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Considering taking over musicals

We've been doing our spring musicals as an extra-curricular, after school activity. I've collaborated with the drama teacher and the instrumental teacher on the musical direction and chorus preparation. The number of would-be singer-actors at this school has always impressed me, yet also concerned me that they haven't been enrolled in choir. It has been all too easy - for our seniors especially - to take an open period instead of an elective, so we've been losing a lot of very talented students because they know they can have the most fun and rewarding performance experience without committing to the day-to-day work of a drama or choir class. A different problem is that the amount of after-school hours has made it difficult for students to justify auditioning for the musical. And of course, absenteeism has been a problem, as it's not a graded activity.
I now have the opportunity to completely take over the musicals next year, and do them as a curricular activity in my auditioned choir class. The instrumental teacher will prepare the orchestra. My upper choir has 36 voices, fairly well balanced, but currently only a couple of men capable of singing a lead role. I'm trying to weigh the pros and cons of doing the musicals in my choir class, and I was wondering what the experience has been for those of you who do Broadway musicals in your choir classes.
I'd appreciate answers to any and all of the following questions I'm currently weighing:
How much has it helped your enrollments? Has it hurt in any way?
How do you keep the project from taking over your life?
What are some great musicals for small casts with few strong men?
What do you do with the choir students who don't want roles?
During the production, how do you balance the greater picture of choral education with the production schedule?
What are some good resources to learn about producing and directing musical theater?
Replies (6): Threaded | Chronological
on September 30, 2013 7:29pm
Hi Bruce,
While I can't really answer your direct question since I've never taught choir, I have sung in lots of great school choirs and directed many after-school musicals. Here are my two cents:
I like the idea of maximizing the numbers of kids who do the musical (and take it seriously), but I see lots of potential downsides to having a choir class put on the musical. 
  • To do a musical well, you're looking at a minimum of 120 hours of rehearsal time (more likely 150-200). If you go with that schedule, that leaves you with no time to run your choir.
  • If you try to run both a quality choir and a quality musical with the same group of kids at the same time, something's gotta give, leaving you with an extremely compromised choir and musical. It would be extremely difficult to create a positive experience for students following this scenario. Much frustration all around.
  • RE how to keep such a project from taking over one's life, if you have the sort of high expectations that are going to produce an excellent show, you're stuck. It's going to be a huge time and energy sucker. (That said, I've enjoyed the heck out of every single one I've directed.)
Here are some other thoughts in random order.
  • Kids' schedules are so crazy these days, and the demands on their time so extensive, that they might be forgiven for "only" doing the after-school musical rather than also taking choir and drama.
  • Kids not taking the after-school musical seriously is a separate issue that can be easily dealt with by stating the expectations and consequences upfront, and getting buy-in from both students and parents (signed audition/casting form). Running the rehearsals in a professional and sensitive manner, starting with a detailed rehearsal schedule that only calls actors when they're needed, will also go a long way towards creating a mutually respectful environment. 
  • I've seen programs that weighted -- or said they weighted -- auditions more favorably if the student was enrolled in choir or drama. While I'm not in favor of this, it could be a potentially motivating option for some.  
  • If you're really set on putting on a choir-musical, I would suggest dedicating one semester to the musical, and one semester to choir. While that wouldn't be enough hours to do a great musical justice, you could minimize the production elements (dance/staging/set/costumes/lighting/publicity...) and still come up with a respectable and enjoyable show.  
  • IF you decide to do that, insist that every student in the choir plays a role, whether that role be onstage or off. So, have the kids sign up for sets, costumes, lighting, et cetera, as well as signing up for performance. Kids with less demanding roles could act and work on production elements. After that, give them as much responsibility as possible, and charge them with creating an organized timeline/daily schedule. 
I'll post again with books, although you could definitely consider mine as a resource since it's basically "Method acting for singers."
All my best,
on October 1, 2013 6:13am
Hi Bruce,
I'm working in a little school in southern Utah and the drama teacher and I run the musicals at the school. We do them extra-curricular-ly, but we have some basic audition requirements for all the students. If they want to try out, we typically require that they be in either music or drama.
It's kind of a symbiotic relationship. She encourages students to take choir, I encourage students to be in drama, and many of them end up taking both. With our small school (7-12 with 400 students), I am teaching band and choir PLUS being the vocal coach for the play. It works out quite well, really, where a lot of the students in the play come and join the choir later in the year because they enjoyed being in the play and working with me, and several of my current students have dropped other electives to have a drama class, too.
Anyway, that's how we do it. It's a ton of work, but it works out for us. The kids almost always have a terrific production at the school and we both keep our programs up.
on October 1, 2013 6:16am
It seems to me that there is another question worth asking: will bringing the musicals into your curricular music program force you compromise the traditional role of a choral program: teaching students how to sing properly, and educating them about the tradition of choral music? Musicals are popular and fun for your school community; but they are not the best vehicle for carrying out these essential functions. That is why they have traditionally been an extra-curricular activity: choral professionals recognize that they do not provide the grounding in proper singing and repertoire that a reputable choral program must teach. They are an adjunct to a progrm of choral training--not choral training in themselves.
If you do not ask this question, it's quite likely that no one else will. It's all too easy to go with what's fun, instead of what's academically sound.
on October 1, 2013 12:27pm
Hi Bruce:
When I began to teach choir at the HS level in the 70's, it had been the tradition as well as the tradition in most of the HS in the district
to close up choir for 6-8 and produce a musical.  First of all, not every choir student wants to give up time and/or be involved, and second,
I didn't  want to let my choir program come to a halt. I always participatd in Spring Choir fesitvals and contests.  And who am I to think a choir director
can produce a musical when every theater production, amateur or professional does it with a staff and they don't have to teach other things during the day. 
So, we went to a Fine Arts Production using the drama teacher, stage teacher, dance and orchestra dirctors. 
Now if you want to involve more students in your choir program, you need to not close up who can participate in  your musicals , but open to all students.
That way they get to know you.  Perhaps you have already tried  this in the past. 
But, to answer your big question of wheather you should use your choir class to  produce a musical, my answer would have to be a BIG NO!!
Best of Luck
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 2, 2013 3:44am
I agree with the posters who've said that you shouldn't try to do your musical in class.  They've mentioned some good reasons, but I wanted to stress one key point:  think about how the classroom environment and flow is NOT suitable to a large-scale musical rehearsal.  Put yourself in the role of one member of the chorus and picture the down time you'd encounter as things you're not in are rehearsed.  Do you really want that during a class period?  So, put them in the auditorium for your 45 minute class and see what happens. First of all, getting everyone set and down to task, doing what you need to do, and coming to a graceful conclusion is difficult in one class period.   What about accountability?  In my class, I want to know where students are at all times.  But picture a musical rehearsal in the auditorium: somebody's in the bathroom, somebody's behind the back curtain making out.  (I am not making this up.)  So, then you'll come to the realization you need extra rehearsals outside of school anyway (picture the first dress rehearsal!) and so you'll have the worst of both worlds:  a lot of extra-curricular time PLUS your class being ruined for all those weeks.  I don't know about you, but I couldn't take it.  I think what you're experiencing is like most things in life: your goals can be achieved--not by any quick dramatic change but by long slow perseverance.  For me, the party line was:
1) Kids in chorus sing better, practice more intentionally, and most often do better in auditions.  They're more often the ones to take private voice, know how to conduct themselves, etc.
2) Musicals were open to everyone in the school, but over the years it was rare that a non-chorus kid got a major lead.  And kids came to know that without even being told.  They knew the path to singing success began in my classes.
3) I saw it as a chance to meet kids I might not meet, and advocate (albeit in an unspoken way) for my classes.
Best of luck, it'll all work out!
Charles Peery, St. Louis
on October 3, 2013 4:00am
As much as I love directing musicals and have seen it help my choir program, I would not choose to do it in class.  I tried that once with an eighth grade choir and, while not a disaster, I would never do it again for the reasons listed by the others above.
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