How to Put on a Musical


by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2003)

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.


Plan your full rehearsal calendar of six to eight weeks. Most Broadway musicals traditionally rehearse for four to six weeks, so it makes sense to give your beginners more time. Block the show in order. This will help the cast to understand the flow of the show. Especially in the early weeks, it can help to have separate music rehearsals. You may find it easier to stage scenes first, then the musical sequences. See what fits your taste best. Plan the first few weeks so that everyone in the cast gets a day/night off now and then. If you want everyone to retain their sanity and their enthusiasm, do not rehearse seven days a week. Leave time for living.

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

Get the scripts and vocal scores to the cast at least a week before rehearsals begin – they probably wont accomplish much, but they will be delighted. Make sure everyone in the cast and crew gets a copy of the rehearsal calendar, and understands when and were they are expected to be. They have to understand this musical is a serious commitment.

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. Here is a sample text, which can easily fit on a postcard –

Letter of Personal Commitment

I have volunteered to take part in The Henry Higgins High School's production of Big River. I understand that this is a serious personal commitment. I hereby agree to show up on time for all rehearsals, performances and related activities, and to give my best to make this show a success. I confirm that I consider my participation in this show to be a special priority in my life.

Signed _____________________________

Production Job _______________________

Date ______________________

This is not legally binding, but clarifies 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 -- the sooner the better.

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.

Academic standards

If this is a school production, make it clear from the get-go that everyone on the team is expected to keep their grades up. Many schools have a policy that students having academic problems will be removed from a production. If you announce such a policy, be sure to stick to it. That could be tricky if you have to replace your lead one week to opening! In my opinion, a stern warning to maintain good grades will usually be enough. Most students involved in dramatics have solid grades, and you may be surprised to see how many improve their grades while working on a show.

First Rehearsal

There is tremendous excitement when the cast and crew come together for the first time. First rehearsal begins with presenting the production team. The stage and musical directors make brief introductory remarks, followed by a full read through of the show by the cast. If the leads are prepared, they can sing their numbers – otherwise, the musical director can do the honors.

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

As the first week or so goes by, someone may test things – showing up late, not preparing material, etc. Nip this in the bud! Be sure to correct behavior without humiliating anyone. If someone tries to pull a star trip, take them aside and make it clear that they can be replaced. After all, this is the easiest time to recast.

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.

Costume Fittings

Schedule fittings separately from formal rehearsal times if you can, but not all groups have that luxury. Have final fittings handled one to two weeks before show time, if possible. If costume rentals leave you with a tighter schedule, allow as much time for adjustments as you can.

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.

Tech Rehearsal

The technical rehearsal is when the full cast and crew walk through the entire show in performance order, making sure every light cue, sound effect, microphone, etc. works as planned. This means stopping hundreds of times to make adjustments. No one needs to act or sing -- this rehearsal is for the tech staff.

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.

Dress Rehearsals

The author in a college production of CamelotWhy are dress rehearsals necessary? You can click on the photo at left to get a closer look at me during a dress rehearsal for my college production of Camelot. During dress rehearsal the director noticed I was still sporting my trusty wristwatch -- not a standard item in a medieval wardrobe.

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.

Break Day

A full day & night off between final dress and the opening performance is not traditional. Some experienced directors will scoff at this idea, saying they cannot afford the time. My answer is that this final day off is something you can't afford to do without. In fact, if you only take one piece of advice from this website, make this it!

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