The high school musical – where legends are born, tears are shed and relationships made. For the typical high school thespian, the musical is highly coveted. This is the championship game, the Super Bowl of high school experiences and a time to shine.
When the musical is announced, these students experience the excitement of Christmas morning. Prior to auditions, they will undoubtedly be buzzing around the school trying to predict the cast list and asking questions like: Am I good enough? Do I have the dance routine down? Is that note too high for me? Should I eat that dairy two hours before the audition? How do I prove I am best for this role?
Clearly, choosing an appropriate musical and how the audition process plays out will be a major contributing factor to the actors’ high school experience. This puts a lot of pressure on the director to make thoughtful choices. How does the director know what musical will be best for his or her students?
Beyond considering the budget, performance venue and access to sets, props and costumes, the director should ponder: who the likely leads would be, the musicals that have been performed by the school recently, the racial diversity of the school, the dance background of the students and the artistic message of the show. Once a musical is chosen, how does the director carry out fair auditions?
The audition process should have solid structure but be flexible as well. The director should hold a meeting for all of those interested in auditioning. In this meeting, the director should set the expectations for the auditions. More specifically, the director should have sheet music available for the songs they will need to sing with either a short rehearsal of the songs or supply students with a recording from which to prepare with.
Also, at the meeting students should receive dialogue for any spoken scenes the director expects them to read. Lastly, if there is dancing in the show, short choreography should be taught so that they can demonstrate their movement capabilities. Students should also sign up for time slots for the singing, acting and dance portions of the audition. The realistic director will plan for extra time in between each audition. Expectations for callbacks should also be made clear.
When choosing a show, thinking about the likely leads of a musical ahead of time might give the impression that the auditions don’t matter. However, this is an important place for the director to start. A good director should always begin with the available facts. Knowing these veteran actors and what they are capable of will give a baseline of what shows are possible. That being said, a good director also stays flexible and, although he or she might have certain students in mind for certain roles, there are always surprises, new students or other students who have made great improvements.
Knowing students and their skills might be one of the most important things for a director, including whether or not they have a background in dance. If they do not, this should not deter a director from choosing a dance heavy show. He or she will just need to schedule extra rehearsals with a choreographer to develop these skills. This will also impact the budget, but if planned for, can help enhance a production and help develop a new skill for actors.
Varying the style of the musical gives students a larger skills base, experience with vast repertoire and broad musicianship. If a director is always choosing a musical that was written in the 1940s and 1950s, the students may become very competent tap dancers and crooners. However, they will never learn the lyricism of Sondheim, the drama of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the dance style of Fosse or more contemporary styles like Schwartz. There is such great repertoire, the director should try to pick something the school hasn’t done in a while. This will also avoid comparisons to previous productions, build well-rounded actors/musicians and broaden students’ knowledge of musical theatre.
A thoughtful director is mindful of the school and the broader community demographics. If the director teaches at a predominantly white school, doing shows that have a cast of characters that are predominantly people of color would only be suggested with careful consideration of the intended outcome, and after consulting with people of color about possible blind spots. The director should reflect about his/her own bias and consult with members of these demographics before choosing shows with cultural and racial identities different from the community at large. In some situations, it might be appropriate to adapt a show to fit the needs of the community without sacrificing the show’s themes. The musical experience should be one that is welcoming and inclusive to everyone involved.
One of the driving forces of the arts is the ability to move people emotionally, and sometimes change their lives. The director should consider current events and how the message of the musical might enhance people’s lives. For example, when performing a musical after the COVID-19 pandemic, a director might choose a show that demonstrates the pure joy of humanity and relationships – or in a divided political landscape a show that brings people together. This is one of the most important reasons for having the arts in the first place. The director can choose a show that will not just positively impact the lives of the students but the audience as well.
The overall goals of the director should be to make the musical experience, including auditions, fair, educational, inclusive, challenging and fun. From the opportunities created to new skills acquired, the musical will help the young students grow as singers, actors, dancers, and citizens. Just how much growth occurs could depend on the musical chosen and the audition process.
Kevin Ginter is an opera singer, voice teacher and music educator. He received his master’s degree in Vocal Performance from The Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College. Ginter is in his fourth year teaching K-12 General Music, Drumline, Chorus and Drama at Christ the King School Burlington and Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington, Vermont.