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.


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, 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.