|How to Put on a Musical
by John Kenrick
You're finally putting on that musical! (Never thought we'd get here, did ya?) As a director, you now have the grand challenge of being a strategic commander, personal counselor, small claims judge and a dramatic artist all at the same time. (And you thought it was easy for Hal Prince to win all those Tonys? Ha!) Musical directors have all the same burdens, along with the pressure of conducting and/or accompanying all performances. (Guess it isn't so easy for Don Pippin or Paul Gemignani either!)
We revue staging basics elsewhere, and can learn about staging in a variety of excellent books, some of which are listed in our recommended reading list. But there are a number of other practical concerns that come up during the rehearsal process.
List at least one rehearsal per week as "TBA" (To Be Announced), with the understanding that all cast members must be available for them. This leaves you valuable flexibility as you see what material needs extra work. In the next to last week, plan on a rehearsal where you run through act one twice, followed by a rehearsal running through act two twice.
Your last week of rehearsals should include two or three preliminary dress rehearsals, the first without makeup, so you can focus on costume issues. In the midst of these, include a tech rehearsal you may want to schedule this time consuming event in two parts (more on this below). Two days before your premiere, set your final dress rehearsal. Leave the 24 hours before your opening as a break day for the cast and crew. (More on this below.)
Before Rehearsals Begin
One way to reinforce this is to have every volunteer involved with the show sign a Letter of Commitment. You can print them up on half-sheets or post cards. This is not designed to be legally binding, but simply to clarify the moral commitment each person is making to the production. If you are working with any small children, have their parents sign this letter too. You can have everyone sign this at the first rehearsal, or beforehand if convenient. Here is a sample text, which can easily fit on a postcard
This is the time when directors (both stage and musical) must do their homework. Consider how you will approach every scene and song, at least in terms of the overall effect you want to achieve. The cast and crew must always sense that you know the material and have clear goals. Unlike professionals, they are not paid to respect you. You will have to earn their respect. The best way to accomplish that is by demonstrating from day one that you are the person (or persons) to look to. Screaming won't do this. A calm, firm sense of command will.
The stage manager or assistant director should put together a contact sheet with up to date phone numbers of all cast and crew. This list should include both home and cell phone numbers, just in case. The first rehearsal is also a good time to get a list of emergency contacts for everyone -- and to ask anyone with health concerns to clue you in. Basically healthy people of all ages can be diabetic, hypoglycemic, epileptic or have other conditions that it behooves you to be aware of.
If time allows (and you can make sure that it does) go right into blocking one of the ensemble scenes. Make it clear that rehearsals will be busy events and that you will not be wasting time. The atmosphere should be upbeat and positive. Do not tolerate improper behavior. Make it clear that the way for everyone to have a good time at rehearsals is by going a good job. A director's sense of focus can be contagious. Set the right tone at this point and the entire rehearsal process will benefit from it.
Day by Day
On the other hand, anyone creating a scene in front of others must be corrected on the spot. In such cases, be firm, not shrill. It must always be clear that anyone challenging your authority is wasting their time. This is not about power, but about fulfilling your responsibilities. Those responsibilities include planning out each rehearsal, and starting on time. If cast and crew sit around doing nothing because of confusion and delays, they will start to wonder if its worth showing up at all.
Weekend rehearsals must include reasonable meal breaks. For weeknight rehearsals, give your cast and crew a chance to eat dinner beforehand. Many healthy people have conditions that require them to eat at regular times. Don't let a rehearse-a-thon compromise anyone's health.
About three weeks into rehearsals, it is time for the cast to start working "off book." Banish scripts from the stage! If any actors decide to do this earlier, all the better. It can inspire others to do the same. At this point, have the stage manager (or another assistant) on duty to "throw" the actors any lines they forget. Make it clear that its okay for performers to forget lines at this stage, but everyone must have their parts memorized. The stage manager or assistant director who "throws lines" to the actors must always do so in a pleasant, nonjudgmental manner. Correcting actors is the director's job.
At the end of each full cast rehearsal, cast notes are customary. The entire company sits down while the musical and stage directors offer pointers on anything that requires special attention. Major problems with individuals are often handled in private discussions humiliation is a lousy directorial tool. The tone of these notes must be as encouraging as possible negative or angry outbursts can backfire, especially in front of the entire company. However, if the ensemble is goofing off, let them know how disappointed you are. We cover this in our "Staging Basics" discussion of Riot Act Time.
Example: One evening, the chorus is distracted. They miss cues, and one girl walks off stage when she receives a cell phone call. It turns out several people are using radios with earphones to follow a championship game. Ms. Doolittle sits the cast down, firmly bans radios from future rehearsals, and orders that cell phones be turned off until rehearsal is over. She is clearly angry, but fully in control of herself and the situation. Neither problem occurs again.
Have seamstresses from your costume crew on hand for all dress rehearsals and performances buttons, zippers and seams can disintegrate at the darnedest times, and someone wielding a competent needle can be a lifesaver.
Example: At Higgins High, the next to last week of rehearsals includes a few costume fitting sessions, as well as full dress run-throughs of each act. There are all sorts of gaffs costumes need adjusting, sleeves come apart, a zipper refuses to zip. Thanks to the costume coordinator having a good sense of humor, panic eases and costume issues are soon resolved. There is a locked classroom available for storage, so the costumes are kept on the premises. The coordinator makes sure that any items getting soiled or soaked with perspiration are laundered overnight.
If this is your first time running a tech rehearsal, know in advance that lots of things will go wildly wrong equipment that has always worked suddenly won't, and little staging problems will turn into insurmountable barriers. You want these disasters to happen now, rather than in front of an audience. While it is always important for the director to be an island of calm command, it is especially true during tech rehearsals.
Have the cast in costume so lights and microphone placement can be adjusted. The actors will find this tiring, as even a simple scene may require hours of adjustment. Explain that they will have to live with this process just like the pros do. Encourage the cast to conserve their voices. For this rehearsal, they are primarily on hand to help the tech crews light and amplify them to best advantage there are no cast notes. If you can, lay in a supply of soft drinks and fresh fruit. Or encourage the cast and crew to bring their own. You don't know when or of it will be possible to allow an extended break. Some find it practical to include a planned meal break, ordering in pizza or having everyone brown bag it.
It is not unusual for tech rehearsals to run into the wee hours. Scheduling this on a Friday or Saturday, most people won't be as concerned with running late. An even more sensible option is to divide your tech into two rehearsals, one per act. This may be less traditional, but it beats people dragging themselves home at 3 AM.
Example: Doolittle runs the tech rehearsal on two nights. Despite the inevitable headaches, the tech crews work things out. Bottled water, apples and pretzels are on hand both evenings. With the pressure spread over two days, both rehearsals finish at civilized hours.
Schedule more than one dress rehearsal, especially for shows involving elaborate sets, costuming and/or effects. This is your last opportunity to correct any remaining costume and tech issues. Preliminary dress rehearsals are a great time to stage curtain calls. Keep the bows simple and swiftly paced, giving all featured players recognition.
Schedule the final dress rehearsal two days before your first performance. This is a tough moment for stage directors. After today, their baby will have to walk on its own. They must be the personification of calm, confident strength no matter how things go! At this rehearsal, directors must let each act flow from beginning to end. Behave as if this is a performance. When something goes wrong, let the cast & crew must handle. The director only intervenes if there is a genuine emergency.
If you want, the final dress rehearsal can take place in front of an invited audience. One high school I've worked with invited some folks from a local senior center, a small and receptive audience. Before the rehearsal begins, explain that the performance might be stopped in case of problems. And if you do have to stop, that's okay I attended the final Broadway dress of Moon Over Buffalo, which stopped during the second act due to jammed equipment. Director Tom Moore came out to explain the problem, and star Carol Burnett delighted everyone by stepping on stage to take questions from the audience. You may not have such an ace in the hole, but you'll find that anyone previewing a show for free will be on your side if something goes wrong. (The licensing company may consider a rehearsal that plays to a large audience as a performance, for which additional rights should be paid.)
After any guests leave, keep final notes to the cast brief and positive. Stress what is going well. Those who are having problems should be encouraged privately -- this point, you switch from authority figure to chief cheerleader. Make it clear to one and all that they have your confidence, even if they don't!
Amateur performers often ask what special things they can do to prepare for the opening. It helps to avoid screaming their lungs out at sports events, or consuming any illegal drugs or booze. Other than that, the best thing anyone can do is to follow their normal routine. That makes it easier for bodies & minds to relax.
Example: Doolittle and Pickering's final dress is scheduled at 7PM on a Tuesday which allows everyone time for dinner beforehand. The rehearsal goes pretty well. Some voices sound a little strained, and one or two lines are flubbed, but the cast and crew keep the show running a lot smoother than the last few rehearsals led anyone to expect. The small invited audience offers compliments. After all guests leave, Doolittle and Pickering bring the full cast and all crews into the auditorium for notes. They stress the positives, and wish everyone a relaxing day off.
My college director introduced me to this concept, and in the ensuing years I have successfully followed it with both amateur and professional productions. In many cases, I have seen it work wonders. The extended strain of tech and dress rehearsals is exhausting for everyone involved -- including you. By giving your company a one day breather, you give vocal chords and nerves a chance to recuperate. One day is all you need -- more could cost your cast their "edge."
Our college production of Carnival looked like a disaster at dress rehearsal. The Tech had run till 4:00 AM, voices were raw, cues missed a nightmare scenario. After a full day & night off, the opening night went off like a dream. The cast and crew were literally shocked. That day-long chance to catch our breath made a tremendous difference. On other occasions when dress rehearsals went well, taking the break day only made the opening night all the stronger.
Example: Wednesday is a day off for the cast and crew. They still go to school, but the auditorium is off limits. A few techies may double check some wiring, but that's it. That evening, Doolittle enjoys a quiet dinner with friends, while Pickering stays home with take-out and a favorite movie. The leads commiserate a bit, but otherwise take it easy. Tomorrow will be a big day.
On to: Opening Night