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I really appreciate Playscripts and their work toward creating better theater and theater experiences for all. Jay Muldoon Theater Teacher, Fairfield, OH
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6 Questions To Ask Yourself When Choosing The Perfect Musical
Gary P. Cohen

Gary P. Cohen

In my 45-or-so years in theater I have been in the sometimes challenging (but always interesting) position of choosing plays and musicals, for complete seasons, for a summer theater and for a high school. In the ‘70s I founded and produced plays and musicals at Celebration Playhouse, a 150-seat theater that did a new show every six weeks! Beginning in 1986 and continuing until the present day, I have had to choose 3 musicals for the summer seasons at Middlesex County, New Jersey’s Plays-in-the-Park where I am the producer, and for 20 years I also directed the non-musical and musical at Cranford High School in New Jersey, where I (along with the choreographer and musical directors) picked the shows.

Choosing just the right musical, whether as part of a season line-up or as the Spring offering at a high school, demands a number of considerations.  In no particular order, I find that the following six questions need to be asked:

1. Can we cast the show? It would seem foolish to try and do A Chorus Line at a venue without dancers, or Gypsy if there is no one who might meet the demands of Mama Rose.  This is not to suggest pre-casting (unless that’s your policy), but it does help to know if there are a few people who can fill difficult, leading roles, or flesh out an ensemble’s needs.

2. Can we support the show technically? If there are budget constraints — and when aren’t there? — doing My Fair Lady might simply break the costume budget.  Do you have the resources to construct the multi-level scaffold needed for the Telephone Hour in Bye Bye Birdie? Although any number of creative solutions can be found to set, costume and lighting demands, it still is something that needs to be considered — especially in a multi-show season or when parents/friends and other volunteers make up the crews. Props is yet another consideration.  Can you craft the Model T for Ragtime or the Greased Lighting auto for Grease? The rolling desks for Thoroughly Modern Millie? The guillotine for Pimpernel?

3. Can we cover the orchestrations? This is often a moot point for a community theater where a piano, bass and drums are the only options, but a high school can often utilize the original orchestrations by calling up the school’s band. So it helps when debating a Sondheim or Bernstein show vs. a juke box musical to the extent of the available musicians.

4. Will the show draw an audience? Depending upon the venue, this might be the single most important consideration. While colleges and some experimental theaters might look for off-beat and/or unknown titles, some theaters can only afford to do shows with “household names” — those recognizable to the average Joe. Pretty safe bet that most people have heard of Dolly, Fiddler, Phantom, Cats and the like, but would not be familiar with Mack and Mabel or City of Angels — which is a shame since it prevents some great but lesser-known musicals reaching audiences outside of, say, the New York area. Sometimes, however, even if the show is not familiar, the title is, and so shows such as Frankenstein, All Shook Up, The Wedding Singer, etc…, stand a chance.

5. Is the show appropriate for your audience? This is a tough one, since it is somewhat unpredictable. A show like Sweet Charity, which only playfully hints at the girl’s occupations, might be considered risqué in some places, but Sweeney Todd‘s violence might be totally acceptable! Grease, which everyone seems to know and love, is actually quite racy, with off-color language, teen pregnancy and alcohol consumption. Some shows have high school versions now available — there is actually a version of Rent meant for a high school theater!

6. Is the creative staff up to the challenge? Based on the skills and creativity of the director, choreographer, musical director, stage managers and other members of the artistic staff, is everyone on board, up to the needs of the show and happy with the selection? As a director, I’ve worked on shows where other members of the team are unhappy, and those shows clearly do not turn out as well as those in which everyone is of the same collective mind.

The more familiar you are with the show, the better you can judge its appropriateness. Do your research — the Internet is a never-ending source. Legality aside, I have found you can find musical numbers galore on YouTube, and everyone seems to post reviews, photos, even costume plots and set designs of their shows.

Make a choice, and then give it your all. High Schools and Community Theaters keep this art alive across the country, and should be encouraged to flourish.

Hunter Foster in the World Premiere of "Frankenstein, A New Musical" 37 Arts Theatre, New York City (2007). Photo: Carol Rosegg.

–by Gary Cohen, Producing Director of New Jersey’s Plays-in-the-Park. Gary’s musicals with Playscripts include Off-Broadway’s Frankenstein, A New Musical (written with Mark Baron and Jeffrey Jackson) and A High School Monster Musical (also written with Mark Baron).

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