How to Put On a Musical

Recommended Musicals

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2003)

It is impossible for me to to tell you what would be "the perfect first musical" for your group. There are over 500 professional titles to choose from, but the shows listed here are strong candidates for first-time directors and untested performers. They all fit the following criteria –

The last point is not a small one. Many great shows involve controversial topics or or depict sensitive situations. For example, A Chorus Line, Chicago, Pippin, and Grease have each inspired complaints due to sexual situations or coarse language. If you want your production to be the first of many, avoid material that parents or local officials might find offensive. Controversy can derail your efforts and/or leave people reluctant to support your future productions. When you are starting up, keep as many people on your side as possible. After your group has an established reputation, you may be able to consider more ambitious choices.

Of course, the musical you love and can give the most to may not be on this list – go with your heart (as well as your head) on this decision. Just do your best to pick a show that fits your group's abilities.

You can find out how to obtain performance rights to these and other musicals by going to our show rights index. The rights holder for each show is noted in parenthesis.

Annie (MTI)- If you have lots of talented little girls, a powerhouse comic actress to play Miss Hannigan, and a tenor who can be Daddy Warbucks, your performers and audiences will have a ball with this one. Try to get a real dog that can learn the tricks – it is more effective than having someone in a pooch suit, but even that can work when done well. If you plan your production in November or December, Annie's Christmas theme adds to the fun.

Big River (R&H) - A great choice for new groups with an interracial talent pool. It has many enjoyable characters and an underrated score. You will require two solid singing actors for Huck Finn and escaped slave Jim. Don't let age issues stop you from attempting this show. On Broadway, the teenaged "boys" were all played by adults. Warning - If you are in one of those small minded communities where there have been controversies over the placement of Huckleberry Finn in local libraries, this show is probably not your safest choice.

Bye, Bye, Birdie (TAMS) - High school-age performers can shine in this classic, and they still enjoy spoofing the "Elvis" era. Workable dancing, mostly easy singing, and lots of good supporting comic roles add up to a fun show.

Carnival (TAMS) - If you have a small core group of solid singing actors, this colorful show is all too rarely done yet offers fine entertainment. The puppet show and magic tricks are workable hurdles, and the ensemble can have fun without worrying about any major dancing.

Damn Yankees (MTI) - If baseball is big where you live, this show deserves special consideration. Loads of fun, great roles, and the choreography can be kept minimal. The key is to find a sexy Lola, a funny-evil Applegate, and a likeable Joe Hardy (the only lead who must have a strong singing voice). The chorus of ballplayers belting out "Heart" is still a guaranteed showstopper.

Fantasticks, The (MTI) - An intimate gem, this show requires a cast of nine and a tiny orchestra. The material can be musically demanding, so be sure your talent pool is up to it. Perfect for smaller venues, this charmer may not be appropriate for large performance spaces.

Godspell (MTI) - A natural for church groups, this is a great showcase for young performers. The set can be a bit of chain link fence, a backdrop, or nothing at all. The costumes are street clothes. This material relies on the charm of the performers. Easy to stage & sing, bursting with exuberance, and appropriate for audiences of all ages – one of the best shows for new groups.

H.M.S. Pinafore - see Pirates of Penzance

Is There Life After High School? (SF) - A great (if little-known) show for a troupe of talented adults. Every performer gets great moments, but all have to be good – they even get to perform as a comically dreadful school band at one point. (I have seen productions that simply mimed with invisible instruments, to excellent effect.) Audiences may not know the title, but they love this heartfelt bittersweet look at teenage memories.

Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (R&H) - This is a great show for talented youngsters and teens. The singing is in a pop style, and there is a comfortable blend of comedy and honest non-romantic emotion. Many supporting characters have their moments to shine, and no one (not even the title character) has to shoulder too much. Successful in anything from a concert format to a full staging, Joseph is as close to surefire as you can get.

Les Miserables (MTI) - This is a great show for older kids and/or adults, if you have enough solid singers for the leads. Loads of great character roles. The show is sung-through, so don't underestimate the musical demands – and the original version runs well over three hours. High schools and community theatres are reporting tremendous success with this all across the country.

Mikado, The - see Pirates of Penzance

Oklahoma (R&H) - Landmark or not, this is still one of the most surefire musical comedies ever written, and I've seen school kids triumph with it. Great score, lots of juicy roles. The leads have to do some major singing and the title tune is a soaring chorale, so this will be easier if your group has trained singers. The dances can be kept simple, even the ballet – I've seen it work as a pantomime sequence staged with only hints of formal dance.

Oliver (TAMS) - If you have a lot of talented boys on hand, this is a natural – and many productions mix in boys and girls for the ensemble with no problems. You need actors with strong personalities to play Fagin and Dodger, and a good female belter for Nancy – otherwise, it has familiar songs and a great script. Most of the period costumes are on the scruffy side and easy to create, and the sets can be whatever your team can manage. I saw a great amateur version  that used no sets, only chairs, tables and a few prop pieces.

Pirates of Penzance, The - If you are working with a chorus or choir, or are affiliated with a school that has an active music program, the works of Gilbert & Sullivan are worth considering. Pirates, HMS Pinafore, and Mikado are still audience pleasers, but I think Pirates is the most promising choice for new groups. Some serious solo & choral singing is required, but the material is still funny, and you need only two simple sets. Another advantage is that all the G&S shows are in the public domain, so there are no rights to pay. (You have to buy or rent vocal scores & orchestrations, but the librettos are available for free at the G&S Archive Website.) Fair warning – G&S can be addictive. Once you give performers a taste, don't be surprised if they want more. If your group develops a G&S tradition, you'll have over a dozen fine shows to work through.

She Loves Me (MTI) - One of the most endearing musicals ever written, people who work on productions of this show tend to boast about it for years afterwards. You will need a strong pair of legit singers (tenor & soprano) for the leads, but the rest of the characters call for strong personalities who can sing. Worth considering.

Sound of Music, The (R&H) - A guaranteed ticket seller – do this show, and the people will come. If you have access to good child performers, a solid actress to play Maria and a great soprano for Mother Abbess, the rest can fall into place. Some of the best productions I've seen of this show were done by amateurs on limited budgets. In one case, they had Maria sing the title song while coming down through the audience, as if the raked auditorium was a mountainside – fresh, simple and effective.

You're a Good Man Charlie Brown (TAMS) - This charming small cast project requires solid talent in every role. The music is not too demanding, but every performer must have lots of personality. There are two delightful versions available – the original and the Broadway revival. The latter includes some great new songs, but be sure to review both versions before deciding. Although appropriate for children, grown-ups love this show.

On to: Picking the Right Musical