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Know Your Show

July 16, 2010

You would never conduct the Bach B Minor Mass without a lot of legwork. You’d listen to a number of recordings, read some books, do some analysis of the pieces Bach based the sections on, if you were a real stickler, you’d look into other Masses of the time to compare, and you’d listen to other major Baroque vocal works to get a sense of the style. No, your musical is not Bach, (although if it’s Sondheim, you might be getting to that level of complexity) but you still owe it to yourself, your cast, and your audience to do your homework. There are many things you can do to be intelligent about the show you’re directing.

1) There will be a cast recording, possibly more than one. Listen to all of them you can. Usually the second recording has a little more of the music in it, for some reason. Make a note of the sound of the show, the tempos, the quality of the singing, etc. P.S. Go ahead and buy the C.D., don’t just download it on itunes. Firstly, cast recordings are often quite cheap used, because people buy them when they see or are in the show, and then get rid of them after the show ends or they get sick of it. Secondly, the liner notes are usually very informative, and itunes doesn’t help you there.

2) The author of a show has a particular sound, and usually a career trajectory. Try to be familiar with a few of your author’s shows, and know where this show fits into his or her career. If the show marks a big change for the author, there are usually some stylistic points that require correct execution.The biographies of composers and lyricists are often really great reading. Meredith Willson’s But He Doesn’t Know The Territory, for example, is really fun reading.

3) Be aware of the cultural context of the show you are doing. A great set of books for that are Ethan Mordden’s books that go through Broadway history decade by decade. Scott Miller’s books are also worth looking at. For books with a very large, encyclopedic outlook, try Gerald Bordman’s survey, arranged by year, Steven Suskin’s book, arranged by writing team, or David Ewen’s book, also arranged by writer, unfortunately never updated. Keith Garebian has a set of books about the making of particular shows. They are of varying quality, but worth looking through. He has put out a book on West Side Story, Gypsy, Cabaret, Guys and Dolls, and My Fair Lady.

4) If the play is based on source material, read the book, or read the play, or watch the movie that the thing is based on. Sometimes that can be very involved. For example, if you’re doing Ragtime, you should really watch the movie, you should read the E.L. Doctorow book, and you should read the Heinrich von Kleist book that Doctorow’s book is based on. (which is fantastic, by the way) And then there is a treasure trove waiting to be found of books about the characters in Ragtime that are waiting at your library for you.

Know your show. Be the person on the team that knows the most about the material. And have a great time reading and listening in the process!

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