Delicate Dance: The Director and Developing The New Musical

Many of us who have come to the piano as a primary instrument did so in a variety of ways. Some have been taking dedicated lessons since age 5; others have never taken a single one. Some were classically trained and others by ear. One thing we all learned at some point is that being a PIANIST and an ACCOMPANIST are two very different skills. Being a good pianist does not mean you are a good accompanist and vice versa. (However, if you find one that is equally superb at both, pay them well and NEVER EVER let them out of your sight!) Over my years of producing and developing new work regionally, I believe this precise distinction lies between the DIRECTOR and the DIRECTOR OF A NEW MUSICAL.

In that time, I have served as both a director of new work and a producer overseeing a director. If you are interested in directing a new work or are seeking a director for your new musical, here are some things to consider:

  1. FIND A GOOD DIRECTOR EARLY – With a new musical, the show needs a director’s eye and insight earlier in the process than ever before. There is an insight that a director can offer that can save writers from major re-writes later in the process. Plus, with a director attached, each stage of development (reading, workshop, production) never feels redundant because everyone involved knows where the show has been and where it is headed.
  2. ALWAYS ASK THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS – Every show has its own set of important questions that need answered, but there are some general ones: (1) Who is the audience for this piece?, (2) what is the artistic aesthetic/visual language for the show and (3) why THIS show and why NOW? Everyone gets excited by the “newest” show, so these questions always kept me grounded and focused. I once had a director who said, “I wanted to do this musical because I love what the writers have to say.” When asked what it was the writers had to say, she couldn’t articulate it. This is a problem.
  3. SERVE THE SHOW. SERVE THE SHOW. SERVE THE SHOW. – If you are directing a work in any stage of development, you have to be aware of the needs of the show. A show that has not been through any reading or workshop is NOT ready for a production, no matter what the director says. You cannot ask a show to “run” when it hasn’t learned to “walk.”
  4. INVOLVE THE WRITERS EVERY STEP OF THE WAY – Directors and writers must communicate. That’s worth saying again. Directors and writers must communicate. Writers who do not keep open dialogue with directors during the process cannot complain come opening night. Likewise, directors who choose not to involve the writers shouldn’t be surprised when the writers are unhappy.
  5. KNOW WHEN TO HOLD ‘EM, KNOW WHEN TO FOLD ‘EM – Despite the shameless Kenny Rogers paraphrase there, the point remains the same. Directors need to be open to change (even significant ones) through the process. That is, after all, the point of this process. Writers, in turn, need to realize when it’s time to freeze a script. The best way to avoid any conflict either way is to (a) create a method for how changes will be delivered and worked into rehearsal and (b) agree upon a freeze date. No surprises = no conflict.

Frank Hauser said the director’s role is “the obstetrician – You are not the parent of this child we call the play. You are present at its birth for clinical reasons…Your job most of the time is simply to do no harm.” Another acclaimed director has said that the director is hired to “create the art” even though she feels she alone “doesn’t have all the answers.” Somewhere in the middle where those two theories meet lies the role of the effective new musical director – the care-giver whose very influence finds its way into the life-blood of the writer’s work. THAT is when process and collaboration are at their best.

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