Choosing The Show

May 28, 2010

“The choice may have been mistaken. The choosing was not.”


It was the first time I had ever been asked for suggestions for a show. I was in my new position as the choral director of a prestigious school with a strong program. Because I had taken some classes and had a theatre background, my suggestion carried more weight than it should have, especially since I had way more book knowledge than practical experience. I suggested they do a historically important show that I was familiar with because I had taught it in a musical theatre history class. The themes in the show resonated with the philosophy of the school and with some important current events of the time.

But I wasn’t thinking about the needs of my audience, the experience and abilities of the student body, and the patience of everyone involved for an obscure museum piece. My choice was better suited to a New York audience or a bunch of people who had recently earned Masters degrees in Musical Theatre Writing. I picked it for me, not for the people who were going to be doing the show with me. And although the show went very well, I think the only people who really enjoyed it were me and one history teacher.


Think of the strengths of your actors and your program before you start throwing names of shows around. Otherwise you’ll be trying to come up with reasons to defend your choice instead of coming up with a show that matches your needs. Here’s a challenge that will seem obvious, but which you may not actually be able to do: Think of the sound of your group the last time you worked with them (a Spring Concert, the last year’s show) and picture that group doing some music from the show in question. Sound like a mess? Maybe you should keep looking.

When people are in the process of choosing a show for a school to do, many factors come into play, most of which are really not helpful in making the choice.

1) You’ll often hear people suggesting shows they like, or that they were in at one point. And yes, you should probably like the show you pick, seeing as how you’re going to be living and breathing it for 3 or 4 months. And yes, if you’ve been in it, you probably know a little more about it than other shows you might have picked. The problem is the things that make the show so awesome are often the things that will sink your production. You know, the really great dark subject matter, that will have parents calling the school complaining, or the really cool set that crashes your budget and has you fighting with the people building it because it’s 3 weeks late. The show with the great role you always wished you could play, but that no kid in your school is vocally capable of carrying off. You have to open your list of choices to include shows you a) aren’t particularly fond of and b) don’t even know.

2) You might hear people throwing out shows that the kids will ‘like’. It’s true that some shows are not great for bringing out kids to try out, but kids will get into almost anything. Really! Name recognition counts for something. But you have to remember that their education requires you to expose them to things they should learn to appreciate. And if they already appreciate it because they own the movie on DVD, that part of your job is not being done. Stop trying to be cool and try and pick something the kids will be good at and that will expose them to something they need to know about.

3) You will often hear people talking about a show that needs to be heavily altered to be done by your organization. I strongly believe that if you have to change all the genders of the show, or cut half the songs, or change the location or job of major characters, you just picked the wrong show. You will have to alter some things, it’s true. But you shouldn’t pick a show you know up front will need to be sliced and diced.

4) Some organizations have a thing about never repeating a show. This is a mistake. It’s tantamount to saying “I refuse to make a good decision twice.” If a show hasn’t been done in 8 years, no student in your school was in it, and probably very few current students or parents saw it the last time. Some shows just work, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do them multiple times. I’m also not crazy about the idea of a cycle of shows that keeps repeating over and over again. I heard recently of a middle school that cycles through Peter Pan, Annie, and The Wizard of Oz every three years. I just can’t imagine those productions are very fresh.

If the staff of the show allows you, the music director, to be a part of the decision making process, (which is unfortunately rare) you should be a strong advocate for your position and you should listen carefully and empathetically to the positions of all the other people in the room. Make it a point to look through the score and find the vocal ranges of all the major characters and make a note of particularly difficult passages. If you don’t do your homework, it’s you who’ll have to pay when you’re teaching the impossible parts to the kids.

But you should also carefully consider everyone else’s position and try to understand where they’re coming from. Sometimes the choreographer is thinking about the dance opportunities of a show with her particular group of kids and your unease about the vocals needs to be weighed against the benefits in other areas. Don’t be the one in the room who says no to everything. Carefully weigh the pros and cons of each show, advocate with your best reasoning, and then when the show has been chosen, throw all your weight behind making it the best it can be.

If your musical program is new, start with something easy. You might someday be able to do a Sweeney Todd or a Les Miz, but it takes time to build the support structures and personal loyalty necessary to pull off something that ambitious.

As you’re researching your shows, there are a few books and websites that will help you find your way:


MTI’s website has a great search engine built in where you can look at shows based on Style, Types and Themes, Casting, Orchestration, Technical Elements, Suitability for Organizations, and Theatrical Resources. It’s fantastic, and it’ll also recommend shows based on shows you’ve already had success with

The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization has a similar site, with searches possible based on the type of organization you are, the size of the cast, the kind of leads you have, the vocal demands, the size of the orchestra, and the dance requirements.

MTI and the R&H organization deliver the best materials to your group. They have really put a lot of care into making sure the materials are rehearsal ready, and their websites are clearly designed to serve their customers well. The other major organizations are not so consistent:

The Tams Witmark site currently has no search feature based on qualities of the shows. You’ll have to slog through the site to find what you’re looking for, one show at a time. For some shows, Tams offers a FLEX-BO orchestration, which is a reduced orchestration that still has all the notes. This can be extremely useful.

The Samuel French website This site is the hardest to maneuver around, because Samuel French is really a great play publishing organization which also happens to license shows.

A newer organization which I don’t know very much about, but which seems to send out great materials is Theatrical Rights Worldwide. (and you don’t send the materials back! They let you keep them!)

It’s important to note that some shows have multiple versions that are represented by different Theatrical Rights organizations. For example, Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing is represented by MTI and SAMUEL FRENCH. For a fairly complete list of shows and who they’re represented by, see: http://www.musicals101.com/alphinde.htm

When there are multiple versions of shows available, please note that they are not identical. You should look through both versions carefully to be sure you’re picking the best version for your group.

Books you should have in your library:

Broadway Musicals Show By Show by Stanley Green. A reference book with general, historical, and statistical information about important shows through the history of Broadway.

Let’s Put On A Show, How to Choose the Right Show for Your School, Community or Professional Theater by Peter Filichia. It contains discussions and overviews of a number of shows, with a view to performability by various groups.

Little Musicals for Little Theatres by Denny Martin Flinn. Focuses on shows suitable for theatres on tighter budgets.

These books are all due for revision, but can still give you good advice. Good luck as you choose a show to match your resources and audience.


One comment

  1. Hey Peter, I went to a middle school like the aforementioned cycle of those shows… Anyway, I really liked this one. I might try to later get my hands on those books. I never knew they so rarely consult the musical director for choice of a show, odd. Do you know of a good way to see where your students are at if you’re brand new to a school?

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