4 Rules for Picking Your College Group’s Next Show

In the last year, my school has begun a new tradition of producing musicals in 24 hours. Yes, it sounds completely crazy, and it completely is. While a lot of schools do “Combat” or “Guerilla” theatre where they write and produce short plays in 24 hours, our 24-Hour Musicals are fully costumed, set, and produced. We even do wigs. It’s ambitious, but our last 24-hour endeavor of Spring Awakening was one of the most fulfilling artistic experiences I’ve had.

At writing, we’re in the throes of the paperwork and pre-production work for this year’s event, which happens over the long Easter weekend. As several other students and I have been perusing shows, polling the student body, and sourcing possibilities, I have learned just how hard it is to not only pick a show, but to plan a season. And let me tell you, the job of an artistic director or producer is not easy. After much deliberation, and what ended up unnecessarily being a 6-month ordeal, we have selected a show and are about to audition for this year’s 24-hour musical. But whether you’ll have 24 hours or a whole semester to stage your musical, let me save you some of the headache with my experience and maybe a few tips and tricks.

  1. Set your goals. There are way more factors to consider when putting up a show, not least of which is getting everyone on staff to agree or get excited about the same shows. Following Spring Awakening, we knew we wanted this spring’s show to be a bit more lighthearted, though we didn’t want to compromise a chance to promote artistic purpose. Our campus has a really strong Theatre department, which, unfortunately, seldom has opportunities for students outside of the program; another “major key” factor in choosing a show was picking something accessible, something that would get people excited. This area is where we found our staff did not seem to agree. If anyone has a scientific way of quantifying popularity, please let me know, because that is something people just don’t seem to agree on. There’s the thespian perspective, where everyone is familiar with Hair or Wild Party, but when you are marketing to a general population, perhaps more commercial shows like Chicago or Hairspray are a better option.
  1. Consider casting needs beforehand. One of the big points of contention, in my experience, is pre-casting. It is important to think, especially in a college environment, whether you can guarantee that someone can do a particularly niche or challenging role. For instance, if you know that there are no belters that can tap (or even if you don’t have a good number of tappers at all), then you probably should reconsider doing Thoroughly Modern Millie. While I don’t generally like the politicization of theatre and pre-casting, I do think when planning a season it is intelligent to think about who you have as options for specific roles. Regional and professional theatres do this often, signing contracts with artists to lead productions long before a season in announced. Similarly, make sure to ask: do you have the population you need to do the artistic purpose of a show justice? We were seriously considering doing Hairspray for our 24 hour project, but our final decision veered away simply due to a hesitancy that the project didn’t have much interest from the multi-cultural community on campus when approached. In the end, to us doing a show with a beautiful, powerful ethnic message without a substantially diverse cast seemed a bit futile.
  1. Envision your space. Before settling on a show, think about your space and what it will allow. One member of our staff was so impassioned to do A Chorus Line, but the space we are working with is most like a thrust stage. In my mind, that was next to sacrilege when it came to a show that needs to do justice to the story of every dancer on a stage – one that should be able to accommodate 18 dancers moving a lot. If you have only a black box to work with, maybe something like Dogfight or Company are more suited to your needs than something that demands a ton of dance or visual effects, like West Side Story or Aida.

3A. Envision your rehearsal space, too. Look at not only your performance space, but also where you can rehearse. If you have connections at a dance studio where you can have access to good floors and mirrors, jump at a dance show. If you’re going to be rehearsing in a community center or school setting, maybe focus on something more intimate or actor driven so your performers have the tools they need to train with.

  1. Apply for rights early! Some licensing companies, like Theatrical Rights Worldwide (TRW), Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Musical Theatre International (MTI), which owns the rights to most contemporary shows you would be familiar with, can turn around a request pretty quickly – sometimes in as little as a day. Others, like Tams-Witmark and Samuel French, which owns the very in-demand Chicago, can take up to 8 weeks to respond, and then another 6 weeks to answer a request. When a show is really popular, you just have to deal with the possibility of a delay.

Navigating availability on top of space, friendships, marketing, and meeting and artistic purpose is a challenge, especially when student run. And though about we have been debating what best suited our needs since early autumn, the rough path looks like it is going to be a rewarding one. If you are working on putting together a show, don’t forget to consider things like space and the people at your disposal; maybe it’s not in the spirit of your group, but I think it is important to question whether your project is going to honor the writers’ intentions, not just yours. On the same note, if you feel strongly, speak up in your creative team meetings. It took us awhile, but we have all settled on a great show we are excited about; there are so many beautiful pieces out there, and your group can no doubt find a show to achieve everyone’s goals and bring musical theatre into your community.

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