How to Put on a Musical
Opening Night & Afterward
by John Kenrick
If you are the musical director, or a member of the cast or crew, you have a performance to give. Nervous? That's a natural reaction. In fact, if you were not as least a little excited about this performance, I would wonder why. You've put in weeks of effort to prepare for this night. You've proven that you care. Use that energy to stay focused on what you have to do. This is when you will come to understand a saying used by Italian actors and opera singers on opening nights "in boca di lupo," or "in the wolf's mouth." Tonight, you will be there. And you will come out unscathed.
If you are the producer and/or stage director, the bulk of your work is done. All you can do now is cheer on the efforts of your company. You may feel a bit sidelined. If so, congratulate yourself. It means you've succeeded.
Before The Show
You can review our suggested performance task schedule for ideas on when things need to happen. On opening night, an amateur company looks to its director for reassurance. Radiate goodwill and confidence. If you've done your job well, this will be easy to do now. You know your cast and crew are ready well, ready enough! Make the rounds to as many people as you can to wish them well before the performance. If anyone prefers "break a leg" to "good luck," there's nothing wrong with enjoying theatrical tradition. Whistling backstage is forbidden (a very practical idea), as is any mention of a certain Shakespearean tragedy set in Scotland. As long as no one takes any of this too seriously, let them indulge.
The director's opening night speech gives the company a last minute boost. Before the theatre is opened to the public, gather everyone together on stage cast, crew, ushers, etc. Tell them all what an incredible job they've done, that you are proud of them. Speak from the heart. Many directors like to have the whole company join hands for a moment of silent celebration. (If your production is affiliated with a religious group, prayer is customary.) Then send everyone off to their appointed tasks with cheers and applause.
It is customary in both professional and amateur theatre to begin the show five minutes after the announced curtain time, ten minutes in case of bad weather. This is a courtesy to the audience and minimizes the disturbance caused by latecomers. However, a painfully late curtain time is an insult. Don't allow it. Unless your lead is stuck in a snow drift and the Mounties are on the way, start the show within ten minutes of your announced time.
Example: Ms. Doolittle gathers the entire company on stage about a half hour before the audience is seated. They join hands. After a moment of silence, Mr. Pickering leads them in a rousing chorus of one of the shows songs. Everyone heads off with cheers and hugs. The overture begins at 8:07.
One of the hallmarks of a successful amateur production is when a director can stand back and let the team do their jobs. Hovering around backstage can do more harm than good. It is time for the director to take a seat and enjoy the show. Laugh and applaud if you don't appreciate the performance, who will? (Don't overdo it. Let the audience react on its own terms.) Nervously pacing at the back of the auditorium is something of a cliché, but forgivable some of the greatest names in musical theatre were famous for it. If anything goes wrong, let your team handle it. Intervene only if there is a major emergency.
There should be no unauthorized noise backstage, and no chatting or applause in the wings. I've seen good performances damaged by lighting crew audibly gabbing on their intercom system, or by actors gossiping in the wings where the audience can see and hear them. When you are amateurs, it is all the more important for you to show a professional sense of responsibility.
After the show, there will probably be lots to celebrate. Family and friends will be on hand to offer congratulations any notes from the director can be given before the next performance. Assuming that you have another performance the next day, try to conserve energies and voices.
Example: The performers at Higgins High pull it all together. When the river backdrop appears during "Muddy Water" and the audience cheers, Pickering looks from the podium to where Doolittle is sitting and they share a smile. From that point on, everything goes well, with the gospel number in Act Two stopping everything cold. In all the weeks of rehearsals, everyone forgot what a difference audience reaction would make. After the curtain call wins a roaring standing ovation, there is relief backstage. Some of the kids wanted to have an opening night party, but the teachers have convinced them to take it easy. They have also made it clear that every member of the cast and crew is expected to be in school throughout the run.
It is absolutely forbidden for anyone to make a sound tape or video recording of any professional musical even for private, in-house use. I have been assured by different licensing companies that they enforce this rule. However, it is also true that many amateur groups secretly videotape performances. If I were an attorney, I would probably tell you not to videotape, period.
Since I am not an attorney, I will speak in strictly practical terms. If you videotape rehearsals to allow your performers to see themselves in action, I doubt that anyone will object that is a legitimate directorial technique used by professionals and amateurs alike. By the same token, if you discreetly tape a performance and only allow the cast to view the tape afterwards, the world won't come to an end. However, if you plan on selling and/or distributing videos, you are abusing your rights and violating the law. If the licensing company learns about it, you face criminal prosecution no joke. And no, having someone's father do the videotaping "without official approval" is not going to keep you off the hook.
If you have opted for one of the low-budget musicals that let you purchase performance rights, or if you are doing your own original revue, you can videotape your shows. If you want to sell the tapes, have anyone appearing in the show sign a release. If one of your performers becomes famous someday, you don't want them suing you for selling their image.
Example: The folks at Higgins High did some videotaping of rehearsals so cast members could assess their performances, but these tapes were erased. A relative of Ms. Doolittle's offers to videotape a performance for her private use she makes the only possible decision.
An amateur director is expected to be on hand for all performances. It is a sign of support for your company. Cast and crew have to keep up the energy level that came naturally on opening night. If your production runs for more than a few performances, it becomes more likely that someone may show up late or not show up at all. So long as it isn't one of the leads, your team will have to find ways of proving the old adage that "the show must go on."
Of course, even that sacred maxim has its limits. What if the missing person is irreplaceable -- the lead or a crucial tech person? If you are truly stuck and decide to cancel a performance, you will have to refund ticket sales, and will get no reduction in your rights fee. If there is a way for you to carry on that does not endanger your cast or compromise the show, go for it. Let the audience know what your problem is before the show, and odds are they will cheer you on all the way.
After the thrill of opening, even a short run can suffer from something of a letdown. Cast or crew members often plan practical jokes for the final performance. Do not condone it. Remind everyone to keep a professional attitude to the end.
Finish off your closing performance with a curtain speech. Different groups have different approaches to this. In some cases, the director does all the talking in others, one of the leads speaks on behalf of the cast. Some directors have the cast share a few words privately after the show. See what fits most naturally for your company.
Be sure the sets and lighting equipment are cleared from the performance area within a few days. Even if the school, church, or landlord is willing to give you longer, it is easier to get things done while team spirit is still high. Be sure to return any rented materials (scripts, scores, costumes, etc.) promptly. Others may be waiting for these items, and late returns can result in additional charges. Licensing companies tell me that this is where most new producers slip up. Shatter that cliché! Encourage your actors and musicians to carefully erase any pencil marks in their scripts & scores.
Example: Doolittle & Pickering get the scripts, scores and other rented items checked, cleaned-up (where needed), and shipped off within three days. The lights and sets are stored away at the same time. The final production budget shows a final profit of $29,000 not quite as much as the directors had hoped for, but a handsome figure. They arrange with the principal to set aside $10K to fund next years musical, and about a thousand for the cast party. The majority of the funds go towards various school needs. All this is discussed in a press release that the principal approves. It results in articles appearing in two local papers, and a complimentary editorial on local radio news.
Once the grand effort is over with, cast and crew will want to celebrate. I have always found it best to schedule this party after everything else is over with, including all clean-ups and returns.
For adult groups, it is fine to have a party in someone's home. However, if you are a teacher, never attend a party held in a student's home. You can be accused of condoning anything inappropriate that happens there. That's why it is better to have the cast party at a supervised school facility (classroom, cafeteria, etc.) where your team can prevent any alcohol, drug use, etc. It helps to hold the festivities during the day nighttime parties can raise concerns, especially where children are concerned. A simple pizza party (you can even do this at lunch time) can be a great way of handling this.
Example: The cast has its party after school in the cafeteria about two weeks after the final performance. The teachers invite all the cast and crew, as well as any adults involved in the production. Pizza, sodas, and a video player are brought it the rest is just the company looking over production photos and sharing their relief (and regret) that its all over. The best sign is that everyone is already asking Doolittle and Pickering what musical they will be doing next year. They refuse to say, but have a few titles in mind.
Assess Your Success
After the cast party is over and all the various "thank you's" have been made, take a few quiet hours to look back over all you have accomplished. You can do this alone, but its more fun (and usually far more effective) if you do it with the leading members of your production team. Go over the things that ran smoothly, and evaluate anything that went otherwise. Take notes -- these will help you do an even better job next time.
If you putting on a musical has left you so exhausted that you cannot conceive of a "next time," that's natural. As weeks pass, you may find your perspective changing. Of course, you and your cast will enjoy a sweet taste of local celebrity as store clerks, neighbors and total strangers take the time to say how great the show was. Your cast and crews will start showing the results of the new sense of accomplishment and healthy self-confidence their musical stage experience has given them. I've had former students tell me decades later how doing a successful school show changed their lives -- even of they were just part of the ensemble. Keep your eyes open, and you will see that I am not kidding when I tell you that musicals have a real, positive effect on the quality of life for communities and individuals.
Plan Next Year
If all has gone well, now is the time to re-start the production cycle and lay your plans for your next show. Now and always, advance planning is one of the keys to success.
Example: Pickering & Doolittle make their choice, check the school and community calendars, and clear their plans with the principal. They also have the principal agree to pay them a stipend for future productions. With all bases covered, they reserve performance rights for the following May. Their choice is Fiddler on the Roof. Sounds like the start of a "tradition" . . .