The Magic from Broadway Workshop to the Stage

Welcome back for more dance talks with Keats! Have you ever wondered how to make a Broadway musical or thought, how does Broadway work? Oh good, cause that’s what I’m gonna tell you about. 

Every process is pretty different and I have witnessed, first-hand, the complete creation of one musical, the second half of the process of another, and the third production, I recently just started with. All three productions have been different in many ways, besides one common element. Time. From my experience, the creation of a production happens pretty quickly with major deadlines -- starting with Broadway workshops or developmental labs and hopefully ending with a full stage production on Broadway! 

It may take years for a writer and composer to work on the music, lyrics, and book for a musical. They hem and haw and ponder if they should use one word over another, but once they secure producers behind them, things really start to take off. And in today’s Broadway world where the turnover can be stomach churningly fast, when a show gets a green light they have to GO!

Creating new work is so hard but at the same time, it is so fulfilling when you see the finished product for the first time.

For the brand new musical, DIANA, which just had its out-of-town tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse from January to April, the entire creation process was merely four weeks long. That’s four weeks to teach the cast music that has never been heard before, stage all the book scenes with a set that was still being built, choreograph all the dance numbers to music that wasn’t orchestrated yet, and get everyone fit into costumes that were still being constructed. 

Now I know you may be thinking, yeah Keats, but didn’t you do Damn Yankees and do all of that in basically a week? And the answer would be yes, but here’s the major difference. Everything in a brand new musical is up in the air and can be completely changed or altered at any moment! You aren’t locked into a script or to a general costume design or even harmonies that are tried and true. It’s one of the coolest parts and also the most stressful elements of creating a new show. There were rehearsals where we would try three or four different harmonies while learning a song and then change them all again the next day or even weeks later. There were times where we realized a part of a dance needed to be changed, which forced some people to reverse the choreography for half the dance and then, whoops, two days later that whole chunk of the number was scrapped. And lines. Oh man. Memorize them quick and be able to change them even faster because there’s nothing quite like a few words in a line change to mess you up while you’re still trying to figure out how to not get hit by a set piece moving at you. And trust me, never get in a fight with an automated set piece. It will always win. Always.

I know that this all sounds super intense and to make it sound even more dramatically awesome I would like to do something I would normally never do. I am gonna compare these experiences to a recent performance by Beyoncé. Yes, reckless perhaps, and may the “Bee Hive” forgive me, but recently she created, rehearsed, and performed her perfected, nearly two-hour long Coachella performance. Queen B had eight months to rehearse her show. Eight months. That’s longer than a run of some Broadway shows! In fact, in some cases, eight months is considered a decent run for a production. That just goes to show the amount of money and time Beyoncé is able to spend on her shows. Not to mention, she can scour over the smallest detail or piece of choreography. On top of that, all of her music already existed in some form. She had eight months to make what was already great, legendary. So to think that some of our favorite musicals of all time were created in four weeks of rehearsal, two weeks of tech, and two weeks of previews -- a total of eight weeks --  is incredible and we have to give credit to the amazing people who make musicals happen.

Recording tap tracks for Escape to Margaritaville in La Jolla
Recording tap tracks for Escape to Margaritaville in La Jolla

So, let me break down how some of the shows I’ve been a part of have used this short amount of time to create a full show. Usually, week one is given to the music team and a whole week is a luxury. It’s rare that the cast gets more than a couple hours on each song, and you better be ready to go home and practice because the faster the cast can learn the music the easier it is to marry the moves to the words and harmonies. In DIANA, one of the coolest things was having our music director, Ian Eisendrath, choreograph our voices. That may sound weird but that’s really what it felt like. He was sure to use every second he had with us to shape, not only what notes we sang, but the intention and quality of them. Drilling them as fast as possible became important because week two was all about starting movement and staging.

If the choreographer has been granted pre-production time to start working on numbers, this stage in the process can move really quickly too. Sometimes there has been a developmental lab or Broadway workshop before a show moves out of town so the choreographer can use dancers to test out whole numbers. However, none of this is a guarantee. Even if you have set time before the start of a process, setting choreography on people is never quick. And for choreographers who are like Kelly Devine who want to make sure everyone in the cast looks great and is telling a story while they’re dancing, it may take even longer to find the world in which the dance vocabulary lives. Also, huge shout out to Kelly who just won an Olivier Award for choreographing for a show with not a single trained dancer in it. That takes some creative movement creation and patience. In Escape to Margaritaville, I remember Kelly once said she had to figure out something new because a step was too similar to another show’s choreography she had created. I really respect her attention to reinvention of steps and vocabulary of a choreographer’s movement.

Everyone in the cast leaves their mark on the show.

Usually, the goal by the end of week two is to have staged and choreographed Act 1. By the end of week three, we should have staged and set Act 2. Then week four, is used to go back and making changes and do runs of the show to see if it is physically possible, makes sense to the audience, and make any final adjustments needed because when we hit the deck for tech, changes are hard to make. 

In tech it’s now the chance for the crew and costumers to figure out what their show tracks are, while the design teams are making us all look and sound good and the creative teams are making sure the show translates well on stage. After about a week and a half into the two weeks of tech, the goal is to start running the show because once we start previews, it’s time again for changes. ALL THE CHANGES! 

Preview weeks for a new show really are when all the exciting things happen. The schedule is nuts. Rehearsal during the day, a few hours off for lunch, and then a performance. Depending on the director, there could also be notes after the show. In Paramour, I joined the cast during previews and was trying to learn my first track as they were constantly changing the show. OI remember one time, I was part of the creation of a new piece of choreography for the ending number. We, as dancers, went into the rehearsal room and collectively created the piece, while being guided by our dance captain. Then that afternoon it was tech-ed and that night it went in the show. The next night they tried it in different costumes and then it was cut and gone. There was another part of the show that went from being a female dancer’s solo, to a male and female duet, to a male solo, to a male dancer interacting with a female aerialist, to just being the aerialist in all about a week. Just one 30-second part of the show changed again and again. 

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In Escape to Margaritaville, it was always the jokes that changed. We had writers who more often wrote for TV and so they were not afraid to make huge slashes to their work. If a joke didn’t land once, there were three new options the next day. In a musical, you get a new page for your script every time something changes. So each day, we would come in and there would be at least seven new pages, on average. Sometimes, whole scenes were re-worked, while other times, just a one-liner was switched out. More than once we had test pages with three potential line options and during rehearsal, the director would decide which one would go into the show that night. 

As an actor of course this is stressful and at some point you feel like changes were being made because you didn’t execute the lines well enough. Inevitably, there are times when your favorite moment will get cut from the show and you’ll spiral for a day thinking you made someone on the creative team upset and they cut your feature. But in reality, it’s just everyone trying to make the show better. In Paramour, about six months into the process we had a refurbishment of our show and made major changes to the choreography and were given a whole new script. It was unsettling to have sat in a show for that long and then have all of the moments you know and love get switched around. The tap solo that was my Broadway debut became a supporting moment to the dancing divas coming down the grand staircase. One person’s character got cut completely and someone else was granted an entire character and scene. Crazy, I know, but that’s what’s so cool about previews and show creation to me. Everyone in the cast leaves their mark on the show. The little stylistic things in each track become my favorite bits to watch. In some cases, someone sells a moment so well that it’s worth keeping around. 

In reality, it’s just everyone trying to make the show better

I think what’s also incredible about creating any show is how all the various teams work together to collaborate their artistic talents and share their time with the performers. This goes from watching the choreographer make suggestions to the music team so the beats match up to where she wants to hit the accents; to seeing the director give guidance to lighting about the tone of a scene; and to witnessing a set come to life for the first time as the cast figures out how to play in it. In the first version of Escape to Margaritaville, I was instructed to slip out through a hidden exit into a mountain set piece. Because it was a new set piece, I played a part in figuring out that padding was needed for me to fall through the hole -- the collective creation process at its finest. 

I love seeing shows in previews and then again once they are frozen and open. I love trying to catch the minor changes from their first to final draft. Seeing what new bits have developed or been added is what makes the show creation process so exhilarating. I love watching cast members settle into their show and find their groove. Whenever I see a new show or an old show, for that matter, I think about how fast the creation process is. When there are weird moments in a show or awkward transitions I understand that sometimes you just run out of time. And in a sweet way I end up appreciating those oddities -- remnants of a past version of the show that snuck in under the creative radar. Creating new work is so hard but at the same time, it is so fulfilling when you see the finished product for the first time. There really isn’t anything else quite as terrifyingly amazing as performing a new work for the first time in front of an audience and thinking halfway through, “We made this happen!” That’s the real theater magic.

About the author

A competitive dancer for ten years, Keats then made the leap (probably a switch second) to college and after earning a BFA in performance dance from the University of California, Irvine, he made the jump (Sauter de chat for sure this time) from working as a parade performer for the Disney corporation to dancing on cruise ships. After a year at sea, he taught as a guest artist in residence for a semester at Colorado Mesa University. Since moving to New York, Keats has been fortunate to work regionally (Pioneer Theater/ Sacramento Music Circus/ Alabama Shakespeare Festival/ La Jolla Playhouse) as well as performing in New York with Radio City's Christmas Spectacular (fittingly as the Sugar Plum Fairy Bear) and on Broadway in Escape to Margaritaville and Cirque Du Soleil's Paramour. He is a passionate, full out dancer who enjoys cultivating an entertaining life in NYC.