So you’re choreographing a musical. That’s exciting! I love choreographing for musicals with my local community theatre company because I get to work with a variety of songs, group sizes and dance styles. In musical theatre you can go from choreographing a modern piece in one show to the typical box step extravaganza in the next.
Here are some tips for choreographing a musical.
First off, I suggest you grab the Choreographer’s Checklist if you haven’t already. It’s a definitive list of all the things you need to consider when you’re choreographing. You can grab the checklist by signing up below.
Check in with the director.
There are a wide variety of directing styles. You might come across a director who completely trusts you to match their vision and you might meet one who gives you requests for formation changes. That’s why it’s super important to check in with the director before you get started on anything. You want to make sure the pair of you are on the same page for what is expected from each number you’re in charge of as a choreographer. During your check in, don’t be afraid to ask questions and get clarifications so you feel confident moving forward in your choreography process!
Get a solid understanding of the set.
What does it look like? How much dancing room does it leave? Are there stairs and platforms that are available for use? You’ll want to know the workings of the set in order to properly use the stage. It would be such a shame to set 30 people on stage only to find out that they don’t fit because of the set. You might be able to make some interesting choreography using levels on the stairs and platforms – if only you had asked about that sooner. Gather as much information as possible as soon as possible!
If you’re not using a rehearsal pianist, double check that your rehearsal track matches the production’s score.
I’ve made the mistake of using a rehearsal track from a Broadway production for a show I was choreographing and then found out deep into the rehearsal process that 16 measures of that dance break were not in the score we were using. *insert face palm here* Since then I have been ADAMANT about having a proper rehearsal track, getting a copy of the score, and double checking that the recording matches the sheet music. (This is where being able to read music comes in super handy as a dancer/choreographer!!)
Become well-acquainted with your performers’ moving abilities.
It’s common sense, but sometimes we all need simple reminders. Don’t ask your performer to do movement that is far beyond their abilities. If you’re the type of choreographer that likes to challenge their performers (Me! Me!) you need to hone your ability to find that line between will-come-with-practice and will-overstress-the-performers-and-make-the-audience-cringe. A great way to get a solid start on learning about your performers’ abilities is to simply ask them about their training and experience.
Don’t forget that the performers have to sing, too!
Breath control, endurance, singing towards the audience, these are things that need to be considered when choreographing. So yes, if there’s an empty measure, I think your lead can handle a quick cross turn. But don’t expect a soloist to do a ton of choreography during their wordy and plot-forwarding song. (Cue fancy arm gestures and strategic walking.) You might be fortunate enough to have a few performers whose sole job is to be a dancer, in which case, go nuts! We just want to make sure that neither vocal nor dance performance gets negatively affected because we got ambitious with the choreography.
Get to know the story.
A musical tells a story and each song tells a different portion of that story. You need to understand the context of each song. Read through the script or watch a film version (just know it might be slightly different) to understand the plot of the musical and what role each dance plays in the story. It’s going to show if you don’t understand the context of the piece you’re choreographing.
Know that different characters might need to dance differently.
Max Bialystock from The Producers is probably going to do a box step. He’s a Broadway musical producer! Ren from Footloose is a teenager. He’s probably going to forego the box step and do some cooler, newer stuff.
Your characters within a show don’t need to dance the same as each other either. That’s the beauty of musical theatre. The script informs a lot about what is called from choreography and from every character – let it help you figure out how one character’s dance moves differs from another’s.
- What is a Choreographer’s Job (in Musical Theatre)
- The Difference Between Choreographing for Dancers and Choirs
Do you have any other tips for choreographing a musical? I’d love to hear from you!
Thanks for reading!
Enjoy your journey.