by Aidan Carr
Looks like this.
There have been a couple historical models for developing new musicals. In the so-called “Golden Age,” shows grew via the out-of-town tryout—a month or so in New Haven or Philadelphia where changes would be made by gauging audience reception. The first number of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, “Comedy Tonight,” emerged from frantic out-of-town revisions. (This anecdote contains a valuable lesson in musical theatre craft that further entries will investigate.)
The main idea here is to introduce the work-in-progress to the world and see how it does—where do people tune out? Where do they sit on the edge of their seat? Are they laughing and in the right places? Worse, are they laughing and in the wrong places? When musicals made lots of money, an entire production in a separate city was worth the capital to put it up, despite it being an experiment: now, musicals are like films, costing millions of dollars, and producers are much more skeptical to throw millions of dollars at an untested product. Cue the reading.
A reading has the same goals—watch the audience, tweak as needed—as the out-of-town tryout, but none of the window dressing, both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it is cheap; fantastic sequences of, say, dancing dolls and malfunctioning sewing machines, can be left to the imagination. A curse because the imagination can provide more than just window dressing—it is easy to fool oneself and say “this will work with costumes and lights” when it really won’t. The pros outweigh the cons—out-of-town tryouts still occur, but typically after dozens of readings, each more ‘produced’ than the last.
An unstaged reading is the very bottom of the reading totem pole. Actors sit on stage in a row; when they are in a scene they stand, and sit otherwise. They memorize nothing: the scripts are in front of them on music stands. Someone even reads the stage directions.
Readings can come together very quickly—at NYU, the musical theatre writing program mounts unstaged readings of new work with actors that show up the morning of the performance and piano players who have never seen the score before. (Due to some last-minute drama, these actors read an entire ten minute script of mine, in front of an audience, that I handed to them as the performance began.)
Readings put material into the world, and for this they are invaluable. They are what catches the attention of investors, of producers, of other writers, of the press. More than this, though, they are crucial in finishing what it is you wish to share—they are the taste test before the Michelin chef adds a dish to his menu. And so it must be polished, elegantly and cleanly presented—even though you threw it together in a week. I have many ideas on how to polish my reading—look for them shortly.