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So You Want to Produce a Musical: Choosing the Play

By FRANK BEHRENS
ART TIMES July, 2004

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.

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 article, let us consider this delicate problem of Finding a Director.

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