Concert Productions: Part 1

This is my first post on this blog, but I suppose rather than boring anyone with introductions and explanations, I should just get right into discussion topics important to me and the field of music direction.

Concert Productions: What Are They?

In the past three weeks, I have had the pleasure of producing and music directing a festival of three Jason Robert Brown musicals: Songs for a New World, The Last Five Years, and Parade.  All three were presented in concert (though of course Songs is typically presented in a concert-like fashion), and all three were a joy to direct.  What made each these shows a “Concert Production”?  I hardly claim that these qualities are the hard and fast boxes that must be checked in order for a production to be considered a concert, but nevertheless, here are what I consider to be the defining traits of a concert production of a musical:

  • The focus is on the music; the plot is secondary
  • The performers are generally only performing when they are called upon to sing
  • There is no formal set, nor formal costumes

Let me quickly delve deeper on each of these points.  

I believe the first item I listed is the most important difference between a regular production of a musical and a concert production.  Two of the shows I directed in the JRB Festival had dialogue components, and with both shows, I chose to retain most of the dialogue in order to aid comprehension of the plot.  However, whenever I had the choice of compromising either the music or the plot for the service of the other, I always chose the plot.  For example, in The Last Five Years, there is a scene normally situated in the middle of the Audition Sequence in which Jamie reads aloud a passage from his novel.  This advances the plot and provides more context for some of the decisions the characters make.  But, the monologue does interrupt the flow of the song, and so I made the decision to cut the piece in favor of a more streamlined version of the Audition Sequence.  In a full production this decision would almost never be made.  Of course, none of this is to say that the performers should not be acting; on the contrary, due to the lack of supporting material, performers should be working harder than ever to convey the motives and intentions of the characters they are inhabiting through acting.  

The second item is something that I quickly became accustomed to, and helps to lower the stress of the situation for everyone involved, at least among amateur singers.  For many directors of community or academic theatre, one of the biggest challenges can be coaching actors on being “always on”.  Concert production alleviate that challenge, allowing singers to sit with their water bottles and break the fourth wall in order to acknowledge applause from the audience.  By no means do I mean to imply that they should be chatting amongst themselves or others ignoring the current performance (that would be more appropriate in a cabaret setting, or a very casual revue), but the performers are free to relax.

The third item is certainly the most debatable, and they are various degrees to which this can apply.  For example, a concert production of Parade might have a Confederate flag mounted on an otherwise black backdrop, but generally formal sets and costumes are dispensed with in favor of more practical setups.  It also follows that because the music is the focus of the show, the musicians are often brought forward and highlighted, necessitating that a usual set be done away with.  Costumes, similarly, come off as out of place in a concert setting, and are therefore normally shredded in favor of all-black outfits or evening wear.

When Should We Produce A Concert Production?

Now that we’ve established what concert productions are, let’s deconstruct what makes a musical more or less fit for a concert rendition.  Operettas, or shows with very little dialogue naturally make the easiest transitions.  Songs for a New World, Les Misérables, The Last Five Years, Company; these shows are all either sung through, or are centered around vignettes, or “modular” scenes.  There’s practically nothing to be done here in terms of editing material, so these are the easiest type of show to put on in a concert setting.  Revues can also fall in a similar category, as many were intended as concerts originally.  Regular book musicals are the other sort of show to consider, and are the far more challenging of the two to put on as a concert.  Classic musicals like Carousel, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Oklahoma, The King and I, and Anything Goes are perhaps the hardest to adapt, simply due to their incredibly separated book and score.  In other words, these shows tend to follow the formula of: song, scene, song, scene, song, scene, etcetera.  We could choose to include the dialogue, but that bogs down the score to an almost inexcusable degree if we’re billing the show as a “concert”.  On the other hand, if we cut the dialogue, we’re not really presenting the musical in concert so much as we are creating a revue or cabaret performance of the composers most popular songs (after all, Anything Goes and many other Cole Porter musicals are precisely that already).  If we’re dead set on classics, I would really recommend just pulling out the best numbers from a show or a set of shows, and creating a revue.  The murky area comes with the modern musical: shows like Next to Normal, In The Heights, Parade, and Legally Blonde are far more likely to incorporate music and dialogue into cohesive units, allowing concert productions to happen, albeit with a little adjustment on the part of the director(s).

Besides questioning a musicals suitability to a concert adaptation, another important query must be posed to the producing team: why do we want to perform this show in concert?  There are many right answers to this question, and I’ll go over a few reasons why a concert production might be right for us:

  • We want to put on a show, but we don’t have the means to create a full-fledged production
  • We want to fundraise small to moderate amounts of money by offering some form of entertainment in return
  • We want to focus on developing the singers in our company/school

There are many more reasons to do a concert production, but I would just take a moment to caution against doing a concert production of a show merely due to time constraints.  Yes, producing a show in concert takes far less rehearsal time compared to a full production, but the best concert musicals are a result of the whole team getting behind the concept of a concert.  Switching from a full show to a concert at the last moment due to time can be more disastrous than simply canceling the production (as much of a bullet bite as that might be), and therefore being clear with your team from the outset will build the best concert that you could possibly produce.

So you know what a concert musical is, you’ve decided you want to do one, and you’ve decided which musical you want to perform.  Stay tuned for my follow-up post in order to learn more about the specific challenges in music directing concert musicals!