Directing a Staged Musical is the Most Difficult Thing I’ve Ever Done: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start Losing My Mind

Posted On:04.24.2015

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By Tom Rittenhouse

I’m a lot like a border collie.

Sure… I’m cute and a good companion, but if you don’t keep me busy and challenge me, then I’m going to get restless and probably ruin a couch or something.

I’ve managed to create a life that keeps my restlessness at bay: I’m a freelance filmmaker, my friends and family are fun, adventurous people, and just about every weekend I do fully improvised theater at Dad’s Garage. I love challenges.

I’d been wanting to direct a play for some time. I’d always imagined assistant directing first, or at least cutting my teeth on a small, simple production. But Mike Schatz had other plans in mind for me.

King of Pops, the musical…

When Mike pitched a King of Pops musical at our annual season planning, the unanimous excitement amongst our theater was resounding. I’d argue that Mike is our most talented company member. He’s hilarious, tall, handsome, charming, has a preternatural sense of songwriting and a brain that works unlike anyone else’s. I think he’s brilliant. His last two plays were brilliant. And an epic King of Pops musical had to be just as brilliant.

Several months later, Mike approached me to direct his play. I couldn’t grasp it really at first. “Cool,” I said. “Yeah, wow. Awesome. Yeah,” or something equally poignant. Then it occurred to me: Is Kevin (our artistic director) gonna be cool with putting me at the helm of our big summer musical? It honestly seemed like a bad business decision. If I were Kevin, I would have probably said “no.”

But Kevin didn’t say “no.” He asked me how I felt about it and I told him I was psyched, that I wanted to do it, but I’d need the world’s best support team to help me make it a success. “Great,” said Kevin.

In Production

Next thing I knew, I’m scouring the internet for inspiration: watching staged musicals, reading director’s advice columns, tapping fellow artists for ideas. Mike and I are going back and forth on script and themes. He’s emailing me songs-in-progress. I’m emailing our production crew video links from “The Little Mermaid,” retro postcards, and even a Zaxby’s commercial.

Let me tell you that the best thing about working on a production at Dad’s Garage is that everyone on your team is there because they WANT to be. Nobody is getting rich. Having a legion of artists at the ready to manifest your idea into something far better than you’d imagined is pretty freaking amazing.

Jamie Warde, our tirelessly chill technical director, and I had phone calls that would go something like this:

Jamie: Cool man, so who would you like as a fight choreographer?

Me: I get a fight choreographer?!

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Musical Making Nomads

Due to renting space at our current home, 7 Stages, we occasionally run into scheduling conflicts for use of the space. Our first rehearsal was March 30th. Since all the spaces at 7 Stages were booked, we spent our entire first week as rehearsal nomads. We worked out of a church, and the upstairs of a restaurant. We even got kicked out of a space by a troupe of 6-year-old ballerinas.

But we also got to collaborate with amazingly talented artists who all worked hard to help make this show a reality. Because I got to work with so many creative, problem-solving folks, my job as a director became much more the role of curator. Our first two weeks of rehearsal were almost entirely dance and fight choreography. I’d describe concepts to them. They’d very quickly turn the concepts into real, beautiful movement. Our next two weeks focused more on performance and set design. I’d throw out ideas. Then, artists would make those ideas better. I’d say “yes.” We’d polish and move on.

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Laughing, Crying, but Minimal Literal Dying

If you’ve never been part of the production of a play, you’d be amazed at how much work and how many hours go into making one. People fell out laughing over new ideas. People fought. People became dancers and singers. People lost sleep. People even cried a bit just from seeing a scene actually work for the first time, myself included. It really is something else.

To be able to work on something that you truly believe in alongside a bunch other artists who feel just as passionately about it as you do; to see it finally come to life after you’ve been working on it piece-by-piece just hoping it will actually come together; to doubt, fail, fix, fail, improve, fail, but keep on going because this project is no longer about any one of us, but something much bigger now; to undergo something like that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

My Work is Done

And now our show is opening for the public to see. And my work is done. It’s kind of sad. It’s absolutely beautiful. I will probably cry on opening night. I’ll be relieved to have more time to spend with my incredible wife, Julia. And I’ll be eagerly anticipating the next one. It’s either that or I’ll ruin the couch.

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