Essay Series Essays

Putting on a Musical, 1

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Putting on a Musical


Choosing the Musical

There is nothing more guaranteed to cause sleepless nights and a general feeling of “Why am I doing this?” than deciding to produce a musical with local talent for a local audience. It is even worse when you have to do this every year as a function of the Lodge or Club or Whatever of which you are a member in charge of annual or twice-a-year musicals.

No matter what problems will arise later – and they will, they will! – your first task is to choose the musical. And right off the bat, no matter what you suggest, at least half of those concerned will not like it. But where does one even begin to prepare a preliminary list of possibles?

Take a charming musical like “I Do, I Do.” Well, that’s impossible for starters since there are only two characters in the cast. On the other hand, “Les Miserables” calls for a massive cast and stage technology that is most likely impossible in the high school auditorium or church basement that are the only likely venues in most small towns – or even in large ones, since larger spaces are usually too expensive to rent.

So you must find a play that can be mounted, has at least four or five lead characters, plenty of smaller roles, and those should include some non-singing roles for locals who never get into musicals because they simply cannot sing.

Complete recording

Look at “The Boys from Syracuse” by Rodgers and Hart or “Girl Crazy” by George and Ira Gershwin. Fabulous tunes, just the right size casts. So why are they seldom done? “Name recognition”! Unless most of the potential ticket buyers immediately recognize the name and already know half of the songs, they will not line up at the box office. And that is why, alas, we have organizations doing “Oklahoma!” and “The King and I” and “Hello, Dolly” in endless cycles. That last one especially has one memorable song, the title one, but it is the title that draws them in.

“The Sound of Music” (really a poor score that sounds like a good one) and “The Music Man” (a great score that sounds like a great one) are frequent choices because they get local kids on stage. And each single kid translates into tickets for two parents, four grandparents, neighbors without kids of their own in the cast, teachers who have or have had that kid in class, and heaven knows who else that has been emotionally blackmailed into attending.

In fact, I saw a local “My Fair Lady” in which a nun kept leading the same line of youngsters up and down every time there was a street scene. (Thank goodness they did not insert a song for them!) When children were introduced into the Big Production scene in “Mame,” their presence at least made some dramatic sense. Who can argue with Cute?

I really wish Congress would pass an Audience Act to protect it from the usual musicals for (say) a decade, so they would seem a little fresh when allowed to be revived once again. Sitting through yet another “South Pacific” anticipating every word before it is sung was a recent painful experience for me – although the rest of the audience seemed to love it. One problem with this play, for example, is that the “Honey Bun” shtick is done so often at “talent shows” with some local clown dressed up in the hula outfit that it is nothing special when it shows up in the full show.  And that goes Ditto for the “Gimmick” number in “Gypsy.”

“But Frank,” I was once told by a theatre veteran one-third my age, “art has nothing to do with it.” More often than not, these musicals are mounted for a charity and as good as “Girl Crazy” might be (and it is marvelous!), it might leave 10 empty seats and therefore will not be done.

“Man of La Mancha” might be a good bet if you omit or whitewash the rape scene and if you can find a charismatic enough lead. “Of Thee I Sing,” for example, would be a welcome and timely delight – if you could convince the rest of your committee to at least hear the recordings that are readily available on CDs. And so on.

And one important consideration is the increasing cost of royalties. This alone might preclude a very popular musical from your list of choices.

But even if you find the perfect musical, you have to surmount the next problem. Can you find a director who is ready to take it on?

So in our next section, let us consider this delicate problem of Finding a Director.

Essay Series Essays

Putting on a Musical, 2

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Putting on a Musical
The picture is a drawing of a rehearsal of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “lost” opera “Thespis.”

Finding a Director

Okay, the musical is chosen. It could be “Grease,” it could be “The Merry Widow,” it could be anything in between. Now we have the problem of getting the best possible person to direct the show.

There are two possible scenarios for finding a director for your musical. You might announce the play and then ask for a director, or put out a call for directors and see what they want to direct. Beware the second case, because many have hidden agendas. Many of them feel comfortable only with musicals they have already done—or have seen often enough so they do not have to come up with anything original.

There is the director who is just DYING to do a certain musical, the reason being that a spouse/close friend/fellow worker/daughter or son or other close relative has announced in no uncertain terms that he/she wants to play the lead. Or the director  thinks that one of that group is the greatest gift to the musical theatre since Ethel Merman or Alfred Drake. Even if “open auditions” (an announcement is published and all interested in parts are given a fair hearing) are the policy of your group, the rest of the town will see little point in trying for the lead with X as director when Y is the inevitable choice. (This is especially true when Y happens to be Mrs. X.) A variation on this problem is “One year you direct me in the lead and the next I’ll direct you in the lead.”

But the director pursuing these policies has one unanswerable riposte: “Now that you’ve chosen me as director, you cannot dictate my choice of cast.” This is usually followed up by “He/she is perfect for the part and with anyone else the play will not be as good.” Sometimes this might be actually true, more often far better people are given smaller parts and there is a vacuum at the core of the production that cannot be ignored.

So much for casting. The main thing expected of a director is a vision of the show, a plan to shape the thing so that it is not just another plodding through from overture to finale. As bad as the dialogue might be, as negligible as the plot might be, they are there and must be treated as if they were as important as the songs.

How many times have you seen the staging of the musical numbers that goes like this? Two characters are speaking dialogue to each other, facing each other in a natural way, and the music strikes up. Instantly, the lights dim, a spotlight hits one of the characters, who immediately strides downstage and sings the next number to the audience, leaving the character to whom the song should be directed upstage looking goofy. Here is a director who sees the show as a string of songs and nothing more. Do not hire.

Some people feel they are directing when all they are doing is blocking. “I trust my cast to develop their own characters.” Good, so we will list such a director on the playbill as “blocker” and the rest of the cast as “co-directors.” I must grant that some musicals do not demand any deep characterization at all (“Girl Crazy,” “Anything Goes,” “On the Town”); but most of them do, at least in the lead characters (“Gypsy,” “West Side Story”), while many demand a high level of acting throughout (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “My Fair Lady”). A good director must help his cast develop their character and not impose it upon them. Of course, he should already have an overview of the show that might preclude certain interpretations. There is a delicate balance here between the job of the director and the job of the actor. (Of course, a helpless amateur will need more “show me what you mean” from the director than will a more experienced one.)

Gilbert insisted the Chorus acted as well as the rest of the cast, as in this scene from “The Yeomen of the Guard”

And here is one thing that is almost always neglected. The Chorus should be part of the action. Each separate member should be given some sort of personality, some differentiation from the others. Even in a silly scene like the production number in “Mame” in which every one is ecstatic over the title character, this ecstasy should not be uniform—every one of them with a silly grin, for example—but perhaps some of the women could chide their spouses for praising another woman or some other bits that humanize the event.

Even given the cardboard characters of “Guys & Dolls” or “Damn Yankees,” a good director will not go for cheap laughs through mugging, pratfalls, and funny voices. The trick to being funny is “not to say and do funny things but to say thing funny” in the most serious way; and a director should know how to bring about this delicate balance.

And one last thing for now. If a director cannot get his cast to speak clearly and audibly, there is no point in putting on the play at all.

Now that you have your director, you need a music director. Which brings us to the next section.


Note: Should you find a director, be he or she the best available, who announces that he or she will be taking a large role in the show, drop that person like a hot penny! I have seen too many productions that were little more than ego trips from some would-be heaven’s gift to the theatre. It never works.



(My thanks to Mr. John Sansone of Keene, NH, who shared with me many of his thoughts and experiences as a performer and stage director of several shows in this region.)

Essay Series Essays

Putting on a Musical, 3

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Putting on a Musical
As for Mr. Lahr in the picture, he did sing…after a fashion.

The Role of the Music Director 

           Now that we have already chosen our play and our director. And remember, please, we ARE, you recall, talking about musicals. I have seen the following situation really cause serious problems. A music director will of course want the best VOICE for a particular role, while the stage director might be thinking more of the ACTING aspects of the role. One might argue in a musical that the VOICE is certainly paramount (consider the fat opera soprano disputes some time ago concerning Deborah Voigt and her not fitting into a dress in a particular production) and that the musical director must prevail. On the other hand, if the person involved sings fabulously but is totally without any stage presence and cannot read lines, it would seem another actor had best be considered. Maybe Joan Sutherland could get away with wooden acting, but Julie Andrews would not have gotten far with that handicap.

In researching this aspect, I interviewed a vocal teacher here in Keene, one JoAnne Mead, who has been music director to many a local musical. Many times she found herself in harmony with, once or twice in conflict with, the stage director. She says, start with the obvious. The MD should be familiar with every note of the score and determine what kind of voice goes best with each role, no matter how small it might be. At the auditions, she looks for people who will fit those roles physically and vocally...both!

In a musical, she maintains, the audience expects good voices, not great acting. So when push comes to shove, the better singer but poorer actor should get the role over a poor singer who can act well. The exceptions to this rule would be Henry Higgins and Pickering, L’il Abner, and other such “character” roles. Bloody Mary, for example, can be as crude as can be; but she must sing “Bali H’ai” beautifully. Rose in “Gypsy” must be a belter who can sustain that level all through the show. (A singer might sound great at audition and fail badly during the full performances.) Here a lovely voice is not right for the role. But in a role such as Aldonza in “Man of La Mancha,” a trained voice is absolutely necessary.

Once rehearsals start, the music director should insist that the first two weeks at least be devoted entirely to the music. Since some singers cannot read music, they must go over solos and choruses many times until the notes become part of their thinking. This is also the time to stress enunciation and projection. If they start by ignoring consonants, they are bound to do so all through the performances. The chorus members should have fun during these workouts. Especially difficult passages should be edited so they can all feel comfortable with them.

JoAnne stresses that warmup before each rehearsal should not concentrate only on the scales. “You need word warmup, animation warmup, range warmup, breath warmup, and agility (i.e. projection) warmup.

Once the words are memorized, indeed even as they are being memorized through repetition, basic acting skills should be emphasized. All too often, amateur choruses sing deadpan, reacting to nothing but their blocking. This is an area in which both stage and music director must agree.

Here I am thinking of a master class given by opera director Jonathan Miller in which he staged a chorus from “Rigoletto” in such a way that instead of sounding like a “singing telegram” (as Miller put it) it sounded like they were giving the news not only to the Duke but to each other too, nodding and agreeing that what they were saying was true. In short, making things believable.

The question of miking the singers is a troublesome one. Very few untrained—and far too few trained—singers can project their voices and be understood. (Many cannot do either.) My correspondent believes that miking should be a last resort. People want to hear human voices (regardless of what electronic sounds Broadway gives them at $90 or $100 a shot) at a performance and not a metallic substitute coming out of side speakers that also disguise the location of the person on stage who is singing at that moment.

When I saw “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” on Broadway, one of the lead’s body mikes did not work and his voice was quite clear and the only one that sounded human! And during a Metropolitan Opera gala in which a couple who just sang an operatic duet were handed mikes to sing a duet from “Carousel.” I would really like that explained! But off that soup box–for now.

Of course, it happens that amateur groups (and professional ones on tour too) wind up in venues far too large to fill with some or all of the weak voices in the cast. If mikes are needed, for pity’s sake use them judiciously and do not simply turn them up to “10” and let it rip. (The Spinal Tap amplifiers, you will recall, went up to “11.”)

You have the show, the stage director, the music director. Now the problem of choreography demands attention.

Essay Series Essays

Putting on a Musical, 4

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Putting on a Musical


DanceThe Role of the Choreographer

Ever since Agnes de Mille integrated the dance with the other aspects of the musical in “Oklahoma,” it has become too old fashioned to follow the format of a song, a motivationless dance, and then a reprise of the song. Will is back from Kansas City and the outlanders are naturally curious about the latest dance craze in the big city. So Will sings a song about Kansas City and this leads naturally into a dance that he demonstrates and that the others pick up with surprising ease. (Harold Hill gets to do the same thing in River City.)

And what musical could expect to succeed without a Dream Ballet such as Laurie’s that all but ends the first act of “Oklahoma!”? Less integrated shows like “Promises, Promises” are sure to throw in an office party. Similarly “Damn Yankees” includes a show given solely, it seems, to give Lola a Mambo number. And how is it possible to sing the praises of Mame or Dolly without a big production number that leans heavily on dance?

Now as one barely able to walk and chew gum at the same time, I had a long discussion with a talented choreographer here in Keene, NH named Barbara Andrews, who has long been acquainted with the task of getting local adults and high schoolers to hoof it convincingly during major musical productions in this area.

The first thing to do (she explained) is to familiarize yourself thoroughly with the music, picturing in the mind how it will translate into dance movements. Refine your ideas into simple steps, not forgetting facial expressions, and keeping in mind the space available on the stage, the costumes that might hamper complex movement, and even the makeup.

215px-Fiddler_on_the_roof_posterThen do some research. Barbara spoke to a rabbi before choreographing “Fiddler on the Roof.” She learned about why the sexes never touch while dancing, the Russian version of Jewish folk dances, and the movements during the Sabbath prayer. I can vouch for how vividly it all paid off during the Lions Club performance several years ago.

Some dances are supposed to be badly done, such as those in “Cabaret” and “Guys and Dolls.”  Here the audience must realize that it is the characters that are terrible, not the performers. (If you know how good a singer Patricia Rutledge really is, you can appreciate how terrible she sounds as Hyacinth Bucket! It takes a great actor to play a bad actor.)

During rehearsals, to build up muscle memory, demonstrate (say) a 32-bar phrase and have them repeat it until the body learns it (much like learning to touch-type or play a beginner’s piano piece). The most difficult thing is getting people to focus on what they are doing. Barbara finds men, especially athletes, somewhat more willing to learn. The two sexes learn in different ways—but those without a sense of rhythm can never be taught to dance well.

Once up, dancer cannot wait for music to end before landing

The better dancers should be used as section leaders, some up front, some in the back, so the others can follow them. Do not hide the poorer dancers; try to showcase whatever strengths they might have. And do not be too proud to collaborate with the better ones. Even more so, work closely with the music director so that the tempi are just right for dancing. This becomes a special problem when the dancers have to sing at the same time. There was a case in England in which a conductor who insisted on a certain slow tempo was told by a singer-dancer that the law of gravity made it impossible for him to remain in the air long enough to coordinate with the music. When the conductor insisted that the words be heard at that point, the performer reminded him that the words were Tra-la-la-la. The tempo quickened.

[The conductor was Malcolm Sargent, the singer-dancer was Martyn Green, the plays was “The Gondoliers,” and the song was “For the merriest fellows are we.”]

Each play presents its own problems to a choreographer. The dances in “Oklahoma!” and “Paint Your Wagon” can be patterned after modern square dancing with a shot of modern ballet; but when Harold Hill is asked to show the crowd the latest step from the big cities, the dance should be as authentic as possible.

Now and then, the choreographer is called upon to direct crowd scenes when the director feels inadequate or pressed for time. The restaurant scene in “Hello, Dolly” is a good example, with its complex mixture of dancing, pantomime, waiting on tables in the period manner, and dialogue. Many a choreographer, in fact, has done more of the directing than has the director. It happened in my experience when the over-committed director, who also had a lead in the show (never advisable), decided that any stage movement during a song or chorus counted as choreography. The results were marvelous, but the director got the credit.

What next? Rehearsals, of course.

Essay Series Essays Uncategorized

Putting on a Musical, 5

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Putting on a Musical

IMG_20150609_0001_NEWThe Question of Rehearsals

So now rehearsals are ready to start. But not until you have had a long planning session with your crew and cast. For starters, you absolutely must know which sessions this player or that cannot attend. If you have to take their bank accounts into custody, they must swear a blood oath that they will show up at all other rehearsals—barring, of course, emergencies.

Also be very sure that (say) a 7 PM call means WE START AT 7 PM! How often do people show up only to find that the Director is not quite ready for them? Little by little, they start to arrive later and later to avoid the boredom of sitting around doing nothing. I would suggest that the crew arrive 30 minutes earlier to sort things out with the Director so that all is ready on time.

From San Francisco Opera production of “Show Boat”

Should the dancers also be part of the chorus, it is only common sense that their dance rehearsals cannot be scheduled with those for the singing ensemble. If you have two rehearsal spaces, each with a piano or at least pre-recorded music, that is a Very Good Thing. But most groups do not have this luxury. In any case, as was mentioned earlier in this series, all the musical numbers should be down pat before blocking the dialogue scenes even begins.

I have found it very profitable to meet with the speaking characters as early as possible after they are cast and go over the dialogue without any blocking. This is where we begin to establish each character, set up relationships between the characters, and stress the need for good enunciation and projection. Many of them might be in other shows and wish to save their voices during rehearsals. What happens all too often is that they forget to project during the actual performances. But we humans are only human, and compromises must be made.

In a good musical, the songs should serve some dramatic purpose, even if that purpose is only to show an insight into the character. For example, Liza Doolittle feels very good about herself before she sings “I Could Have Danced All Night.” She does not change during the song; she merely uses it to express her emotions. It was “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” that established her character earlier in the show. But a good director will have the song burst out of her at that moment as an INEVITABLE reaction to what she is feeling. Having her walk downstage, face the audience, and begin to sing because that is where the song goes does nothing for the play, her character, or the audience.

During the blocking rehearsals, then, careful attention should be paid to whom each song is sung. Does Liza sing “I Could Have Danced All Night” to herself, to the servants around her? I have always truly detested having such songs delivered to the audience. I think musicals should preserve the “fourth wall” as much as do non-musical plays. (Exceptions are, of course, numbers like “Comedy Tonight” which are meant to address the audience.)

There should also be a different approach to songs that are supposed to be songs (such as the show-within-a-show numbers in “Kiss Me Kate,” “Show Boat” and “Pal Joey”) and songs that are supposed to be dialogue (“If I Loved You,” “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I Could Write a Book”). In the latter category, the delivery should be quite different when the song is being sung to another character or as a soliloquy. In the case of a soliloquy, should it be delivered to the audience or to oneself? (A singer could be facing the audience but not addressing it to them directly, you know.)

The usual approach to Billy’s Soliloquy (and all others): straight out to the audience

I once had an idea for Billy’s “Carousel” soliloquy. He is standing on the beach and sees a young boy playing in the sand. This motivates Billy’s “My boy bill” section of his song. Then a girl joins the boy. This motivates the next section about being a father to a girl. In this way, there is a believable motivation for the song and Billy could be facing the children from (say) downstage right as they are playing (with minimal body movements) downstage left. (See my essay about Carmen’s “Habanera.”)

Many directors for local groups have had little professional training, if any at all, in the art; but a good deal of attention should be paid to fine tuning characterization. This is probably the most neglected aspect of amateur productions. “After all, it’s only a musical! After all, it’s only community theatre!” Does this mean the acting has to be rotten? Perhaps, if the Director is not overly territorial, someone can take the actors aside and go over line-readings for pacing, volume, enunciation, believable reactions, and so on.

And one thing that I have experienced in local theatricals. After the show and the “How wonderful you were” compliments, the entire cast should get together and go over what was poor about the production and how the next show could be so much better. (I live in a dreamworld, it seems.)

In our closing section, I would like to pay closer attention to other matters about how to achieve optimum dramatic effect in something that is “only a musical.”

Essay Series Essays

Putting on a Musical, 6

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Putting on a Musical
Getting together a musical takes a lot of cooperation between cast, choreographer, and so on. This shot of those who created the 1929 “Garrick Gaieties” with a Rodgers and Hart score, gives some idea of what goes on.

The Singer & the Song

Although I mentioned this aspect of musicals in the last essay, I want to elaborate on it in this concluding section.

A play—even “just a musical”—is drama. Something is happening up on that stage that means something to the character(s) and therefore should mean something to the audience. When Mame’s partygoers open the show with that paean in her praise, the audience is supposed to know nothing about her. Whoever is playing the title character must make you feel she deserves all that praise. If the actress plays it as if Mame feels she DESERVES the world on a platter, the song doesn’t work. In other words, the number must establish Mame’s character and that character should be a likable one. After all, most of the action springs from her attitude towards life.

Faster, girls, faster

When Eddie Foy, Jr. sings about the need to keep everything going on time in “The Pajama Game,” he must try to convince not only the characters on stage (although it is against their interests) but also the audience. Again this number comes very early in the show, and it must have some dramatic purpose. Of course it establishes his character, but it also sets the theme of what management wants versus what labor wants.

Take “Why Can’t the English” from early in “My Fair Lady.” As usually played, it is sung to Pickering, who does not need to be convinced. It should be sung as a way of convincing the crowd waiting for the rain to stop and perhaps even the flower girl herself. It is Higgins riding his hobbyhorse, Higgins on his soapbox, preaching. Not only does it perfectly give us his character, but it also sets off the train of events for the play by putting the idea in Liza’s mind that perhaps she should do something about her speech.

“Steam Heat” with original cast

Some songs, say “Steam Heat” in the second act of “Pajama Game,” are mere padding, and the best we can hope from these numbers is lively delivery and good dancing. Of course, those interpolated numbers designed to please the audience and/or give some star a “turn” might be an exception of sorts. Consider again the “Steam Heat” number. It is supposed to be part of a show within “Pajama Game.” Therefore the “audience” being addressed is not the real one but the invisible members of the cast who are supposed to be watching the performers.

Take, however,  “Were Thine That Special Face” from the show within a show in “Kiss Me Kate” is indeed being sung by an actor to his ex-wife and can deliver quite a dramatic punch if the actress reacts to the words that he is addressing not only to Kate but to the woman he still loves. A good director can bring out quite a bit of drama here by giving his Kate a “silent script.”

Let us consider a song sung by a character alone on stage. I have already expressed my dislike for singing directly to the audience. So there is Freddy in front of Liza’s house ready to burst into “The Street Where You Live.” Now the “you” is inside and theoretically out of earshot. But Freddy hopes she can hear and sings it to the door of the house—which is probably upstage, but the singer can “cheat” a little and be seen and heard to advantage.

41X5QAZ6STL._AA160_Of course, the most famous soliloquy is called “Soliloquy” (from “Carousel”). Here is a long number that falls into several parts. It is clear that the singer is talking to himself; Billy would NEVER confide his private thoughts to anyone, even the audience. Here a good director could get around things by (perhaps) having him sing one section to the sky, another to the sea, a clump of seaweed, some jetsam on the beach—or just staring into space, as we actually do when thinking to ourselves about very important things.

(See my suggestion about this in the previous section.)

One will argue that singing directly to the audience is no sin against drama. I feel that even in a straight play, breaking the fourth wall destroys all the illusion that theatre is supposed to create. Do you really want Liza or Billy or Whomever to admit that he/she is nothing but a character in a play, and that all the problems the play has created are nothing but a work of fiction? That this is “only a play”? And don’t retort that Shakespearean characters do just that. First of all, no one is really sure that the Globe actors spoke directly to the audience; and if so, the traditions of theatrical “realism” of that time are not those of ours.

230px-South_Pacific_PlaybillAnd just who is being addressed when the sailors in “South Pacific” proclaim “There is nothing like a dame”? Most directors have them face the auditorium and belt it out. How much more natural that they should be telling it to one another or to the non-military persons on the stage or to Bloody Mary, et cetera. After your set designer and costumers have gone through all the agonies of giving you the most realistic set possible, why ruin it with easy staging?


Not long ago, when I expressed these opinions, someone from a local college Theatre Department reposted, “Well, that’s the way they do it on Broadway.” Okay, I shrugged, “Just because they do that way, I guess you must slavishly imitate them.” There was no further response.

So much more to say, so little space to say it in. We shall see.