Thursday, August 25, 2011

Rehearsing The Music Man

After casting 43 men, women, teenagers and children, Lisa Blanton (choreographer), Ryan Deal (music director) and I decided on a priority order of musical numbers to be rehearsed—starting with the most difficult. We then made a spreadsheet of all the existing conflicts of cast members. Then we began to create a rehearsal schedule to minimize the effects of absences, while taking into account our musical priority list. The typical rehearsal week at Theatre Charlotte is Sunday night through Thursday night.

There was another obstacle in the crafting of the rehearsal schedule. For the first week of a 5 week rehearsal period, we were not going to be able to use the stage, as an entire new rigging system was being installed. So, we scheduled vocal rehearsals the entire first week, with the cast members learning all the songs, harmonies and dynamics.

In the second week we began staging musical numbers, beginning with the most difficult movement—“Shipoopi.” Ryan Deal also doubles as rehearsal pianist. While Lisa was choreographing and didn’t need the piano, Ryan would dash to the green room and work vocals with the actors playing Ewart, Oliver, Jacey and Olin—the barbershop quartet.

Also, during the second week, I worked on character development with Harold Hill, Marian the Librarian, Winthrop Paroo, Mrs. Paroo, Mayor Shinn, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, Alma Hix, Maud Dunlop, Mrs. Squires and others. I also began blocking the scenes that lead into and out of songs, as well as a small number of solo or small, non-dance numbers.

The installation of the new rigging system not only delayed the start of blocking and staging rehearsals, it also delayed the start of set construction. Chris Timmons, our technical director, began building the various components of the set during the second week of the rehearsal process. THE MUSIC MAN is quite a large production for our relatively small stage area.

This is a very dedicated, committed, energetic cast that can truly sing! And when not on stage rehearsing something, they are in the lobby working on sharpening dance numbers or in the green room working on vocals. I believe the fun part of theatre is in the process and the cast is having fun working and creating together. In a very short time, we have created a wonderful ensemble of very diverse people. In essence, we have created our perception of the townspeople of River City, iowa and that slick traveling salesman/pied piper, Harold Hill.

Check out the short “Shipoopi” rehearsal video on the Theatre Charlotte Facebook page. Watch and enjoy this talented cast work on this big production number. It should make you smile! And the woman who falls at the end of the number—well, that’s my wife and she’s supposed to do that. She suffers this indignity with grace and humor!

-Ron Law
Director, THE MUSIC MAN at Theatre Charlotte

THE MUSIC MAN runs September 9th through 25th at Theatre Charlotte. Tickets can be purchased through CarolinaTix at (704) 372-1000 or online at

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Preparing For The Music Man

THE MUSIC MAN is the 75th production I have directed in professional theatre, college/university theatre, community theatre and children’s theatre. The first step in directing a play involves deciding whether you are passionate about the work. As director, you will be “married” to the piece for many months of pre-production and rehearsal work. Once I’ve decided to direct a show, I read it straight through without stopping, just as an audience member might experience it. If there are places that confuse me, make me laugh, cry or bore me, I mark them. Then I go back and read again for an understanding as to why the script worked that way for me.

I read a script many, many times before casting it and beginning rehearsals. I study the script for characterizations, motivations, through-line and conceptual ideas. While doing this, I research the author, composer and lyricist (if it’s a musical). For THE MUSIC MAN, I read Meredith Willson’s autobiography, “He Doesn’t Know the Territory: the Making of The Music Man.” I researched the time period (1912) and location (Iowa), including socio-economics, morals and attitudes, clothing, architecture, lifestyles, politics, music, and literature. I read about major influences on Willson, including John Phillip Sousa (the composer/conductor known particularly for his patriotic marches.)

Then it was time to meet separately with the production team: set designer Rebecca Primm, costume designer Jamey Varnadore, lighting designer Trista Rothe Bremer, choreographer Lisa Blanton and music director Ryan Deal. The set designer and I talked about style, space, line, color, concept and we went over the show, scene by scene. We discussed entrances, exits and major highlights of each scene. Finally, a set of drawings and a model were completed and approved by me and the technical director of Theatre Charlotte, Chris Timmons. The same process basically took place with each of the designers.

Lisa Blanton and I discussed style, movement and placement of every musical number in the show. Ryan Deal and I discussed the score, vocal needs and interpretation. Lisa, Ryan and I together discussed the dynamics of each number. We also discussed casting needs, such as which characters really need to dance, age and vocal ranges of each. We discussed character types, how many children, how many teens, how many males and how many females. Finally, we were prepared for auditions.

Heading into the audition process is very nerve-wracking for me. The day of the first auditions, I am quite anxious, wondering who will show up, if we’ll have enough of the right types, if we’ll have people that can dance and sing and what new talent will we discover. We held two nights of auditions at the end of July that were attended by 109 people of all ages! We heard each of them sing 16 bars of a song and Lisa put them through a short dance routine, ten at a time. Each night, we sorted through the audition forms and decided who would be called back and who would be cut. Callbacks were held on a third night and included reading from the script, learning and singing from THE MUSIC MAN score and pairing for size, look and age. From the 109 that auditioned we decided on a cast of 43, including 9 children ages 6 to 11, and 9 teens. We got their acceptances, contacted those who were not selected and then quickly worked through everyone’s prior commitments to craft a rehearsal schedule.

The rehearsal process, which began on Monday, August 1, will be the subject of my next blog.

-Ron Law
Director, THE MUSIC MAN at Theatre Charlotte

THE MUSIC MAN runs September 9th through 25th at Theatre Charlotte. Tickets can be purchased through CarolinaTix at (704) 372-1000 or online at

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Music Man: An Unlikely Broadway Smash Hit

The first five decades of Meredith Willson’s life formed the foundation for his best-known work, THE MUSIC MAN. During his career prior to writing the music, lyrics and book of THE MUSIC MAN, Willson played with John Philip Sousa and Arturo Toscanini, conducted the New York Philharmonic, achieved great fame in radio and television, musically scored successful motion pictures and composed pop hits of his day, as well as full symphonies.

The official impetus to write THE MUSIC MAN came when his good friend and fellow composer Frank Loesser suggested he adapt his stories of growing up in Mason City, Iowa into a full-length musical. Willson had for years entertained friends like Loesser with these stories.

THE MUSIC MAN evolved over a six year period in the early to mid-1950s. The story was based on real people from Mason City, as well as actual occurrences that Willson witnessed and experienced growing up.

Initially 3 hours and 45 minutes long, Willson continuously re-worked the script and score of THE MUSIC MAN, cutting songs, changing characters, writing new songs and changing lyrics. During this time, while concentrating on cutting the score, Willson added a new song to the show—“Seventy Six Trombones” and it became the show-stopper. Many re-writes, and cutting continued. Some 45 songs were written, with many discarded, ending up with about 18 in the final version.

Kermit Bloomgarden, noteworthy for producing Broadway hits like DEATH OF A SALESMAN and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK was an unlikely candidate to produce THE MUSIC MAN. After hearing Meredith Willson and his wife Rini perform the show for him, Bloomgarden called Willson into his office and said, “May I have the privilege of producing your play?” One year later, to the day, THE MUSIC MAN debuted on Broadway—six years and several producers after Willson started working on it.

The casting search was the next phase. Many notable musical comedy performers were considered and offered the lead role of Harold Hill and turned it down: Danny Kaye, Dan Dailey, Gene Kelly, Ray Bolger, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Jason Robards, Art Carney, Andy Griffith and Bert Parks. Meredith Willson was finally asked to view an audition by Robert Preston, known mostly for dramatic Hollywood movie roles. Preston performed “Ya Got Trouble” and was chosen on the spot to play the slick salesman, Harold Hill.

An interesting casting note: ten year old Eddie Hodges was spotted by Willson’s wife Rini while he was appearing as a contestant on a TV quiz show, NAME THAT TUNE, where he had been wowing viewers with his knowledge of music. Rini told Meredith, “There’s Winthrop.” Several weeks later he was a member of the cast.

THE MUSIC MAN opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre on December 19, 1957. The show that some people thought might be too folksy for the sophisticated Broadway audiences became an instant hit and played for 1,375 performances. It won the Tony Award as the Best Broadway musical of that season, beating out WEST SIDE STORY for this honor. THE MUSIC MAN endures as a salute to a by-gone era—as a Valentine to a more innocent America—and is one of the most popular and most-produced musicals throughout the United States.

I have been a fan of this show since I was a boy and am really excited to finally be able to direct it!

-Ron Law
Director, THE MUSIC MAN at Theatre Charlotte

THE MUSIC MAN runs September 9th through 25th at Theatre Charlotte. Tickets can be purchased through CarolinaTix at (704) 372-1000 or online at