It takes more than lead actors to create a successful musical
By Joe Deer
Performing in a large-scale musical can be one of the most enduring and powerful learning experiences for any theatre student. For most, this means being in the chorus. This is fun for everyone, and producing a big musical pays dividends to your theatre program in a variety of ways as well. Chorus work is a kind of apprenticeship for larger roles and responsibilities within your productions in years to come. For some students, this may be the only way to participate onstage because chorus work teaches the theatre experience to students who can’t carry a principal role. Large-scale productions build cohesiveness and team spirit within your program. Finally, large cast shows tend to draw big audiences of friends and family members.
As beneficial as large cast musicals are, they can also be a fearsome job for the director. Dealing with the mass of bodies, and connecting them integrally to the action of the story can be daunting. You’ve probably stood in a big rehearsal and found yourself thinking (if not actually saying), “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” Rather than building the excitement of the dramatic moment, the thirty students in your production can actually have the effect of draining energy and diluting focus. You can avoid this kind of problem and create a rich experience for your students by following a few simple steps that build ensemble, create textured stage life, train your students as active responders, and largely eliminate your staging dilemmas.
The director of a musical must decide how to incorporate, engage, and take full advantage of the chorus. Although you share responsibility for rehearsal with a musical director and choreographer, understanding how to exploit the dramatic force of the chorus gives the director of a musical the potential to create dynamic theatre. Start by figuring out what they can do for the production.
The chorus of a musical specifically populates your theatrical world. The many levels of society you want (or need) to represent can be played by the same actors in as many roles as your imagination will allow. Many musicals require the same players to portray opposing levels of a society. In My Fair Lady, the chorus members portray both the poorest cockney flower sellers and the most aristocratic members of British society within minutes of each other. In many shows the chorus is defined with a broad group identity: cowboys, farmers, teenaged girls, sailors, etc. Although some writers have begun to define these characters by assigning to them names, relationships, and detailed given circumstances, it’s usually the director’s job to particularize the people onstage.
The chorus tells the audience about the world of the play. Director Trevor Nunn used the chorus in his 1993 BBC production of Porgy and Bess to paint a vivid and intricately detailed portrait of rural southern black culture and the many jobs and relationships in the close-knit community of Catfish Row. By the time the opening lullaby “Summertime” is finished we have met dozens of people and have a clear and specific sense of the world of this musical. No one has spoken any dialogue and the focus of the musical is still on the character, Clara, as she sings to her baby. But the surrounding action, carefully drawn vignettes, and supporting stories unfold in ways that create the world of this musical.
The chorus reinforces important dramatic and emotional moments. The chorus can tell the audience what to feel. Consider Anything Goes, where the chorus is made up of sailors, passengers, and Reno Sweeney’s chorus girls. The two largest choric moments, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and “Anything Goes,” employ the chorus to help the principal characters celebrate their freedom or to feel the full power of the Holy Spirit as delivered by nightclub singer/evangelist Sweeney. As the different groups are infected with Reno’s enthusiasm in their own way, the audience is overwhelmed by the sheer vocal and kinetic energy of those moments. This chorus has given Reno and her Angels a sounding board, an obstacle to work against, and, finally, a support system to carry her message forward.
The power of the chorus to reinforce dramatic moments is not limited to sharing joy. In one of the most moving scenes in Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Parade, the Georgia community of Marietta buries the murdered child, Mary Phagan, as her would-be boyfriend, Frankie Epps, is transformed from a grieving child to a revenge-seeking racist. The vocal and physical presence of the chorus conducting the funeral reinforces the effect Mary’s loss has on Frankie’s world and helps justify his anger. Here again the director has a chance to create particular stories and vignettes within the overall action of the funeral: friends laying flowers on her casket, her mother collapsing from grief, a minister offering solace and words of comfort, and so forth. All of this serves as a non-verbal backdrop to Frankie’s transformation.
The chorus pressures principal characters to take action, reflect on their action, or to consider new options. The chorus not only portrays different levels of society; they also pressure important characters to move in new directions or provide obstacles to those characters’ desires. In Steven Schwartz’s Pippin, the chorus encourages Pippin to explore a range of ultimately dissatisfying roads with his life until they finally apply their considerable pressure on him to step into a magic box that will burn him to death in one final blaze of glory. They so effectively marshal their show biz skills that Pippin nearly commits suicide. Although their captain, the Leading Player, is a convincing advocate, he alone could not be nearly as successful without the chorus as a lever to move Pippin toward their goal. Pippin ultimately rejects their choice, but only with great difficulty. And it is in reaction to the chorus’s powerful influence that he decides with equal urgency to go his own way and choose a humble life as a family man. Without the chorus’ pressure, he might never have been forced to make a choice. The chorus becomes the catalytic force for Pippin.
The chorus can be storytellers. This self-consciously theatrical conception of the chorus is certainly part of Sweeney Todd, where they begin by directly inviting the audience to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.” They continue to move the story along and remind the audience that a story is being told, forcing an awareness of the theatricality of the event. While some shows are written with this function in mind, it can also be imposed on other musicals that use the chorus more traditionally.
The chorus can be stagehands. Redefining the chorus in a more overtly theatrical role can have far-reaching implications for your production, allowing them to move scenery in character or as “Poor Theatre” styled mechanicals. As long as it makes sense to you and your audience this can add an excitement to your production and may solve logistical problems, as well. A recent production of Big River used the chorus in exactly this fashion. They “float” Huck and Jim’s raft across the stage by pulling the heavy ropes attached to each corner of the platform. The audience was thrilled to see the mechanics of the raft movement and then to suspend their disbelief as they watched the scene.
The chorus can create strong visual impact and focus. The chorus is often the largest single group onstage. It is essential that you use them effectively to tell the audience where to look. One of the most famous images from a landmark musical is in Evita where Eva is seen standing on the balcony of the Casa Rosada with an entire cabinet of politicians in profile toward her and a mass of peasants on the ground facing upstage to her. That physical composition tells us where to look and amplifies her importance to Juan Peron’s political success. It’s her husband’s inauguration, but Evita is the center of attention. The same could be said for Harold Hill as he galvanizes an entire Iowa town in “Trouble” from The Music Man. At first resistant to his warning, the chorus members end up as his cheerleaders. There are few significant moments that can’t be clarified through the use of the chorus as a compositional tool. Much more than simply creating pretty pictures, you’re composing the stage to give focus where it is needed.
The chorus’ movements and patterns can also visually express a change in the attitudes of the society in your show. In the original production of Cabaret, director Hal Prince showed the shifting allegiance of the German people as friends and neighbors at the wedding party for a mixed-religion couple gradually moved from stage right, where the wedding couple stood, to stage left, where the handsome Nazi Ernst Ludwig sang a Nazi anthem. The movement of the group from one side to the other told the story of Germany’s growing sympathy for the Nazis.
The chorus can create spectacle. Whether through the fulsome use of bodies in dance (as in the many chorus dance sequences in 42nd Street), in combination with props and costumes (as in The Lion King), or in more pedestrian movement on a bare stage (as in the act one finale of Les Misérables), the chorus has the power to dazzle and stir the audience toward your intended goals. Musical theatre typically seeks powerful and visual emotional impact. The chorus can help to get you there. Grand emotional and musical moments demand equally grand visual expression.
These are the functions that the chorus can accomplish simultaneously. It can deliver exposition, particularize the world of the musical, offer spectacle and emotional impact, and move the scenery, all at the same time. As you look at each chorus moment in your show, decide what they can do for your production and then, as you stage the scenes, be sure that you’re achieving those goals. You can also tell the company all of the ways they’re helping to tell the story.
Define the chorus as individuals within groups
As we said earlier, the chorus is often only generally defined in most musicals. The farmers and cowhands in Oklahoma! are an amorphous group of men in boots until you give each of them an identity. If you fail to decide who these people are—specifically—it will become the costume designer’s job to establish who lives in the world of your musical. Identifying each of these people, their relationships with each other and the principal characters, their occupations, social status, and the rules of their behavior will force you to begin imagining the world of the musical in details. Out of this preparatory fantasy comes vividly textured staging and opportunities for the primary story to be illuminated.
Given circumstances. As with any character in a play or musical, we start with the information the writers have given us. In the case of a musical this includes not only the script and stage directions, but also the lyrics and the music the chorus sings and dances to. What they sound like and dance to can give you a sense of the temperament of their society, the group dynamics, how they relate to the principal characters, and much more. Although you will want to specify each character, you must be sure that any choices you make agree with the information the text gives you. Given the robust music the gangsters in Guys and Dolls sing, it would be confusing to make several of them shy or evasive, even if it was interesting or even dramatically justifiable. The music disagrees, so the choice has to be dismissed. But within that robust dynamic there is still an enormous amount of latitude to make these men specific and individual They even have names: The Greek, Scranton Slim, Brandy Bottle Bates, etc. Those names alone give you a starting place. And those gangsters that Abe Burrows didn’t name can be drawn from your research into Damon Runyon or simply from your imagination.
A thumbnail description and name for each character will provide you with the fuel you and the chorus actor need to begin creating a character and a journey through the story. Create a brief biography for each chorus member that includes:
- A name.
- A few important relationships within the group (include relationships with the principal characters)—best friend, girlfriend, parent/child, etc.
An occupation—build a range of work groups (boss, employee, favorite customer)
- One or two important given circumstances that align with the script—“You went bankrupt last year.” “You’re working to start your own farm.” “You’re a show-off.”
- A superobjective—“You want everyone to admire you.” “You want to be the perfect son.” “You want to start a family.”
The actor in a chorus role can take these clues and run with them. This information will become useful for you as well when you begin creating behavior and onstage life for your production. Your own imagination and sense of your world will guide you to use people in consistent and interesting ways. The actor, designers, and audience all benefit from this preparation and imaginative work on your part.
Chorus members often need to switch identity from one role to the next very quickly. The shorthand communication you provide here will help the actor achieve the transformation more easily.
Create rules of behavior. An important caveat in this discussion of chorus identity is that you might actually want to minimize the individual identity of the chorus to create the effect of a single shared personality. In this case, the chorus (or some subset of it) is actually one character with multiple bodies. Broadway director Jerry Zaks, in his witty production of Guys and Dolls, defined the Hot Box Girls in just this way. They rarely appeared unless clustered in a group. Their completely indiscernible dialogue was more like the chatter of chicks in the farmyard surrounding their mother hen, Adelaide, than human speech. Careful sculpting of their behavior and the similarity of their clothing and silhouette reinforced this group identity. In this case, any actress who stood out as an individual would have weakened the effect.
Another lesson to be learned from Zaks’s conception of the Hot Box Girls is that chorus characters often have tightly defined behaviors. Directors can give the actors in these roles specific rules of vocal and physical behavior as a way of unifying the group and of defining them in relationship to the principal characters. A rule of thumb is that the more non-realistic the style of playing, the more clearly defined these rules of behavior need to be. These rules of behavior are hugely valuable in a show like My Fair Lady, for example, as you teach the cockneys their physical and vocal rules, and then teach the same actors the rules for aristocratic behavior. Now they have a framework within which they can work.
Give the chorus a job
Notice how each of the earlier examples of chorus function described them as doing things or playing actions. Cheerleading, resisting, prodding, luring, narrating, etc. If you can use this kind of language to think of your chorus, you will automatically carry that into rehearsal and the group will intuitively begin playing the actions, doing the jobs, and engaging in stage life.
Instead of asking the chorus to simply “do something,” give them something to do. Whenever you give your ensemble direction, phrase it as an action. “Challenge Reno Sweeney,” “Bolster Harold Hill,” “Cheer your candidate,” “Tempt Pippin.” Nothing will generate staging as quickly as giving different groups their own specific jobs to do in a scene. The actors will instantly engage as the characters you’ve defined. Very often, different groups within the chorus will be allied with one or another principal character. By simply inviting these groups to take sides and support their champion or put down his opponent, you’ll begin generating behavior. Suddenly you’ll have more ad-libs than you can handle and you’ll need to tame the stage movement. But what a great problem to face.
Building a company
Directors want the chorus to be fully integrated in the production and the chorus certainly wants to be engaged as individuals. Part of your job is to make a cohesive company out of what could be a number of parallel yet disconnected groups. In most companies you have two or three distinct constituencies: the principal actors and the chorus, which is sometimes divided into singers and dancers. Early rehearsals for musicals typically require these different groups to spend a lot of time apart before you can assemble the production. This is unavoidable, but what you want to prevent is the potentially fragmenting side effect of the group never becoming a company or a true ensemble. Before you send the chorus off with the musical director or choreographer, you need to be sure that everyone has a parallel grasp of the show you want to present, the style of playing, the important ideas, and anything else that everyone must agree on. How to do this?
It would be easy for you to stand before your company and tell them about your passion for the show. But participating in some activity that brings a company together and allows them to find their own passion is much more absorbing and will succeed in infecting a company with your passion more effectively. Try these activities.
Make teams. The groundbreaking director/choreographer Jerome Robbins was noted for the ways he created a company. In the original production of West Side Story, Robbins separated the actors playing the two rival gangs from each other throughout rehearsals. The actors playing the Puerto Rican Sharks received far less favorable treatment, to the point that real anger developed over his abusive behavior. Robbins believed that this fed the relationships onstage. Other productions have insisted that the two gangs use separate entrances to rehearsal, dress in coded rehearsal wear, create signature handshakes, and literally compete in rehearsal. In a bisected world like that of West Side Story, this kind of technique may be effective. But unlike Robbins, you need to care for the emotional wellbeing of your students. Resist truly abusive behavior.
Make families and occupations. Another Robbins method, born when he directed Fiddler on the Roof, was to divide the company up into families and give each actor an occupation and relationships to other members of her family and the rest of the town of Anatevka. The actors then went out to research these occupations and wrote a short biography of the character. Robbins used these bios to help him create business and behavior for the actors, though the audience was never given any of that information. Even when they weren’t specifically asked to, the actors instinctively responded to each other according to their biographies.
Share the research. British director Trevor Nunn used his Nicholas Nickleby company to research the world of Dickens’s London as a way of forming an ensemble. Because everyone in that company was required to play many roles, often with little time for external transformation, creating a true ensemble was essential. Nunn assigned various teams within the company to research specific elements of nineteenth century London culture. Each group was invited to present their findings in any way they liked. Nunn eventually incorporated many of the insights and ideas into the production, and everyone participated in understanding this world better.
Visit the world of the musical. Deeply investigating and truly understanding the foreign world of a musical or play can have profound and subtle effects on a company. While rehearsing the American University premiere of Parade, the student actors used a long holiday weekend to travel to Marietta, Georgia, where the actual events took place. Over those few days the company gathered information, visited historic sites, and even talked with people who were relatives of the characters in the story. The result was a kind of investment and connection to the story that reverberated throughout the production in the nuances of behavior and specificity of character.
Invite an expert. Musicals often involve understanding a part of the world that your company may know nothing about. Inviting an expert in that world into your rehearsals with some activities for the group can get everyone invested, especially if the director, choreographer, and musical director also become students for the workshop. Bring a local rabbi in to teach the Sabbath ritual, or invite a police detective to “book” your gang members. Be creative and have fun learning with your students.
Create a warm-up ritual. Intellectual and imaginative investigation can be galvanizing. But other directors find that non-literal activity can have an equally unifying effect. Some companies begin each rehearsal with a prayer or invocation to spiritual beliefs for focus. Many artistic leaders choose to draw a company together using physical activity. Whether through a dance warm-up, yoga, or movement training like Viewpoints, these activities can have the effect of unifying a group. You can invite your group to help create a warm-up ritual employing vocal and physical exercises that support the work of the story. Your Jets can have their own, while the Sharks have theirs. Each group will reinforce the dialect work they’ve been practicing by doing their vocals in the appropriate dialect. Or your actors can have a vocal/physical ritual they do as cockneys first, then later as Ascot aristocrats.
Tackle a big number. Sometimes, simply tackling a piece of music or staging that involves and challenges the entire company can have a unifying effect. There is nothing like hard work to draw people together.
While the rehearsal process will inevitably force you to separate your company, finding ways to return to the group helps maintain cohesion. Starting rehearsal with some essential business like a vocal warm-up or staging review, a physical warm-up, or some full-company exercises (dialect, stage combat, etc.) can achieve this end. The more related these activities are to the world of your show and the unique ideas and challenges of your production, the better. Including the special abilities and challenges of your production and tailoring these unifying activities will make the experience meaningful. That attitude will translate to the stage in ways that you can’t predict.
While the perception from the audience may be that the story is only about the principal characters, it is in your very best interests to maintain a strong sense of company unity and to continue treating everyone as equals throughout the process. As director, you will naturally spend more time with central characters and away from the chorus. But making a daily check-in with your entire company and sustaining the group activities will not only keep people happy, it will draw the company together and result in cohesive stage life. This is a hallmark of excellent direction in the musical theatre.
By doing this imaginative homework you’ll create a theatrical world that you and your student actors will look forward to visiting every night.
Joe Deer is the co-author of Acting in Musical Theatre: A Comprehensive Course (with Rocco Dal Vera). Their articles on the same subject appear monthly in Dramatics magazine. Deer is head of the musical theatre program at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and a frequent presenter of workshops around the world. He was the founding president of the Musical Theatre Educators Alliance, and is an award-winning professional director and choreographer.