Top 5 Things To Consider When Producing a New Musical
A new musical is a tricky beast. It comes with all the challenges of a new play--the problems of dramatic build, character, denouement, economy of dialogue--plus a suite of other potential pitfalls. Is the opening number suitably energizing, and if it is, does it still adequately introduce us to the world of the show? How many ballads is too many ballads? Not to mention solos versus duets or ensemble numbers, male versus female voices, and the question of choreography...it’s enough to make a well-intentioned Lin-Manuel Miranda-wannabe throw in the towel.
Take it from someone with over 50 new musical readings, workshops, festival productions, or mainstage world premieres under her belt: while it may be challenging, it’s not impossible, and I would argue that producing a new musical is a unique joy when approached with proper care. Here are my top five considerations for all those foolish or brave enough to try.
I’ve heard several different quotes for the average gestational period of a new musical. Many say five years is a minimum; others think you can pare that down to two or three, if you know what you’re doing. What’s undeniable is that, in order to create a piece that really works, you need to give it some breathing room.
The process of writing a worthwhile draft of a musical should have air built in for, say, the fifty-odd opening numbers Sheldon Harnick tried out for Fiddler on the Roof. All creative processes encounter dead ends and left turns, and you want to have enough time to pivot the whole big, beautiful ship rather than slam into the iceberg ahead. Take the time you need to get your draft(s) right.
I started my career thinking that I was going to revolutionize the form of musical theatre. I chafed against the old aphorism, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Surely, I thought, following a set structure would doom a story to tediousness. So I tried writing without regard for any rules. The result? Musicals only a mother could love, and even she had a few notes.
The building blocks of story have existed for millennia for a reason. Your story--and never forget, a musical is a story--needs a clear protagonist, whether individual or collective. We need to know what they want, and to root for (or against) them. There need to be obstacles, but not so insurmountable that we stop caring because it’s clearly hopeless. Some change must occur, some realization or hidden truth has to come to light to turn the tide, even if the end result is not what your protagonist bargained for. Read up on story structure. Read Joseph Campbell, read Marsha Norman, read Robert McKee, read the Passing Strange libretto, learn the tools that other people have so kindly defined for you and use them. Your audiences will thank you.
3. Diverse Feedback
You don’t know what you don’t know, but other people do, and hopefully they’ll be civil while they tell you. Getting reactions and feedback from others is absolutely vital, and absolutely terrifying. I know. If you start early, you’ll have the chance to course-correct before it’s time to deliver an entire draft with twenty show-stopping numbers only to have your director point out a continuity error that collapses the whole house of cards. If you’re not The Drowsy Chaperone, you can’t get away with scenes that don’t make sense.
No component of a show is too small for reactions, if they’re from the right people. Having a writing group can be instrumental. Your colleagues serve as a collection of confidantes you trust to bounce outlines, ideas, songs, and scenes off of. A staged reading can be a phenomenal help, but make sure that you draw in people from different disciplines. If the only people who come to your musical’s staged reading are violinists, they’ll likely have a lot to say about the orchestrations, but might not have much to contribute about character development.
An audience is your best judge of what’s working or not. At Underscore, where I am artistic director, we try to provide opportunities to get new work in front of an audience at all stages of development: our Tiny Storefront Concert Series for individual songs; readings for shows with a complete draft; the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival for shows ready to get staged; and workshops six months before a mainstage show. Even our mainstage productions evolve until opening night.
Pieces in all of these stages of development benefit from feedback, provided that it is constructive and more descriptive than prescriptive. Finding out what didn’t work, what didn’t resonate, what didn’t make sense--and what did--clarifies the direction your show needs to go in. Don’t worry too much about that guy who says he thinks the whole thing should be a dream ballet, but listen when he tells you that he fell asleep in act two.
4. Assembling the Right Team
It takes a village to produce a musical, and it takes a slightly larger and more patient village to produce a new musical. Unless you want to fight for months and cry during tech (let’s be real, you’ll already be crying during tech), you should select a team with complimentary understandings of what the piece is about, what it is trying to express, and the direction you think it should take to get there.
- Will your director also be the choreographer?
- Do you need a choreographer?
- Will your music director conduct? Play the show? Hand it over to a band captain?
- Is the scenic designer aware of your dance needs, and have they left enough open stage space?
- Are they thinking about acoustics?
- What is the tone of the piece--is it campy or sincere?
- Will the band be visible? If so, are there must-haves, such as live versus electric drums?
- Do you need a blood designer? Are you sure you do? Because we didn’t budget for a blood designer, and if we have to find someone, we can do it, but it means we have to nix the portable follow-spot, so I want you to think really hard about--
Sorry, I got carried away in a not-at-all-based-on-real-life example. Basically: A musical has a lot of moving parts. If you get people who are good at their jobs to focus on each of them, and if those people have a sense of what the whole should be as early as possible, they can surprise and delight you. If they aren’t, and they don’t, even the best libretto and score will suffer.
Some things are so important they bear repeating. While ideally you would have lots of time for edits throughout the development of a new musical, you need to be most deliberate about building it in during the beginning and especially at the end.
Time during tech and previews is unlike time at any other part of the process, because it’s where the rubber truly meets the road. Until you make it to full runs with lights and sound, there is going to be material you think might work. You want to give it a shot. It’s human nature. You have an idea, you figure it could be good, and you want to wait until everything is in place and you still see the audience cringe to make the call that no, actually, your little orphan story shouldn’t end with a flash-forward where she marries her adoptive father. (Pure speculation about the revision process of Annie, Thomas Meehan—don’t @ me.)
The last thing you want is to get to previews, realize there are changes you desperately want to make, and have to shrug and say “maybe next world premiere.” Build in time for adjustments during tech. During previews. After and between previews. There are limits to what even the most nimble-minded actors can learn between preview bows on a Monday and opening curtain on a Tuesday. Do yourself a favor, and give yourself the time to do your whole cast and crew proud.
That’s it--seven-plus years of experience distilled into five key points. For those of you in Chicago through mid-September, don’t just take me at my word. Come see a show that benefited from all of the above: enough development time in advance, a solid understanding of craft, feedback from a wide range of sources, a killer team, and the time to adapt before opening.
About the author:
Laura Stratford is a former NMT Green Room blogger, a Chicago-based librettist and lyricist, and the Artistic Director of Underscore Theatre Company. She also acts as the Executive Producer of the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. With Underscore, she has produced over 50 new musicals in six years; as a writer, she has seen five of her own musicals produced by companies around Chicago, including Underscore, the EX-Pats, and CPA Theatricals. She is the librettist for The 57th Annual Math Sum-It, a new musical recently published by Theatrical Rights Worldwide.