How to Plan a Musical Reading

by Carol de Giere on April 23, 2016

Carol de Giere, author and editorPlanning a New Musical Reading

by Carol de Giere

This article is being published in conjunction with Musical Writerzine issue 33.

One of the best ways to test a new musical is by listening to it while others read and sing. For those who are new to the process, here are some basic points about planning a developmental reading. For additional considerations, be sure to also read my interview with William Squier: “How to Run Developmental Readings” that can be found at… how-to-run-developmental-readings-tips.pdf

1) Decide which type: Table or Staged

Table readings are generally the first step. These are generally performed around a large table so readers can easily page through a script binder, although there have been plenty of readings in living rooms with participants holding scripts in their laps. Table readings are usually private, but sometimes writers invite trusted friends who can be give good feedback afterward. Opening up a discussion with the actors afterward can be helpful.

A “pizza reading” is one of the most casual forms. Writers invite friends and local actors to their home, asking if they will take a role for the reading. In trade, the participants get pizza and snacks, drinks, and hopefully a good time. (I’m told that in the UK, a casual reading involves tea and cakes instead of pizza.)

Some writers make connections with theater groups or hire actors through classified ads for a table reading. Compensation can be travel and meal reimbursement and/or payment for their time.

Staged readings that involve audiences are much more involved because they need to be rehearsed and performed by a qualified cast in a rented studio or theatrical space. These are sometimes called concert readings or script-in-hand readings even though the scripts are usually resting on a music stand.

Staged readings are normally offered without costumes, sets, or memorized lines, but with the full script and all the songs. Some directors also like to have actors incorporate limited movement. Staged readings are performed so often that there is a specific set of rules and pay requirements for members of the actor’s union.

2) Decide When

It’s probably wise to hold an informal table reading after finishing a solid draft of one or both acts. If the music is ready, composers can sing the songs themselves or teach songs to one or more professional singers who will present the pieces as they come up during the reading. Some writers skip the music in an early reading and, if lyrics are ready, they have actors speak the lyrics.

Staged readings are usually reserved for later phases of development, such as when a complete libretto and score are finished, and again when major revisions have been completed.

For the musical Wicked, Stephen Schwartz recalls that the first developmental reading they did in 2000 was a table reading of Act I with songs written to date. “Despite the fact that the first act ran two hours… it was extremely encouraging. We got much positive feedback and many helpful suggestions from the handful of friends and colleagues we invited to the reading.” Three more years of writing, additional readings, and a few workshops later, the show finally opened in its pre-Broadway tryout where it was again revised before it became a blockbuster hit.

3) Decide Who

Who should request them? Some of the most experienced writers schedule readings regularly to assess their program. Producers might organize them but it’s ultimately up the writers to express the need for a reading.

Who should be involved? For a staged reading, you are better off hiring a director, music director, and possibly even a casting director to help with details. You’ll also need sound support and possibly lighting design because varied lighting can help indicate passage of time and affect the audience’s response.

When selecting a director, look for someone who has experience with readings. It’s a different art to get good performances from actors for a reading with a short rehearsal period than for a full production with a long rehearsal period. A good director with dramaturgical skills can help your show’s development.

4) Decide Where

Some writers organize their own readings by renting a space. Others prepare materials to submit to one of the theater companies or festivals that produce readings. Check the suggestions in the Musical Writerzine for places to submit your show for a reading, especially Musical Writerzine issue 33.

5) Discuss Why

For a staged reading, the purpose is usually for an audience to help the writers assess the strengths and weaknesses of a script and score. A secondary purpose might be to help a director or theater company determine if the script merits further attention. It helps to discuss the goals in advance, including specific scenes that need the greatest focus.

For more about the “why” of readings, I finish with a passage in Stephen Sondheim’s book Finishing the Hat. In the chapter on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, he describes Jerry Robbins having the idea to test the show in an informal reading. In the early 60s readings were not common as they are now. “The reading, of course, turned out to be a revelation. Unadorned by scenery and costumes, unrehearsed, sung (by me) with no refinement and only approximate pitch, the show was stripped naked, plain for all of us to see at both its best and worst, as well as the dangerous territory in between….So much that had to be rewritten or filled out or cut down was suddenly clear.” He was grateful to have this revealed while the show was still malleable and not already in rehearsal for a pre-Broadway tryout. (Finishing the Hat, pages 81 and 82).

Copyright by Carol de Giere, 2016
Carol de Giere is the editor and publisher of Musical Writerzine as well as the author of the Stephen Schwartz biography Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked and The Godspell Experience, Inside a Transformative Musical.

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