Making a Broadway Musical

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2000, Revised 2003)


When the cast of a new Broadway musical meets for the first time, it is usually at one of the major rehearsal studios in New York. The director introduces the creative team and shows off the designs for sets, costumes and advertising. Everyone gushes optimistic approval. Then the cast sits down for a first read-through of the script. In some cases, the composers will perform all or part of the score, particularly if there are any newly added songs. Within a few days, one or two numbers are staged and the press is brought in for photo opportunities and interviews – this is a key opportunity for the press agent to drum up early publicity.

Most Broadway musical productions have an eight to ten week rehearsal period. There are exceptions – Jerome Robbins Broadway had more than twice that because of Mr. Robbins' demanding choreography. By union regulation, all performers are on full salary from the first rehearsal onwards. Early music and dance rehearsals are run with simple piano accompaniment. Because of the various changes (key, tempo, etc.) that may be required, and all the fragile egos involved, rehearsal pianists are among the finest (and most patient) musicians in the business. George Gershwin worked as a rehearsal pianist in his early years, composer John Kander began his career as rehearsal pianist for Gypsy, and Marvin Hamlisch served in the same capacity for Funny Girl.

During rehearsals, the director and choreographer gradually mold each performance to fit into their overall vision of the show. Depending on the size of the cast, the leads may rehearse key scenes separately and only join the ensemble as required. Director Gower Champion insisted on all cast members being present for all rehearsals. This was often tedious for the cast, but Champion never knew when inspiration for a full ensemble number might strike.

That important but elusive thing called "company spirit" forms during these weeks. The exhausting effort to put on a show is much easier when everyone gets along and operates as a team. With Broadway roles so rare today, most actors have the good sense to behave professionally. A reputation for rudeness or unreliability can cost future jobs, even for major stars. I know one popular leading lady who wins rave reviews every time she steps on a Broadway stage, but producers are so loathe to hire her that she goes years between roles. The reason? No one wants to put up with her "I'm a star, how dare you stock the wrong brand of guava juice in my dressing room" attitude. Every time she works, she makes new, lasting enemies.

This does not mean that everyone in a musical is expected to be a survivor of the saints. Even the most courteous people can fall prey to insecurity during rehearsals. The pressure of appearing on Broadway can weigh heavily on sensitive nerves. Occasional snaps and late arrivals are to be expected. Savvy directors know when to play disciplinarian and when to let things lie. If stars get temperamental and demands to do things their own way, it is often easier to let preview audiences verify what works and what does not.

After weeks of hearing nothing but piano accompaniment, the cast and orchestra finally meet for the Sitzprobe. This first rehearsal with full orchestra is always particularly exciting, as the everyone discovers what the score will sound like in performance.

As the date for the first performance nears, rehearsals move into an actual Broadway theatre where sets, costumes, lighting and orchestra can be brought together. Any number of technical and full dress rehearsals take place. The last dress often includes an audience of invited friends and relatives.

Traditionally, musicals preparing for a pre-Broadway tour have a bare bones rehearsal called a gypsy run through. (Chorus dancers have long been referred to as "gypsies.") Friends and family are invited to fill the house, and the show is performed on a bare stage with the cast in street clothes. These run throughs can be very moving, proving just how powerful a show is without its external trappings.

After that, ready or not, a show must face its first paying audience.

Next: Tryouts and Previews