How I select musicals to direct (Musical Theater class 201)


Awhile back, someone asked me how I pick musicals that I would like to direct. I promised I would do a follow up to my post on good shows for large venues vs small venues with a personal selection article — so here it finally is. And its timely as I am doing just that for a local theater for next season.

I’m looking at a proposal right now for the 2016 season, the 47th musical I would be directing. This proposal will be to a large well-established community theater with virtually no budget for their productions but a huge warehouse of stock in props, costumes, and generic set pieces (platforms and flats). This company also has a wealth of tremendous talent, not just locally, but when the show is right for the zeitgeist will attract great performers from a 25-30 mile radius. The strength here is the actors, not the scenic aspects.

From a personal background, I love big song and dance shows (the more tap the better), but I also like new works and I feel its important to bring some of these newer shows to the local audience — while some here might have seen the show in NYC, or on tour, it is more likely that the majority of our audiences will not have seen the show, though might have heard about it or seen it on the Tony Awards on tv. Hence, I’ve brought musicals like Next to Normal, Steel Pier, Bonnie & Clyde, The Wedding Singer, My Favorite Year to different theaters over the years.


The first thing you need to be aware of is the venue that the production will be performed in. Is it a black box? Is it a proscenium theater? Does it have a large stage, or a small one? Is there backstage storage space? Is there a fly system? If it has a fly system, is it a full fly-system or merely an access fly system? Where are the entrances and exits to the stage? Are there stairs? Are the theater aisles usable? What type of floor does the venue have?


What does the theater own? Do they have a lot of costumes? Set pieces? Or do they have very minimal stock (meaning everything would have to be built from scratch) Do they have a lot of props? Or does everything need to be collected from scratch? Do things need to be rented? Does it need rental drops? Is there a budget for drops (they run 350.00 a drop or more for one week). Does the theater already own some pieces that can be incorporated?  How intensive is the set — how much building will it require? How easily can it be set up, moved, loaded, unloaded ,broken down? How many people do you have on your staff?


Are there specific needs for your show that you feel are vital, or form the essence of the show? If you are doing a production of Bonnie & Clyde you need some resemblance of a ’34 Ford Roadster or you shouldn’t be doing it, its that vital to the show. Same with Shrek — how are you going to do that dragon? Or Miss Saigon — that helicopter scene. Or Les Miserables — that barricade. How costume intensive is the show? Thoroughly Modern Millie is going to cost you a lot more for costumes than Next to Normal. You need puppets for Avenue Q and Carnival.


Be aware that some shows were specifically designed to be set and costume shows — if you do not have the budget for sets and costumes stay away from shows like My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly, Camelot. In general, most (though not all) of the older “classic” musicals of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s are set-and-costume shows. Audiences at that time expected large gorgeous sets and many costume changes. Most of these shows were period, so modern dress doesn’t cut it. It wasn’t until Cabaret came around that producers started to think out of the box and the “look” of shows started to change somewhat.


Who will be auditioning for your show? Do you have a large pool to draw from? Is it limited? Is it mostly women with a handful of guys (sometimes husbands/boyfriends with limited talent but willing to be drafted? That gives you bodies, but no support). Or do you draw from the best of the best? The larger your pool, the more interesting shows you can present. There are many musicals that are written for a large male cast with a handful of women — this opens up some of those options, otherwise stay away from them. Shenandoah has 18 men and 2 women with 4 chorus women that sing one song. Kiss of the Spider Woman has 18 men and 4 women. LaCage aux Folles has 20 Men and 6 women. Camelot has one female lead with a chorus where women do virtually nothing. Bonnie & Clyde has three female roles and 3 chorus roles, but also needs 12 men.


What size orchestra can your venue accommodate? What are the show’s orchestra requirements? What’s your orchestra budget? Where will the orchestra be located? Is it onstage, in a pit, offstage right, offstage left, an aisle or vestibule inside the house? When I did shows in Ohio, the orchestras were local volunteers and/or existing groups. Here in Michigan every single orchestra member expects to be paid, even in community theater orchestras. (Ironically, they are the only paid members of virtually any community production in Michigan, but that’s the nature of the beast here — and that’s a discussion for a different post.)


The larger your orchestra, the more mics become a requirement. Did you know that every show written post 1975 was written to be mixed on a sound-board on Broadway? That means every single actor was on a body (or standing) mic, and every orchestra member is on a mic, and that the sound technician “mixes” this sound at the booth so that the audience hears a well balanced vocal and music. It sounds like your cast recording. Before that, orchestra parts were written to drop in volume while vocalists sing — they were even orchestrated differently…strings and woodwinds accompanying the singers, while brass would pop in during non-singing portions and dance breaks.  Do NOT plan a musical that has large sound requirements if you do not have microphones and a decent sound mixer.  Lighting plays an important role in many shows — you can’t do the finale of The Full Monty if you don’t have spot-on lighting effects. What is your equipment? Do you need to rent anything? Do you have follow spots if the show requires follow spots? Do you have a lighting technician that understands how to light the space you are renting or using? Do you need special gobos? If using programable/movable cyberlighting, do you have time to program them for your show in the limited time available? If you rent a star curtain, do you know how to get it to work and plug it into your dimmers and computer system?


Many current day musicals incorporate projections as their set design — these requirements can range from minimal to substantial. Woman in White used 100% projected scenic images on stage-wide television screens. Big Fish used projections for all of its special effects, which are plentiful. Projections are also vital in Smile, Bonnie & Clyde, Chess, Carrie, Tommy, or any other musical that has visual needs similar to those.


I’m going to be perfectly honest that the one thing I do not consider in selecting a show is an audience, that is IF the show is a proven show. Audiences don’t always want to see the same old thing, and if you have a great production of a lesser known show, word of mouth and reviews will sell your tickets. Some theaters do not have that luxury. If all you have is local church-goers in your church-basement theater, then you can’t do shows that don’t appeal to that audience. The particular theater company I am currently preparing my proposal for has a longtime audience base, but also has many new audiences members per show, depending on interest in the show itself. The subscribers have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly for decades, so they are the least of my considerations. This theater desperately needs to attract new audience members — people who might come back again, donate a few bucks, or even audition or participate themselves down the road.


Keep in mind a few current audience trends…people no longer purchase “season tickets” for the most part — they purchase individual shows for those they are interested in…reputation counts: if a theater presents a show that has high set-and-costume requirements and your audience knows that your theater is incapable of presenting high set-and-costume shows, they will not attend…younger actors (in the 18-25 range) are more likely to understand dance than any other group before — they grew up on shows like High School Musical and watched Glee on tv, and are less inhibited when it comes to dancing, because they did so in their high schools, in choir, and with their friends. Contrast this to the generation directly older than that (the late 20-s to late 30’s) where dancing was not a large part of their upbringing…tap is no longer in vogue — you’ll find fewer and fewer folks who studied tap in their high schools or college. You’ll find a few really good tappers, and lots of non-tappers. If you have guys in their 20’s who know how to tap, you will find they get cast in virtually every musical they audition for because I consider them the “golden few”.  If you plan to do a musical like My One and Only or 42nd Street, you better make sure you have enough adult tappers because there are no teenage or kids roles in either one.


Every single theater has politics. I haven’t found one that does not. This ranges from interference from board or staff as to who should be cast in particular parts, to micromanagement of who should get a solo and who should not. I’ve experienced producers insisting intermissions are added to shows that don’t have intermissions so that concessions can be sold.  I’ve personally been pretty lucky, as journeyman director, that I can cast whom I want and do what I want, and/or to not work for a company again down the road if I don’t want to. But there have been plenty of actors and actresses who have decided I am persona-non-grata after not casting them for one reason or another.  You need to have a tough skin if you are a director.


Believe it or not, audiences for shows DO cross over — if your local university does Addams Family, and you do Addams Family, and the next suburb over does Addams Family, pretty soon the trickle effect comes into play and the 4th theater that also does Addams Family is facing the law of diminishing returns — your audiences have seen it. Don’t schedule the same shows everyone else is doing. Shows that currently fall into this category are (Addams Family), Legally Blonde, Spamalot, Les Miserables, and Into the Woods. Shows that have traditionally been done to death are Grease, Guys and Dolls, and Annie.


Right now, Les Miserables, Chicago, and Into the Woods are overdone and it doesn’t help that their movies were so popular. Just because Meryl Streep did it doesn’t mean you should do it. The opposite also occurs — the movie version of Nine was so terrible that audiences would not at all benefit from having this show done right now. Its a shame because it is one of my favorite musicals ever.  Be extra careful with musicals that have great DVD’s available. In addition to the aforementioned, both the tv versions of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan are on DVD. Legally Blonde was shown four times a week for three months on MTV. Memphis has a HD recording of the original Broadway production. Don’t stay away from these shows, but beware that audiences will have concrete expectations of what they have seen  (sometimes dozens of times) and what they expect from your production.


Another consideration is marketing opportunities. Is there a community organization that you can buddy-up with? Is there a local retail store that would love to donate some clothes in exchange for free publicity and maybe a sponsorship? (A great way to get those black and white costumes for the women in Nine by the way).  Does your community have a lot of banks? Would they be willing to place ads to support Bonnie and Clyde? Think about the opportunities you have out there.


So, remember that theater proposal that I am putting together? What am I finally going to propose? Well I’m not sure yet, but here is the general idea and the thinking behind each. Which will I finally propose? You’ll have to come back later to find out.

Proposal A) A recent modern musical that has the orchestra on stage, a unit set with ramps and staircases, and moderate costuming and projection needs. Its a story that is fun and audiences have not seen this show in Ann Arbor. Its a very heavy song and dance show. The talent certainly exists to cast this show easily. What’s the main concern? It needs a really strong college-age male lead that can sing tenor. But with a half-dozen universities within a 30 mile radius, I’m not worried about casting.

Proposal B) A standard from the mid-70’s that has minimal set requirements, minimal costume requirements, and was a show that every single theater used to do ad nauseum but hasn’t been seen on an Ann Arbor stage ever. The downside? It has 18 men and 6 women, and only 2 of those women have parts. Plus side – audiences love it and its a throwback to older more audience accessible musicals. Its also in my top 5 favorite musical list and I have directed it before.

Proposal C) A modern classic musical — that is, one that was newly rewritten for the stage a decade ago, but uses an original 40’s story as its script and score. Its heavily dance oriented, but has moderate set needs that can be pared down to minimal, especially if projections and drops are added. The downside? It runs 2:45 minutes, and for me, that’s a long long show. And its kinda old fashioned with a limited emotional payout for that length of show.

Proposal D) A recent Tony winner for revival of a musical, it has multiple great roles for cast members, and has name recognition. This particular theater did this show 23 years ago so its high time for a revival. It has minimal set needs, but heavy costume and vocal needs. The downside? It has no ensemble, so it has a specific and limited cast size.

So what do YOU choose?…Stay tuned. And happy musical theatering!

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