How to Put On a Musical
Know Your Assets
by John Kenrick
When you want to put on a musical, your first priority is to take a realistic look at the materials and people you have on hand.
- What kind of performing space do you have? Will you get it free, or is rent one of your main expenses? Amateur groups often have be inventive in choosing a space. Any room that is spacious enough and in decent shape (or that can be put into decent shape) is worth considering. Classroom, school cafeteria, church hall -- even a large basement in someone's home can work in a pinch. When I produced elementary school shows, the kids loved leaving our proscenium auditorium stage behind to perform in the common rooms of our local senior centers.
- What kind of backstage area do you have? Many amateur auditoriums do not have formal dressing rooms are there other adjacent spaces (classrooms, hallways, basement) that can serve the purpose? Also, is there room for the stage crew, set pieces, props, and any special equipment you might need? Don't plan on moving the Alps offstage if there isn't anywhere for them to go.
- Where will you rehearse? Most school or church auditoriums have multiple users, and you may not always have access. What kind of back-up rehearsal locations are available classrooms, private homes?
- Need a sound system? Don't ignore this. If your space is outdoors or seats anywhere over 250 people, a good sound system is a must. Few amateurs know how to project, and time does not allow for extended vocal training.
- Intimate shows like Godspell can seem meager in 1,500 seat auditoriums. On the other hand, you don't want to cram a cast of fifty onto a stage that is the size of a parking space.
- Do you have an actual box office? If not, a table or two set up by your entrance will do the trick at performance time. How will you sell tickets? Having a physical location (a local business, for example) is useful, but you may also want to have a phone number where people can call to learn about availability and make reservations. More on this in our Production Staff section.
Example: Henry Higgins High School has extensive facilities, beginning with a well-maintained 500 seat auditorium and a sizeable stage. There are classrooms and a large music room available for rehearsal space. The auditorium does not have a box office. The principal expects the production to pay for electricity and any damages. A local beauty parlor (which a student's family owns) has offered to handle advance ticket sales. So far, so good!
What kind of lighting and sound equipment do you have? Is the wiring up to code? If you are not sure, you will want to have a qualified expert look things over. Your orchestra will need stands and lights once the auditorium is darkened, they won't be able to see their music by reflected stage light. These items can carry a hefty price tag. You may be able to borrow them, but you'll be responsible if anything is damaged.
Do you have a piano? If not, what will you use in its place? If you are planning to use pre-recorded music for rehearsals and/or performances, do you have the right kind of equipment to make the music audible?
Example: Higgins High School's auditorium is well equipped even though no one has made much use of it for several years. They have a decent lighting board, enough lights for a simple production, and a small team of students who know how to make these things work. All that they will have to invest in is a few pricey bulbs. The sound system includes four standing microphones, as well as two wireless microphones but no body mikes. The auditorium has a small upright piano that will be okay for rehearsals. There is a baby grand in the music classroom that can be brought in for performances.
No matter how careful you are, it is always possible for someone to have an accident. A stagehand trips on a wire, an audience member stumbles on a staircase it happens. In our litigious age, this has become an issue. If you are working under the auspices of a school, church or other community organization, odds are their liability insurance will cover your show. Just for your own peace of mind, make sure before committing to a production. If you are a new, independent community theatre group, it is vital that you and the facility you are using are covered. Speak to an attorney and/or local insurance agent to see what you may need. Do not skip this step one innocent injury could lead to expensive legal headaches.
Example: The school's existing insurance covers extracurricular activities. (Whew!)
Can you find enough people to fill out your production team? (More on this later.) Do not think that one or two people can do it all that is a formula for guaranteed burnout. The more capable people you can get involved in your show, the better off you will be.
Do you have a musical director who can be on hand for rehearsals and performances? Do you have enough musicians to form an orchestra, or will you use a small combo? Even one keyboard is enough if the player is versatile. Will you hire musical talent to help out? If so, this can add up to a major item in your budget.
What kind of performing talent can you bring together? Most amateur groups have a hard time coming up with enough male actors unless, of course, the group is an all-boys school. Can you reach beyond your school/group for additional performers? While almost all musicals rely on acting and characterization, you do not want to make your cast look or sound awkward in material that stresses their weak points. Do you have trained singers and dancers? If not, can a member of your team mold your performers in the time available? I worked on a high school production of Anything Goes with a professional choreographer who taught a stageful of kids to tap dance in six seeks, to showstopping effect.
Example: Ms. Doolittle will direct and produce, while Mr. Pickering will handle the musical direction. They have a friend with professional dance experience who is willing to choreograph for a nominal fee. A member of the PTA with a background in advertising will lend a hand with publicity. Higgins High has an interracial, co-educational student body of 800, so there is a decent talent pool. Since the school has an active music program, Mr. Pickering can bring in musicians from the school band, and his chorale will be a source of experienced singers. Ms. Doolittle knows there are a number of students with acting ambitions in her classes. It is not unfair to assume that the general student body will provide the rest.
If you think you can put a musical together in a few weeks, think again! It takes months of effort to make an amateur production a reality. Aside from securing the rights to a show, you will need at least six to eight weeks for rehearsals, as well as costume and set construction. Add in the time it takes to assemble your creative team, arrange for facilities and equipment, raise production funds, sell tickets, and handle all the administrative necessities. If you are new to this process, I advise you to start planning a musical a year in advance. At the very least, give yourself six to eight months.
If you decide to get involved with an amateur musical production, keep in mind that you are making a major commitment of time and energy. You will be sacrificing many leisure hours for months to come. Lots of people will be depending on you do not enter into this kind of project unless you are serious about it.
Example: Doolittle and Pickering sat down with their principal in May to get her approval for a production twelve months in the future. The teachers met over the summer to select a show and lay out a production schedule, secured the rights in September, and spent the next few months fine tuning their production budget and bringing their team together. They will announce their show plans in January, hold auditions in February, and begin both rehearsals and ticket sales in March. Their costume team goes into action at the same time. Sets and lights will (they hope!) be in place by early May, a week before the show opens.
Have a clear and definite idea of how much you're in a position to spend. Do not rely on a production to pay all if its expenses. There are no guarantees that you wil sell enough seats. If your group or school cannot cover the cost outright, you may have to do some fundraising to cover production costs – we discuss that approach at length later on.
Whatever kind of show you do, taste and creativity matter more than deep pockets. An inexpensive, simple profit-making production is always preferable to a costly one that looks expensive and leaves a pile of unpaid bills -- beacause someone will eventually have to pay them. If you want your show to lead to more productions in the future, you must produce within your means. You will find more on this subject in our section on how to plan a realistic budget. When I was an elementary school teacher, I had to produce one December show out of my own underpaid pocket. We set Robin Hood at Christmastime, borrowed unwanted artificial trees from families and friends to represent Sherwood Forest, and the kids cut out a few hundred paper snowflakes to pin to the existing stage curtains. Counting performance rights, I spent approximately $200. Audiences loved it, and (after returning my expenditures, which were carefully documented) the show raised over a thousand dollars for the school library fund. (We charged a mere $2.50 per ticket at that time.)
A key financial issue is performance rights. To stage a show legally, you must pay performance rights. Paying for the rights clears your conscience and gives you access to the same scripts and orchestrations used by professionals. These rights can run in the thousands of dollars, even for small amateur productions. If you cannot afford rights, do NOT try to stage a show without securing the legal rights! It is a criminal act and you can be prosecuted. If you feel you cannot cover the cost of rights to well known musicals, consider the low-cost options discussed earlier.
Example: The principal of Higgins High School likes the idea of a school musical, but her annual budget is tight. (What else is new?) By nipping here and tucking there, she can offer six thousand dollars – enough to cover about half the production costs of your production. Pickering, Doolittle and their students will have to raise the rest of the money.