How to Put on a Musical

Picking the Right Musical

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2003)

There is no point in trying to showcase your cast in the wrong material. In order to pick the right show, there are various points to consider.

Probable Cast

Before selecting a show, get a clear sense of the talent you have on hand. You must have the right people to play your leads and, if possible, some back-up choices. Go with your strengths. If you have no children in your talent pool, this is not the year to do The King and I!

Example: Higgins High is coeducational, with over 1000 students -- so there is a wide talent pool on hand. Some of the school jocks will audition when they realize there will be lots of girls in the cast, and the show will be an excuse to work with them for several weeks.

Probable Audience

Give some serious thought to what your potential audience will want to see. Is it just a closed group (students, co-workers) or will the general public be invited? Be sure to consider if the theme of a show too adult or daring for your organization.

Example: Our intrepid teachers do not want their first show to set off any controversy. Moreover, a family friendly show will have an easier time selling tickets. Mr. Pickering wants something with a good score, and Ms. Doolittle is pushing for a show that will encourage interest in literature.


A little creativity can go a long way. You would be amazed how many lavish musicals can benefit from simplified productions. However, keep audience expectations in mind. A modern-dress Hamlet can win rave reviews, but many ticket buyers will be disappointed if you try to stage Kismet with a cast in sneakers and jeans.


Do you have the space and technical set-up required to do a particular show justice? If the lighting and sound teams are inexperienced, don't pick a tech-heavy show. You may be itching to stage My Fair Lady, but the massive sets, elaborate period costumes, huge cast and complicated lighting cues may leave your company drowning in details. A simple show that goes well is preferable to a demanding show that makes your team look clumsy.

Knowledge & Talents

Don't pick a title out of thin air, or based on nothing more than someone else's recommendation. If you are going to spend several month s of your life working on a musical, it may as well be a show you like. If you are not enthusiastic about a project, your cast and crew will sense it.

Match the show to your talents. For example, if no one on your production team has an affinity for dance, strike West Side Story off your list - for now. Your group may soon develop the kind of talents to tackle almost any show.

Example: We already know Mr. Pickering and Ms. Doolittle have a limited budget, like almost everyone else on this planet. They also have limited experience and little more than the most basic stage equipment. So they are looking for a musical that involves a few simple sets, uncomplicated costumes, and no major special effects.

Check the Neighbors

Find out what neighboring schools and theatre groups are planning. It is alright if two organizations in the same region do the same show. However, if a half dozen nearby groups have staged the same show within the past year or so, forget about attracting an audience. A few diplomatic phone calls can avoid this. While you are at it, try your best to avoid conflicting with other community events. No one has to tell you not to rehearse on Thanksgiving Day, but you will have to do your research to know when the "big game" is set for, or what nights the big church bazaar will captivate your town.

A little conflict can be a good thing. I once worked with a high school team that produced Anything Goes. Another high school in the same county performed the same show two weeks before us! We made the best of it, and encouraged our entire company to attend our competitors' opening night to cheer them on – and (of course) check them out. Our cast was a great audience, especially when they realized this other production was not nearly in our league. (Whew!) Most of that other cast came to our opening to cheer us on and (of course) check us out. And although they were supportive, they concluded that our production was not in their league. (Poor deluded fools!)

Example: Pickering has checked with music teachers at the neighboring schools, and knows what is being planned. The students have provided info on what the local community groups are planning, so it will be easy to avoid conflicts. Among other tidbits, it seems three local groups that did not bother checking with each other are doing Les Miserables – so that show will have to wait till another year. On the other hand, a few of the probable cast members are involved in various school sports teams. Pickering and Doolittle will try to keep them in the chorus, and schedule "leads only" rehearsals on game nights. With luck, no championship games will conflict with performance dates.

Academic Applications

It would be madness to overlook the academic possibilities when selecting a musical. In a school, this can be a great way of involving additional faculty members and students in your project. For community groups, its a way to get educators on your team. And it never hurts to encourage your cast to do some research. Almost any show can become an excuse for curriculum-related activities. For example –

You get the idea. Lobby displays can cover the academic connections for your audience. Everyone will see how your musical builds a sense of community – it makes sense to show them that your show also serves a bona fide academic purpose.

Example: Pickering and Doolittle attended a production of 42nd Street at a neighboring school last year, and were blown away by the lobby display on the culture and fashion of the 1930's and the films of Busby Berkeley – essays, photos, drawings and more. Our teachers also saw how impressed members of the local school board were, and want their show selection to give them similar opportunities.

Review Materials

Do not make your final selection until the director has studied the full script and the musical director has gone over the actual score. You can obtain perusal copies free of charge from most major licensing firms – each one has its own policy. Please be sure to return perusal materials promptly.

Why is this direct review so important? Because you want to know that you can handle all of the musical and dramatic content. You may have seen a particular show years ago and loved it, or loved the film version -- but only by reading the script will you realize what you are in for. A cast recording may be one of your favorites – but your musical director must peruse the score to know if she can get first-time singers to handle the harmonies.

Make the Decision

Giving all of the above points careful consideration, its time to pick a show. When you know which musical you want, Musicals101's Show List can tell you which licensing company holds the rights for over 500 popular titles, with contact info for each.

If our short list of recommendations was not enough to whet your appetite, a copy of Peter Filichia's Let's Put on a Musical: How to Choose the Right Show For Your Theater (Backstage Books: NY, 1993) can be a major help. He categorizes shows by cast type, material, etc., creating a book that can give school and community theater producers all sorts of fresh ideas.

Example: Our two teachers have decided to stage Big River – the costumes are relatively simple, the sets consist of scenic backdrops and a few furnishings, and the score has a country-western flavor that the performers and potential audience will enjoy. The script is based on Mark Twain's classic novel Huckleberry Finn, providing a great showcase for a multi-racial cast with lots of good supporting roles. Finally, the performance rights were available and fit the production budget.

Secure the Performance Rights

Before you make any announcements or set anything in motion, be sure that you secure the rights. Most licensing companies limit the number of productions they will allow of the same musical in a particular region in any one year. If a Broadway revival or major tour is planned, amateur rights may be frozen for a time. To avoid disappointment, secure rights at least six to eight months before your planned production date.

When I was in college, our director announced that we would stage West Side Story. For days, it was all that anyone at our small college could talk about. Auditions were held, and they were about to announce the cast – but then a Broadway revival of the show was announced, and the performance rights were withdrawn. We did another show, but it took many in the cast and crew weeks to shake off the disappointment. Once you get your heart set on being a Shark or a Jet, anything else can seem like a letdown.

Example: The folks at Higgins High have chosen a show that is not over-produced -- no other group in their area has presented it in at least a decade. They contact the licensing company in May, a full year before their projected show date – securing rights is a snap. The licensing company loans them two full directors scripts, sides (mini-scripts that only give the cues and lines for individual roles) for every character, vocal scores for the cast, a full conductors score, full piano score, and parts for the orchestra. Pickering and Doolittle keep their decision to themselves. They do not even tell their relatives or the principal until the last possible moment. The students can guess and gossip all they like – the excitement is building! No official statement is made until auditions are announced, about three months before opening night.

On to: Plan a Realistic Budget