School Musical 101: Choosing a show


So you want to Direct/Produce your own school musical? It’s not an easy task by any means but very do-able  so I thought I’d share what wisdom I could on the process and explain the process in chunks. Overall the required timing for preparing a school musical is approximately 5 months, depending on the show. This brings me to the first thing you need to consider, choosing a show.

You want to pick a fun show you love right? You want to pick a show everyone knows and everyone will be excited about seeing on stage? So you think you’ve found the perfect show and you decide you are going to do Wicked, right? Wrong, choosing a school
musical needs to be a very practical process as this will determine how difficult the rehearsal process will be, how successful your show will be within the community and most importantly; can you legally perform it?

CAN YOU LEGALLY PERFORM IT? Obtaining the rights

This is the practical make or break for whether or not you can perform a show. You need to obtain the performance rights for any production of licensed musicals for three reasons:


– The writers/composers of the show should be rewarded for their creative work.

– It is difficult to obtain the libretto(script) and different orchestrations required to put on the show.

A lot of modern popular musicals aren’t actually available for licensing for non-professional productions, the most common ones people ask about that aren’t available in Australia are: The Lion King, Wicked*, Mamma Mia, We Will Rock You, Matilda along with many others. is a great website which lists almost every musical that one would want to perform and whether or not the performance license is available.

*Note: Wicked has just been made available in limited release

In order to get your license approved, you need to contact the license holder of your desired musical. If you can’t decide on a show, it’s also worth visiting their website to browse the different shows available. Below are the most common rights-holders websites:


This is essential, but difficult to determine, especially if this is your first production at a school. Generally what I have found is that you rarely have an issue finding girls who can sing, it’s more a matter of how many boys you have. To combat this worry I suggest having a meeting during lunch time just to see who is interested in participating in the production. DON’T tell students what shows you’re thinking of doing as this will just lead to disappointment when plans inevitably change. While some school’s are limited by gender and race, I personally would never do anything to ruin the credibility of the show. There are often character roles which I would be willing sometimes swap gender for example in Little Shop of Horrors, I’d be happy with having a Mrs Mushnik or even having a male play Miss Hannigan, however, I would not be ok with putting on a production of Hairspray without anyone who is black. I find it offensive and it compromises the meaning of the story, especially when the lyrics say “I can’t see why people look at me and only see the colour of my face” it’s just embarrassing. If you are short on talent you can always speak to other teachers and see if there are any students you approach directly or even create a partnership with a neighbouring school. NOTE: If you change the characters you will need to clear it with the rights holders first.

The other end of the spectrum is picking a show that has enough roles for lots of students. Most websites will tell you how big your ensemble is, but the best way to tell is to watch a recorded version of the show and you might find you can beef up the ensemble in some songs. Also, play to your school’s strengths. If you have a lot of dancers at the school pick a dancing show like Fame.


Although I will cover budgeting in my next blog, it still plays a part in choosing a show. Certain shows require certain moments; whether it be set (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – Car, Phantom Of the Opera – Chandelier) or costumes (Beauty and the Beast),while you don’t have to have these features, you will either need money or a creative designer willing to engineer alternatives to stay within your budget. I’ll cover more on this in the next blog though. Shows that overall are reasonably cheap to produce are: Grease, All Shook Up, Back to the 80s, The Boyfriend. If it isn’t the first musical your school has done find out what the audience size normally is, you can then get a rough estimate of income from a show. I’m yet to direct a school production which has lost money, but my general budget is set from $20 000-$30 000.


The general ethos of a school musical is that it creates a positive experience for the students that they can share with the community. It is for this reason you should make sure the show you pick is appropriate for all audiences. While in theatre there is no classification system, you need common sense when broaching the appropriateness of a show. I for instance would never do Sweeney Todd at a high school as I feel it is too violent and I wouldn’t be able to do it justice in a toned down version. I would also never do Chicago as I also wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching students to do “Cell Block Tango”. If you have your heart set on a particular show there are junior versions of shows which have been toned down and cut in length. I personally think they’re a waste of time as there are plenty full-length shows you can do, plus they have a tendency to affect your marketing as you’re required to put “School Edition” on the advertising.


You want it to be an interesting show for you, the students and the audience. If a show is good you’ll find that students are less likely to drop out, it creates a much more positive vibe around the school and you will actually be prepared to watch it a thousand times being rehearsed! Also, like any creative project it is important to be connected to it and you liking the show may play a very important part in that. I for one would never ever direct High School Musical, because I loath it. I’ve been lucky enough to be in a position where I’ve been able to make the choice independently from a principal or head teacher getting too involved, but sometimes  you have to play with the cards you’ve been dealt and get on with the show.

So I hope this rough guide has given some direction on where yo start. My final piece of advice is like every aspect of a school musical, you need to be organised! Booking the rights for a show can take up to 2 months to finalise, so best to do it sooner rather than later! Get Booking, next blog will be on how to budget a show and getting a production team together.


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