on using any of their songs. Three shows I enjoyed but from which don’t plan on using songs (at least at the moment) are Dames At Sea, Spring Awakening, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

If you had to pick just one clip from the site as your favourite, which would it be and why?

Hmm, that’s tough. My favorite clips are the ones that have an economic connection that you probably don’t make at first, but once you think about it, becomes apparent. One example is ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ from Fiddler On The Roof. In that song, the theme is obvious, but it’s also a great song to illustrate economic growth. The song is set in Russia in the year 1905, and Tevye sings about what life would look like if he were rich. To him this means owning a few geese and having a well-fed wife. Today, this isn’t what most people in developed countries would think of as being rich.

Zero Mostel performs 'If I Were a Rich Man' at the 1971 Tony Awards

Check out Broadway Economics here:

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