How to Put on a Musical

Low Budget Options

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2003)

P.T.The author directed this production of P.T., a low-cost musical based on the career of showman P.T. Barnum designed for young performers. A cast of 4th Graders won well deserved cheers at every performance.

When there is no money to cover the expenses of staging a musical, you may want to consider raising funds on your own. (More on this later.) If fundraising is not suitable, you have other workable choices.

Holiday Shows

If a religious theme is inappropriate for your school or group, you can stage a non-sectarian Holiday concert. The program can be tailored to whatever talents you have on hand. Many popular holiday songs are still rights controlled – be cautious about using such songs. You can find out about getting permission for particular songs by contacting the two organizations that represent composers, ASCAP and BMI. (There is related information below in our discussion of Cabaret Concerts.)

Churches and religious schools have a longstanding tradition of staging Christmas and Easter pageants. Some schools have let that tradition fade away, and that may be where you come in. The beauty of these events is that the script (the Gospel of your choice) and the score (classic holiday hymns and songs) are rights free. In most cases, performers' parents are happy to handle the costumes, and sets are not required. The back-up chorus can be as large or small as your talent pool allows, and the accompaniment can be anything from an orchestra to a piano, or even something pre-recorded. Best of all, most mistakes the children make add to the natural charm of the event. (The younger the child, the more endearing a mistake will be.)

I have staged many Christmas pageants, with performances taking place in classrooms, church sanctuaries, nursing homes and more. Regardless of the location, these shows always delighted audiences and gave the children a genuine sense of accomplishment. I created my own scripts, allowing for an occasional smile while treating the story of the Nativity with reverence. Just over a dozen children were needed to fill the costumed roles, two acted as narrators, and the everyone else formed a chorus to perform the carols. We encouraged the audience to sing along on a few better known tunes, using lyrics included in their programs.

Be careful with humor in religious pageants -- you never know who is going to take it the wrong way and raise a fuss. If used at all, it must be limited to peripheral characters. For example, my grade school Nativity pageants sometimes gave the Innkeeper in Bethlehem (who could be either male or female) a complaining spouse. Or the narrators could exchange a gentle line or two during the introductory remarks -- something that inspires smiles is far safer than than an outright joke. Long suffering parents appreciated these touches, so long as the scriptural material was presented in a straightforward manner.

Cabaret Concerts

A cabaret concert (variety show, etc.) is a loose collection of songs and skits. If you are using a substantial number of copyrighted songs, you can find out about arranging for a blanket rights license through ASCAP and/or BMI.

Many schools and community theatres stage a concert in the fall or winter to raise funds for the big spring musical. The public gets entertainment, your performers get additional chances to shine, and all sorts of financial headaches can get immediate relief. Win-win-win.

Make sure the performance space looks as good as your funds allow. Some appropriate decoration (a backdrop, flowers, etc.) adds a touch of "class." Almost any kind of talent can fit in. Think in terms of vaudeville – if its fun, audiences will enjoy it. I have seen such concerts include dog acts, jugglers, magicians, dancers . . . oh yeah, singers and comics too. In laying out the order of the show, use different types of material – please do not make an audience sit through ballad after ballad. (Yawn!) Reserve the final spots for your best acts. This will help to keep folks in their seats till the end. Keep your full running time to around two hours, and throw in an intermission. A good announcer or emcee can keep things flowing. I have seen amateur concerts fall apart because of long delays between acts – and others that were more fun than a first-class stage show at Radio City Music Hall.

Preview every act in advance. Please do not subject ticket buyers to offhanded, offensive or just plain lousy entertainment – make sure every act is well rehearsed and that all material is appropriate. Steering clear of touchy subjects like sex and politics is your best course. This isn't an attempt to stifle anyone's freedom of expression. Your goal is to entertain and raise funds, not to alienate.

Low Cost Musicals

There are various companies in the US and Canada that handle the rights to family musicals tailored for schools and community theatres with tight budgets. These titles have never appeared on Broadway, but they can be very entertaining. You can get performance rights for a fraction of the price charged for more familiar titles – in some cases, you get the rights in exchange for buying a given number of scripts. A few licensing companies offer shows featuring songs by George M. Cohan and Victor Herbert that are now in the public domain. You could write your own musical to fit the same songs, but it is often far easier to lease these ready made showcases.

Are these musicals as good as Broadway titles? That's debatable, but they are tailored to show off young performers with limited experience. I once staged a children's show called PT – not a rip-off of Broadway's Barnum, but a simpler version of the same story designed for elementary school performers. Most of the easy but entertaining songs were performed by a chorus, keeping the solo roles brief and manageable. The production was an audience pleasing, money-making triumph that everyone involved took real pride in. Unfortunately, the company that offered PT no longer carries it, but there are similar shows out there at reasonable rates.

As with any musical, be sure to review the full script and score before committing to stage it. School offices regularly get mailings from low-cost licensing companies, or you can find some on the web – see our list of recommended links.

On to: A Word to the Cast & Crew