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Getting started with Musical Theater

Here is my original post:
(The replies follow.)

> I am slated to begin teaching a new Musical Theatre
> class next year (high school students with little or
> no good choral background--I'm in the first year of
> building a program). This will be a full-year
> with the first semester encompassing musical theatre
> background and the second semester producing a show.
> I have had no formal training in this area and the
> only experience I've had is being a backstage crew
> person for my high school musical (Girl Crazy) when
> was a senior (long, long ago). Oh yes, I was also a
> fairy in G&S's Iolanthe in college.
> I don't know much about the repertoire or about how
> choose a show to do with my (and my students')
> amount of experience.
> Is there any such thing as an easy (beginner's)
> Most of the shows I've looked at have way too many
> parts, especially for boys. I also want something
> that will appeal to my students (they think they are
> so sophisticated---ha!). The racial mix at my
> is about 50% black, 50% white, so that comes into
> as well. I want it to be for everyone. There are
> already too many activities around here that are
> devisive.
> Any ideas for me? Resources? Etc.? Help????


I've directed about 50 shows, including a number of
Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Start with the
Wizard of Oz. The music is easy - you can include a
pile of people from Munchins to Witches and it will be
a sell out - trust me. You might want to check me web


I don't know how many kids you're talking about but
let me recommend that you consider the new Broadway
Jr. version of "Annie" or "Guys and Dolls". The
production values are reduced, the keys have been
altered to fit
the adolescent(less experienced)voice, there is a cd
accompaniment that is wonderful & a production guide
that will take you step by step through everything.
Check your Pepper catalogue.

>Shows that immediately come to mind areGodspell,
You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown (you could double
cast this one, the students could help each other with
their parts), and hmmmm, lets see, The Fantasticks
has a small cast (don't really know that show very
well though), Bye Bye Birdie is a REALLY fun show for
young people, and needs hams (easy to find in high
school), but has a few challenging adult parts that
probably only a mature teen could pull off.
As far as your first semester goes, learning to do
scenes, being comfortable being goony on stage,
on the basics of voice, etc., are all important
at the early stages.


The Boyfriend (set in the 20's - a spoof!)
Once Upon A Mattress (lots of roles)
Little Mary Sunshine (also a spoof on melodrama)
Free to Be You and Me (A one act that has met with
good success various places and has a wonderful
message, too)


First get a copy of the book _Let's Put on a Musical!_
by Peter Filichia (ISBN 0-8230-8817-0). From the back
cover blurb: "Doing a show is great fun--but how do
you know which one to do? This practical resource
guide your school, community, or professional theater
group to a musical that perfectly fits your budget,
creative team, production capabilities, and audience.
With _Let's Put on a Musical!_ you'll discover more
than 200 famous and little-known shows-all cleverly
categorized and described in terms of: story,
best-known songs, musical requirements, including
instrumentation, chorus and dance number, staging--the
sets, costumes and props you'll need." It's a very
useful book.
Off the top of my head I would recommend _Once on
this Island_; it's by the people who wrote_Ragtime_
(your students may be more familiar with them as the
who wrote the music for the film _Anastasia_), deals
sensitively with a very contemporary topic (the
cultural and social differences between light-skinned
and dark-skinned blacks, although it is not preachy,
and there is lots more to the story than that; they
even make a non-race specific version, with which I am
not familiar, but I understand it is quite good). Set
requirements are minimal; you can do it with a piano
and a synthesizer player and a drummer. It's a great


Look at the following 'small' musicals which can
easily accomodate a multi-racial cast and a shallow
-You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
-Snoopy (sequel)
***Leader of the Pack (The Ellie Greenwich Musical)
true - Jewish girl becomes pop songwriter. Lots of 3-6
part choral backups on 60's music like I Can Hear
Music, Da-Doo-Run-Run, Ain't No Mountain High Enough,
Be My Baby.
-The Fantasticks
-The Apple Tree (Adam and Eve) may have to do some
editing but is very funny
-They're Playing Our Song - Marvin Hamlisch vehicle,
good score

You might also consider producing a revue instead of a
full fledged show. This allows you to tailor the show
entries to the talents and needs of your group.
Because of that, more kids can be involved, use music
reflecting whatever theme selected, sets and costumes
can be tailored to fit budget. A lot of high school
drama programs got their nest egg and created a
following by producing a couple of these a year for
2-3 years.


My other suggestion would be to spend the first
semester - and begin right away, scouring your
community for people who know something about musical
theater and want to help. Maybe you could develop a
parent support group or something like that, of people
who would help you. Maybe you can even find a
volunteer director - or someone to pull it all


For your course, you might find it worthwhile to
invest in the Met Original cast recording series. A
couple of them are out of print, but you can find them
on ebay. They would give you examples to play of an
overview of musical theater in this century in
America. Then you could find books to fill in the
parts you want to elaborate on.


Since you're just starting out, I wouldn't do a "name
" show -- you'll set yourself up to fail (high
expectations). Investigate these shows below. All
are smaller casts than the "standard fare," and a
bit different, too.


Leader of the Pack (50's music, featuring the life
story of Florence Greenberg, the songwriter/manager
for several of the "girl groups" of the 1950's)

How to Eat Like a Child (each story is a chapter in a
child's life. though you teach HS, your students
might enjoy this one anyway... lots of fun !)

Little Shop of Horrors (calls for a small cast -- 10
? though you would need to rent the plant, which is calls for a rhythm section as far as
accompaniment for the singing...)

You could also look into a middle school musical, such
as Ducktails and Bobbysox (a 1950's style musical --
really cute !!)


1) There should be enough for the chorus to do so that
the "extras" don't feel completely useless.

2) There should be as many opportunities for featured
parts as possible, especially for the girls (even if
it's a chance for a small solo line, a small speaking
part) and I tend to avoid shows that are so
proportionally weighted towards one character (unless
I know that I really have a person who is clearly
above the rest in terms of talent).

3) It should not be one that we don't have the
technical capicities or set to do justice to.

Some suggestions to look into that I have had or seen
success with in high school shows...

Once Upon a Mattress (a very underrated show... must
have a very strong female lead... 9 major characters,
3 female, 3 male (including the comical mute king), 3
male but flexible... plus an involved chorus)

Anything Goes (if you have good dancers... a comical
show, lots of featured parts, a pretty even spread in
terms of which characters are featured a lot)

Fiddler on the Roof (must have a strong male lead who
can pull it off... but there is a nice involved
chorus, a number of featured parts, and it's a show
that people know about and can relate to)

Little Shop of Horrors (if you can build the plant or
rent the plant... Ronnettes who "narrate" in harmony
(3 girls, we used 8)

Bye, Bye Birdie (again, a nice even spread in terms of
balance of major roles... lots of "teenager" roles)

Guys & Dolls (great show, but weighted a bit more
towards the boys)

Grease (people probably know it and might get pumped
up about it... a pretty even male/female split)

In terms of making things "easy shows"... you can
always cut parts of the show if this is your first one
and you want to make things easier. Our middle school
director always cuts her shows down to at most an hour

and a quarter.


Take a good look at "Working" by Stephen Schwartz.
It's a wonderful show, can be done by a group of
modest means and has some thoughtful and meaningful
parts. My kids really liked it and did it well.


One thing I did a few years ago was to buy a Broadway
fake book. It had a ton of titles with melodies and
chords. It's not what kids should use for
performance, but serves as an excellent browsing tool.


I'm a professional actor (30+ years) and would suggest
that you consider Rodgers and Hammersteins
"Cinderella." A great show, easy to produce, fun
parts, the cast can be as large or small as you wish,
and more women roles than men, too. A multi-racial
cast is not a problem, either.

Casting as follows:

The Herald
The Prince
The King
The Queen
2 Stepsisters
The Fairy Godmother

Your "chorus" can double as villagers and courtiers
with costume changes.

The set can be done very simply too. DO NOT use video
of the ABC remake of the last couple of years as a
reference. That was a LOUSY show and not even close
to the stage version. Try to find the Leslie Ann
Warren version which will give you a better idea.

If your students think that it's too "childish" a
show, just let them know that there's currently a
national tour out of NYC right now, so it can't be
that bad.

FYI- Rodgers and Hammerstein Music Library in NYC are
a wonderful resource for information, not to mention
that they hold the rights to the show.

Remember, EVERY show has someone that holds the
performance rights to it. You will need to contact
those licensing companies and inquire as to the
Royalty and Rental costs for each show.


One show that comes to mind can be small or large, and
the musical style is attractive to kids - take a look

A very fun show, especially if you have a good tap
teacher, is Anything Goes - the set can be flats,
doors, and a couple of wagons. The chorus numbers are
basically unisex, with some numbers featuring just the


the older musicals, from the 50s on, have been some of
the easiest to stage. The music is the easiest to
learn because it's standard stuff, not ultra-modern
melodies and harmonies like some of the musicals have
these days. I'm talking about stuff like "Damn
Yankees", "The Pajama Game", "Oklahoma"; or even "The
Sound of Music" might be a possibility.

One play I would like to suggest to you as a starter
is my "Knightly Dreams". It is called a "children's
play", but that is because it is written for adults to
perform FOR children/families. Our production with
Fairbanks Drama Association had no kids in it except
the three lead characters (who could be played by
small-sized H.S. students just as well). The beauty of
the play is that virtually any of the parts can be
as male OR female, black/Caucasian, and the cast size
can be increased/decreased depending on your
resources. The tunes are easy, unison (except for thE
opening/closing theme, where two tunes are sung
each other), and the accompaniment is scored for piano
and bass. We also added a drummer in our production,
but he just improvised. One of the cutest scenes is
when King Arthur's knights are introduced--to a RAP.
The kids really have fun with this, some modern street
dance, and the drummer can really have a hayday. The
kids themselves could choreograph it; they know all
modern dance steps.

The play is unpublished. Royalties are a flat $500,
which buys you performance rights and permission to
xerox the script and music parts as freely as you
need. I think your students would have a blast with
"Knightly Dreams", and it's easy enough that it would
be a good starter for your program.


1. The Pajama Game is a musical that has a large
number of female roles and limited male roles.

2. The Fantasticks has a small number of roles so
it's easier to pull off

3. Possibly do a revue style show with scenes and
songs from many different musicals, instead of staging
an entire musical.


Try these--I've done all of them with high schoolers.

MY FAIR LADY (most likely too many men involved/and
rather expensive costumes)


I would begin with Some of MTI (Music Theater
International's Broadway Jr. shows. They have Annie,
Into the Woods and 2-3 others. The keys have been
changed to accommodate young voices. they also
have CD accompaniment. Since you mentioned the racial
make-up, I'm assuming you are interested in doing
shows that have relevance to both groups. The Wiz has
been popular since it's release in 1976.

My other suggestion is to identify 6-10 motivated,
talented students and let them sell the program to the
others. You may have to start small.


Have you considered not doing a full show per se but,
instead, doing a review of Broadway, including numbers
from many of the famous shows. There are great group
numbers such as "Wash That Man" and "Nothing Like a
Dame" from South Pacific and the song "Seasons of
Love" from RENT as well as an infinite number of solo
or duet opportunities. There are many which don't
great singing voices, such as selections from A CHORUS
LINE and FAME and some which can, of course, showcase
any of the better solo voices. ( Here's where you put
in your Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe.)

I suggest this because I have put on several of these,
and it is a good way to familiarize your kids and your
school with the genre, yet does not require a lot of
technical know-how, line memorizing, casting calls
etc., AND (a big plus) the various numbers can be
rehearsed independently of each other, at odd times,
at home, etc., This also eliminates someone being


The first is "A Practical Handbook for Producing and
Directing Broadway Musicals, 3rd Ed." by Larry
Mitchell, Comedia Publishing, 1992. It's in our
library so I don't have it here to summarize for you.
The second is "Play Director's Survival Kit.....a
Complete step-by-step guide to producing Theater in
any school or community setting". That should tell you
something! It's by James & Wanda Rodgers, pub by
The Center for Applied Research in Education, West
Nyack, NY 10994, a Simon & Schuster Co. ISBN
0‡628-862-X. Also, on the web at


As far as a "beginners" musical goes, you might look
at "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." It has a small
cast with spots for boys and girls, and then you can
always add classmates to each scene in school, etc. to
make a bigger cast for your class. It is a great show
that can unite your divided population, and it is so
much FUN!!
Another to consider is "Annie" since there are so many
parts for young ladies. It is accessable to young
singers and will be a crowd pleaser.

Both of these shows also work well with a simple
piano/percussion accompaniment so you don't have to
worry about a big pit orchestra.


The first thing I think you should do is order "Let's
Put On a Musical" by Peter Filichia. ISBN
This book lists tons of shows grouped by categories
like "Musicals that feature choreography" and
"Musicals with predominantly Female casts". For each
show it lists plot, songs, characters, pros and cons,
costumes, etc. I found it very helpful.

Sorry this was so long folks, but there are lots of
good ideas here that I (for one) hope to use. Thanks

====Carolyn Dwyer (formerly Howell)
Choral Director
Jackson High School
Jackson, Georgia

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on March 11, 2007 10:00pm
Cinderella was the perfect first musical for our school. It has been over 20 years since our last high school musical. We used steps on the stage as the main focal point, built a fireplace, used a table and 3 chairs. We only had 6 guys in the whole show but they did a great job. None of them are in our choir program. In spite of that, our students were awesome. This show is hilarious and fun for the audience. It was a great fit for our school and would work well for yours as well. Good luck!