Play it Safe and Choose a Musical?

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  • Bryan J. Albertson

The question comes up at the beginning of every community theater season.  How do we get people in the seats?  Much of the off season is spent addressing this very question because let’s face it.  If nobody comes then what is the point?  In many community theaters headcounts are also critical to secure funding.  Military community theaters face this at the end of every fiscal year and if the Commander is hearing complaints and the theater isn’t attracting audiences then funding is cut or lost.  The question also comes up in high school theater as well but for decades the problem has been solved by splitting the season with a play in the fall and a musical in the spring.  High school audiences tend to be less finicky (not always) because for the most part they are coming to see a son/daughter or a classmate and offer support in addition to being entertained.

Both types of productions bring with them a lot of decisions.  What are you looking for, what is the audience looking for, do we even have the people to do this type of show?  Again, the high school venue helps work through this problem by usually putting a musical in the spring and thus giving the potential director time to ensure there is a talent base to support this type of performance.  Meetings with the Arts Department that include the music teachers (if they aren’t already the director/s, in most places it comes with the job) to determine possibilities are part of the normal department meetings up until the mid-school year holiday break.  In the community theater setting things can get more interesting and heated.  Community theaters must be able to fill seats; they must be able to justify the money being sent their way.  If nobody comes to the show (it only needs to happen as few times as once), money sources can dry up and people can lose their jobs.

This is often the reason you see musicals chosen over the traditional play.  While theater aficionados are familiar with many titles and shows the average theater goer can only name a handful of show titles that aren’t musicals.  Bluntly put, musicals fill seats, for the most part they are less risky as well.  To be fair there are a number of musical shows that are risky and risqué but for the most part they offer safer path than “the play”.  The audience loves the ensemble and walks out singing what ever tunes they heard.  It is a side effect of a good musical as it gets the audience involved.  The play however, often invites the “critic” who is asking, “what was the point?”

The musicals usually carry the bigger name and in many if not most cases they have been performed many times and the audience is aware of the plot and the music behind the show.  The play is different and if it is not an established piece may not draw in the numbers that the big musicals do.  This is never good for a theater or theater group and has been the “death knell” for many theater groups, theaters, and directors.  This isn’t to say that the right play cannot outperform or outdraw a musical.  It is just often harder to get the word out.  Having been in this position as a director before, it can quickly wear you out having to answer the same questions about selection repeatedly. 

The director or leadership of a theater should never simply choose the musical over a play to be safe, but it has been and always will be a factor in the decision-making process.  If done properly plays and musicals can offer mutual support.  The musical can bring in the average audience who knows the names of the musicals and then keep them coming when they see that the play might be something that interests them.  It may be easier to market the musical but if promoted correctly and performed at the right times the play can be every bit as successful and fulfilling!