Light and Simple
I once had a publisher tell me that kid’s musical directors want “light” stories and “staging that is simple.” Is this you? What do you look for when choosing a musical? The publisher’s business is to know what his customers want. Are you looking for “light” and “simple”? Is this publisher’s presumption correct? As a musical director myself, I’d like to push back against that idea.
Musical directors want stories that are "light.” Meaning….what? That drama is not suitable for children? Kids don’t deal with complex ideas or issues? If you work with children, you know for a fact that kids’ lives can be very complicated. You also know that they are strongly affected by the situations they find themselves in. As educators and directors, aren’t we obliged to help kids deal with life’s difficulties? In my experience, children often welcome conversations about the hard things they face – unfairness, bullying, grief, rejection, and more. And they also have profound insights into these topics.
I once wrote a musical adaptation of Good Times on Grandfather Mountain, a beautiful story by Jacqueline Briggs-Martin about a man named Old Washburn, a “fine whittler” who faces hard times by whittling a drum from his lost cow’s milk bucket, drumsticks from the fenceposts of his runaway pig, and even a fiddle from the wood of his blown-down cabin. While he can’t escape trouble, he is determined not to let that trouble define him or change his outlook on life. I chose to adapt this story because the mother of several children in our school (also a personal friend of mine) was battling cancer. She was in the last stages and we all knew the inevitable was coming. While I didn’t discuss cancer directly with our students, we did have conversations about how to confront the terrible events we sometimes face. We sang ballads like Hard Times and This Too Shall Pass, but we also danced to bluegrass and honky tonk tunes called The Itch to Travel and Rompin’ and Stompin.’ That was a difficult school year, but our musical was one way in which we tried to support this struggling family.
When we as directors look for material which avoids “heavy” topics, what we’re avoiding is real life. Who benefits from light shows? The director, because the director doesn’t need to have deep conversations or confront gray areas and difficult situations. I completely understand why teachers, particularly those in public school settings, want to avoid any personal involvement in tangled family situations. However, these topics don’t have to become intimate to help kids and make a positive impact.
Also, stories with challenging topics don’t need to be sad or too adult for kids. If approached in the right way, they can be fun, and even funny! They can build empathy and a desire to help friends who are struggling. Additionally, the conversations around adversity help build a cast who support one another. We already know that theater has the power to change lives. Often, theater gives kids a friend-group and a voice they didn’t previously have. A powerful story simply adds to the impact of a positive theater experience.
If you are directing children’s drama in a church setting, you have an even greater reason to perform an impactful show. As people of faith, we are called to help the hurting, and that includes the children in our congregations. By relating stories which feature children like them facing tough situations, we can make scripture more relevant and meaningful. A great musical message can also launch mission projects such as clothing or shoe donations, foster care support, refugee resettlement, and more.
Regarding the publisher’s desire for shows with simple staging, this is certainly a reality for some directors. Time and resources are often at a premium. However, staging requirements shouldn’t rule out a show with an otherwise great story. Creative directors can find easier ways to create an illusion onstage. Most of us know that powerful drama will still happen even without a big expensive set or elaborate costumes. While those things are great if you have the time, expertise, and money to provide them, they don’t define a show. I would hate to rule out a wonderful story simply because the set may be tricky.
While publishers may find that easy, light children’s shows sell, we aren’t required to buy them. We, as directors, spend untold hours in rehearsal to produce musicals for kids. Why spend all those hours on shows with shallow characters, silly situations, and fluff music? You could spend the same amount of time and effort, have just as much fun, and make a real difference in the life of a child with a quality story, well-crafted kid-friendly music, and a life-changing message. Which will you choose?
Diane Beckstead is an educator, composer, and founder of Musicals for Change, a company devoted to quality kid’s musicals with a greater purpose. For each musical purchased, 10% will be donated to a partner charity. https://www.musicalsforchange.com
Music Educator, Composer, Founder: Musicals for Change
Musicals for Change
Musicals for Change produces children's musicals which raise awareness and funds for worthy causes.
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