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Making a Musical

Key Players: The Creative Team

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2000, Revised 2002)

Composer & Lyricist

The composer writes the music – the lyricist writes the words. It is not unusual for one person to act as both composer and lyricist. In most cases, composers leave the dances or underscoring to the orchestrator and dance arranger. (See our section on Elements of a Musical for more on scores.) Some lyricists act as their own librettists. Only a very few people have succeeded as composer, lyricist and librettist – such as George M. Cohan, Noel Coward, Meredith Willson and Jonathan Larson.

For many years, Broadway composers and lyricists made much of their income from the sale of sheet music. With the change in musical tastes and the near-disappearance of sheet music, they get little beyond the chance to share 2% of a show's profits and (if lucky) part of the long-term rights income if the show is ever leased for international and amateur productions. The only way for theatrical composers or lyricists to "strike it rich" is to become their own producers - as Andrew Lloyd Webber did with his Really Useful Company.

Librettist

Also called the "book writer," the librettist creates the book – or script – of a musical. In musicals where the dialogue is almost completely replaced by music (Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables), the librettist is essentially responsible for making sure everything weaves into a coherent dramatic flow. Librettists are most often blamed when a show fails, and not without reason. A show with a strong score and a bad libretto usually fails, while a show with a so-so score and a great libretto usually succeeds. (Note: The success of Footloose and Saturday Night Fever seems to contradict this once-solid rule.) (Our section on "Elements of a Musical" has more on musical books.)

Director

Up to the 1940's, writers and producer's had the concept - the director was expected to stage a show and supervise rehearsals in a way that made that concept shine through. Starting in the 1950's, directors took an increasing degree of control over the creative process. Today, few producers or writers have the clout to overrule a top director's decisions.

Choreographer

The person who stages the dances and musical scenes of a show was once called the "dance director," but the title changed when ballet choreographers like George Ballanchine and Agnes DeMille began working on musicals. Since the 1940's, many musicals have been staged by directors who also choreograph. A choreographer must give a musical a sense of movement that helps hold the show together visually.

Set Designer

Until the 1970's, even the most lavish Broadway productions used painted flats as sets, creating 3-D paintings that were more suggestive than realistic. Since the 1970's, sets have become increasingly realistic, taking up more space and far more of a show's budget. Sets must move swiftly, allowing a show to flow seamlessly from one scene to the next. Scenic effects can make or break a contemporary musical, but you know a show is in trouble if audiences leave the theatre "humming the sets."

Costume Designer

Whatever you see a Broadway actor wearing onstage did not come off a store rack. Stage costumes have to stand up to heavy use and daily cleanings – and last for as long as possible without looking threadbare or tattered (unless they are for the beggars in Les Miz). Designers must balance sturdiness with the needs of performers to dance and sing comfortably. When the original Kiss Me Kate (1948) ran short of money, designer Lemuel Ayers used heavy-duty curtain fabric for some of the period costumes.

Lighting Designer

This is one of the least noticed and yet most crucial members of the creative team. Costumes, sets and actors are not worth a damn if no one can see them. With the exception of the music, nothing sets the mood for a scene as quickly or clearly as the lighting. This is one of the least noticed and yet most crucial members of the creative team. Costumes, sets and actors are not worth a damn if no one can see them. With the exception of the music, nothing sets the mood for a scene as quickly or clearly as the lighting.

Musical Director

The musical director is much more than the conductor of the orchestra. He or she is in charge of everything involving the musical aspects of a show -- from song rehearsals to maintaining musical performances through a show's run. Consequently, the MD has a tremendous effect on the sound and pacing of performances. An MD must be ready to smooth over technical glitches, reassure uncertain understudies, and handle anything else that might stop the music. The MD is also in charge of hiring and managing the orchestra. In many cases, the musical director is a frequent absentee, and hires a conductor to stand in at some or all performances.

Sound Designer

This technically demanding position was not credited in Playbill listings until the 1980's. In the 1950's, a stage manager just turned on some foot mikes at curtain time, allowing basic amplification for the folks in the balcony. Now everyone in a Broadway cast wears a wireless body mike to provide full amplification – a complex proposition when there are dozens on stage. Through the 1990s, many complained that theatrical amplification could be distracting, but technical improvements have led to much more naturalistic sound in recent years. Technical staff are on hand during all performances to check each piece of equipment and continually adjust every microphone's input levels – a task managed from a bank of computers, usually stationed at the rear of the orchestra section.

Orchestrator

The composer writes the melodies, but the orchestrator determines what those melodies will sound like when an orchestra plays them. For example - Richard Rodgers wrote the melody of "Shall We Dance," but orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett made its famous "BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!" sound a reality. The challenge for orchestrators is to make sure their arrangements do not drown out the singers – a task made much easier by electronic amplification. Most composers let orchestrators create the overture as well as the underscoring and scene change music.

Dance Arranger

Composers frequently allow dance arrangers to handle the time consuming task of working with a choreographer to score the dance sequences. Shows with minimal dancing may not have a dance arranger at all, leaving that function in the hands of the orchestrator.

Next: How to Write a Musical