Casting Musicals: Educational Theatre

This month we’re going to take a look at the ever-frustrating and political casting of musicals, and more specifically we’ll be looking at doing so in an educational environment.  This post is meant mostly to apply to high school and middle school, though feel free to adapt the ideas to your specific situation.  Let’s dive right in!

Before Auditions

Before we even get started talking about the actual mechanics of casting a show, let’s take a step back and consider that casting begins before your auditions begin.  You can only cast the people that audition, so your first step when casting a musical is actually to recruit actors, singers, and dancers to audition.  In an educational environment like a school, where the program has been running for many years, recruiting can seem like a waste of time, considering that there is generally always a fresh stream of kids auditioning.  But don’t be fooled; there are always incredibly talented students wandering the halls that have never thought of auditioning for drama or for some reason have not before, and getting them to audition should always be on your radar throughout the year.  It’s easy to lose sight of such a task, but as long as you’re constantly promoting auditions throughout the school and making sure that auditions are available to everyone who would like to audition (i.e., making sure there’s an option that doesn’t conflict with sports practices), you can focus on other things.

During Auditions

Great, now that you’ve got a super talented applicant pool, auditions can begin!  Different directors have different preferences for audition materials.  I know many that offer cuts from the show as a way of auditioning, many that request that you specifically not come with a song from the show, many that require a monologue, many that require you to not have a monologue, and every variation in between.  What you choose is up to you, but I’ll outline my philosophy and it’s counter-arguments.

I believe in requiring the actor to bring in a song cut not from the show, as well as a monologue not from the show.  For me, I find that when auditioners sing and perform parts from the show, no matter how I try, I will associate them with that part, and I will struggle to call them back for anything else if they really did not fit that part.  As for monologues, I am a strong proponent of them in musical auditions simply because for the vast majority of musicals, there are large parts that do not require singing, and beyond that, they allow the board watching the auditions to get a clear sense of their acting prowess.  Even if most of the principals are just required to sing, being able to really gleam a students acting abilities can be difficult from just a song, and the monologue brings those to the surface (a student can always be taught and worked with to bring those abilities that come so naturally when speaking to the forefront when singing as well).  Of course, proponents of the other viewpoint (sing a song from the show, do not perform a monologue) also have good reasoning.  Singing selections from the show ensures consistency, an even playing field (sort of), and it really tells the board at the auditions if this person belongs in this show.  Monologues are often dropped in favor of time, effort, and general contentedness with the opinion that if an actor cannot display their acting chops while singing their song cut, they probably shouldn’t be in a musical anyway (a point I strongly disagree with, but I at least fathom where they are coming from).

Alright, you’ve settled the debate about what you will require your auditioners to perform at auditions.  As music director, it can be easy to simply take notes on the vocal performances of your actors, especially if you are also playing piano and do not have the capacity to also watch them for their acting choices (by the way, I strongly recommend hiring or recruiting a student accompanist for auditions).  However, as much as you are able, take notes on their acting.  In fact, since you’re likely far more trained and attuned to listen to their vocal ability, a couple notes will probably do it on that end.  Rather, most of your effort should be focused on evaluating their acting skills, and remembering those.  Monologues will help a lot with this, as they give you a chance to think about their acting without the singing getting in the way, but again, this is the creative team’s choice.

After Auditions

Okay, you’ve seen some 50-odd students strut their stuff in front of you, and now it’s time to determine who’s going to get a callback and who’s going to have to wait until the list goes up.  Assuming your callbacks will contain singing, dancing, and acting, it’s best to let your opinion on vocals be heard strongly here, since this is your chance to hear some of the actors you’re on the edge about, or need to determine between two excellent vocalists which of the two is stronger for a particular role.  Your notes on their acting and individual performances are best saved for the discussion after callbacks, when all three abilities of acting, singing, and dancing will become important.

At callbacks, all members of the creative team are able to focus on each individual aspect of the actors’ performances better, since choreography, singing, and scene work will each have their own individual times slots.  Since this is the case, feel free to dig into vocal pedagogy during vocal callbacks, since you’ll have time to focus on acting during the scene work.  Keep in mind that callbacks are also very much a time for you to determine if a student has a lot of potential, but not necessarily a lot of raw talent (often the case in educational institutions).  Callbacks are the perfect time for this, since you know the music well and have the time to work with them and ask them to change their performances.

After Callbacks (Or, Actually Casting the Musical)

We are finally finished with auditions and callbacks, and we’re at the topic of today’s blog: casting the show.  Anticlimactically, this is probably going to be the smallest section, and the part where I give the most obvious advice, but the reality is, if you did your auditions and your callbacks correctly, it should be clear to the entire creative team what their picks are for each role, especially the principals.  At that point it’s then just a matter of debate between the team members over why they believe their picks should be cast.  I will give the obvious advice of identifying which aspect of a musical performance is most important for each role; in other words, if it is most vital for a character to be an actor, singer, or dancer.  This way, it is easier to settle disputes and disagreements.  If the character is primarily a dancer, then the choreographer should have the most sway and likely the final choice, unless it contradicts with another part.  In those cases, and cases where the team is in a complete stalemate, the director has the final say (no, not you, the regular director).

In a school setting there is the added difficulty of the politics of the group, since the actors in the program tend to remain the same over longs periods and only gradually shift and change.  I will give two contradictory, cautionary pieces of advice about this situation.  First, do put weight on how long an actor has been in your program, how hard they have worked, and generally what their commitment is to the program, regardless of their skill level.  Second, do not cast incapable actors in important roles simply due to politics and seniority.  It’s one thing to have seniority decide the tie between two good choices for a role, but it is another for seniority to cause a poorer choice in casting than would otherwise have occurred.  There are other ways to honor those students that have stuck with the program, such as assistant positions with the director, music director, and choreographer, department awards, and a whole other multitude of ways to give them responsibility and show your appreciation for their work other than simply giving them a role that they should not have been given.  Younger actors must be given a chance to shine and take larger roles, and that can never happen if your senior members are always occupying the lead roles regardless of skill.

Phew, that was a long one!  Stay tuned for next month’s post about Music Directors and Music Supervisors; what’s the difference?  Until then, I wish all of you luck casting your musicals!