Preparing Music for Musical Theater

A friend asked me for help on how I prepare music for musical theater so here’s a couple notes that may be obvious, or not. These notes are for community theater productions which in my experience usually have about three months of rehearsal time before opening.

I should tell you that I don’t consider community theater to be “amateur theater”. It’s just theater where most of the people haven’t gone pro yet. YET. 🙂

  1. Perusal Score – Get an advanced copy of the orchestra piano reduction. Don’t just order the piano/vocal sheet music from your local music store because often the keys are different than actual productions. You’ll need this before your auditions so you can learn all the ranges and vocal chops needed for each character. Know the high and low note for each character along with the context in which it is sung. In callbacks or the actual auditions have excerpts picked out for each part that gives you what you need to know to cast each part. I prefer to have a short section (maybe one page) of each vocal requirement to let the vocalist learn it well in a short time – rather than having them sing a whole song. (Unless it’s a really well known musical). Auditioners are often going out for the wrong part (the part you would not pick them for) so expect they won’t know that character’s song.
  2. Choreography Practice Tracks – Make practice recordings for your choreographer early on – I like to do this in the second week of rehearsals. Gives a little time to see if there are any cuts or key changes (yuck!) already. If you are using soundtracks for rehearsal make sure to double check these against the score. Often the commercial soundtracks will have little cuts or different keys from your actual score. I’ve had it happen MANY times where the choreographer does not really understand the music score, and even misses entire pieces. So giving them the full pieces (on piano or soundtrack) is your backup that all the official music is represented. *NOTE* – The orchestra score usually has quite a bit of choreography and stage movement notes in it. Surprisingly, this is often not duplicated anywhere else in other stage manager books. My experience has been it doesn’t do any good to give the choreographer a copy of the conductor’s score because they don’t know how to read it. So go over all the stage notes in your score with the director and choreographer so they have the option of using it. (Never bothers me if the director or choreographer choose to ignore a note – but always irritates me if they skip it out of ignorance. Share your notes with them so they can make well informed decisions that match up with what the music is expressing).
  3. Music Scores and Rehearsals – I start music rehearsals six weeks to two months before opening. Usually two months before opening I’ll start with the rhythm section. Want to make sure all the grooves are in place before rehearsing the full group. This applies to all musicals, even classical/traditional Broadway. Because of budget constraints, community theater groups often only get the scores two months before opening. So this gives you a couple weeks to go over each musician score. You’ll always find surprises in the score so make sure you have this window to work those out. If time permits, I pre-edit each musician score with markings and cuts I know are already firm. If there are any musician cuts (letting a musician go) they should be made by the third full ensemble rehearsal. First rehearsal is for sight reading, second one for more detailed notes on parts, third one is for possible cuts.
  4. Contracts – I like to have contracts in writing that show artist dates needed for shows and rehearsals, and also pay. Some shows I do is equal pay to all players, some shows is different for each player. Depends on the production and orchestration. Smaller groups tend to have equal pay, larger groups can be different pay per player according to orchestration and player experience.
  5. Payment – Musicians should be paid immediately after downbeat of last show. I’m usually fairly demanding so for that I fight to get the best pay I can for the musicians. I never do advances from the company pocket.

A note on picking musicians – actually a note on people in general. People do what they do and not everyone can “become” what you need, so choose carefully. If a musician can’t make rehearsals and you don’t know yourself they are a pro ringer, then think about a cut. I have had a couple times where I hired someone on referral (“They are awesome, you’ll love them!) only to find out they weren’t right for the part. They were good players, but a bad match for the current production.

A note on yelling – If you are yelling or getting mad at someone; I think it’s because you are not communicating what you need in a way the person understands, or the person just can’t do it. If you’re at this place, figure out which it is and make changes accordingly. Communicate the idea in different ways until it sticks, or change personnel.

The payback for all your work, when everything is on the money – your orchestra should have a tight bonding and you feel like a street gang just rolled into town. During the show you feel like each member would give their last breath for the perfect performance. That’s what makes it all worth while. (Hopefully your audience will notice too!)

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