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So You Want to Produce a Musical (2): Finding a Director

By FRANK BEHRENS
ART TIMES
Aug, 2004

In last month’s essay, we took a look at the problems of choosing your musical. 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 and Y as 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.)

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 something 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 next month’s essay.

(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.)

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