I just signed the contract on our school's winter musical. This will define my life in many ways for the next six or seven months. So it's a big deal to me. Because some of my students and their parents read this blog I thought it might be interesting to talk through the process I went through and how I chose the show I did, since it's not a show that's done very much anymore--especially in middle school. Those who are fascinated by the world of middle school musical theatre are also welcome to read along.
The show is Hello Dolly. It's amazing to me how almost everyone I know over the age of 30 can at least hum or sing the first few lines of the title song, even if they've never seen the play or movie. Almost everyone under 30, unless they are a serious-Braden-style-musical-theatre-nerd has never heard of it.
This is one of the first reasons I chose it. As a teacher, I see one of my fundamental jobs as exposing kids to material they would not otherwise engage with. My job is to show them what generations before have done with music and theatre. My students don't need me to appreciate Hairspray, Wicked, or Justin Bieber. They need me to take them places they wouldn't otherwise go and help them see the value in the questions and answers people grappled with in the past.
Hello Dolly is certainly not Shakespeare. It's not even The Sound of Music in terms of enduring merit. But it does capture a slice of Americana and I think it has some value as a window into the craft of 20th century American musical theatre. It's a well-made play, if not terribly innovative. It was box office smash--the Wicked of its day and I want my students to try to figure out why.
Now, for the more practical reasons. Our last play had 160 kids in it--students in grades 1-8. I need a play with large ensemble numbers in which young children can be featured. This excludes a lot of otherwise wonderful plays I'd love to do.
For me, the greatest priority in choosing a play is to find one that will maximize the opportunities for the greatest number of students. I spend a lot of time looking at the kids I have and trying to find a play that provides opportunities.
For example, I have a very talented group of kids this year--boys and girls. Somewhat unusually, I have several boys who can sing! So, I looked for a show that had leads for both males and females. That weeded several more shows on my short list out. I also have some talented actors who aren't strong singers and so I wanted to find a show with some good parts that didn't require a lot of singing.
I never pre-cast, but I have to consider things like vocal ranges and so forth. For example, this year I have lots and lots and lots of altos and very few sopranos. So, even though I don't know who will get what I couldn't do a show that relied on having a soprano.
My older students--who are candidates for leads--have been involved in the theatre program for up to six years now. The know the basics and are ready for a challenge, so I wanted something do-able, but something that will push us.
Finally, the show has to be appropriate for our younger students to come see. So there are considerations of content and theme. I'm fairly strict about what I think is appropriate for middle school kids to say/do/wear so this weeds a few more choices out.
With all these parameters in mind, I start reading scripts and listening to cast albums. I go through a lot of these in the course of my search process. I make spreadsheets to keep track of how many parts each play has. I think about the technical demands it will put on us. And so on. I think and obsess and study and brood. And then I put it all away for a week or two. It percolates and bubbles. This is where the creative process actually begins.
An idea will emerge--a few finalists. I look at them very carefully. Inevitably, one will rise to the top. My brain and my intuition will tell me it's the one. I'll listen to it carefully, read it again. Think about the kids I've got. And then, in a wonderful moment, I just "know." Somehow I know it's the one. And then, boom! I sign the contract and the business office cuts a check.
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