How to Choose a Musical In a Small School

Musical theatre can be so daunting—Can I really teach kids to sing? Can I teach choreography? Of course, you can!

For most musical comedies appropriate for high school students, the singing is not as important as you might think. If you have a couple of good singers, you can pull it off. I have done musicals for twenty years now, and most years I have maybe two kids that can really sing. The rest of them can look cute and sing a song that is supposed to be funny anyway, OR they can sing in a chorus. You can do this, and it is such an awesome experience for kids. It gives them so much variety outside of the regular straight play you do every year for OAP.

If you are deciding to do a musical for the first time, you probably want to try a “junior” type musical or one written specifically for high school kids. I have had lots of luck with Music Theatre International’s Junior series. I have done Into the Woods, Guys and Dolls, Annie, and Fiddler on the Roof all from the Junior series. All of these are condensed to around an hour, and the music is written in a key that is easy for kids to handle.

Into the Woods

For Into the Woods, there are tons of songs. As you know, Into the Woods is full of music that is a little off-beat and unusual, but kids LOVE it. They love that it is a twisted fairy tale, they love the songs, and they love the humor and fabulous costumes. You will need a couple of girls that can sing, but don’t have to be fabulous. All the male singers can make it happen if they can just carry a tune and look cute. It can be staged in a very minimalistic way or full out traditional. I have directed it a couple of different times, and both times I totally decked out the stage with 12 foot trees that continued up into the curtains, live trees and branches all over the stage, cool lighting, and special effects. BUT, you could do a blank stage with maybe a ladder to represent Rapunzel’s tower, for example.  Have the baker and his wife come out with a cart to represent their bakery. For costumes, I promise you have things in your costume closet that can be tweaked a little bit to work for this show. Since I did mine in a traditional way, I just pulled out old costumes I had made for a Shakespeare show years ago and tweaked them a bit to give them a fairy tale look. Always hit the costume aisles at Wal-Mart and Target around Halloween and you would be surprised what you can find when you need little touches for a show like this. As a matter of fact, hit those aisles every year on Halloween and especially on November 1 to stock up on marked down items that you need to stock your costume and prop room.

Guys and Dolls, Annie, and Fiddler on the Roof

For Guys and Dolls, Annie, and Fiddler I used a minimal set. As a matter of fact for Guys and Dolls and Fiddler, I rented backdrops to hang and they worked beautifully. Again, all the costumes were things that I had in the costume closet with the exception of the mission girls in Guys and Dolls and Annie’s dress in Annie. I rented those costumes.

Bigger shows that I have done have been Oklahoma, Grease, Bye-Bye Birdie, and Little Shop of Horrors.


Grease, although much more expensive to purchase rights, etc., is an easy one to stage. For more on purchasing musical royalties, read our post on it here. I just took a couple of picnic tables, built up the unit set to look like the steps of the school, and had a small bedroom set roll out for the slumber party. We also made adorable foam board cars in my tech class and glittered them up for the drive-in scene. This show is a huge crowd-pleaser and the community LOVES it. They love it because they are already familiar with the movie version. Make sure to do the play version and not add the songs that were created just for the movie. It is tempting to do those, and you can do them with permission from the publisher, but it is just not the same. Your audiences will love the songs the way they are written. This one was HUGE for us financially. People will come out for Grease, and it may be something you need to look at when choosing a musical. Is the musical you choose one that the community will support and love or is it one that they have never heard of and may not be as interested in? Another thing to be aware of with Grease…..think about your community standards. Some schools have no problem with the content, smoking, drinking, pregnancy scare, etc. in the show and other schools encounter lots of issues. Just be careful and make sure your administration is behind you. There is a high school version available now that might be more suitable for more conservative communities.

Oklahoma, Bye-Bye Birdie and Little Shop of Horrors

Oklahoma, Bye-Bye Birdie and Little Shop are also much more expensive to produce than the junior type shows, but they are crowd-pleasers for sure. Bye-Bye Birdie was easy for us to stage. We just used some furniture that we already had in stock to create the interior, a desk and chair down right to create the office, and then some unit set pieces build up to resemble the front of the school which later became the courthouse area. At first thought, this show seems like an oldie that kids wouldn’t get, but it turned out to be an awesome show for us. I had one girl and one boy that could sing and the rest of them just pulled it off being cute and funny. The comedy in this show is fabulous. Conrad and Kim’s dad are especially funny. Once kids get it that musical comedy is sometimes corny and cheesy, they are able to embrace it and have fun.

When we did Oklahoma, I had just lost a senior who went off to college to study theatre. She and a group of new freshmen got picked to go to the Oklahoma Shakespeare Festival and work for the summer. They always produce the musical Oklahoma and these kids managed to all get roles in the chorus. So, after she got home and we started back to school, she came up and spent a few days with my kids teaching them the dances and WOW it was awesome. I never could have done the choreography without her. It just worked out perfectly. I did spend a huge amount of time on the set. I had some dads build a small frame farmhouse upstage right and we covered it in strips of cardboard and gingerbread trim. Painted it yellow and white and built a porch on it. It was so cute.

Of course, for Little Shop, the most difficult, yet impressive, piece of the set is Audrey 2. I made a PVC frame and then made a plant “costume” for it out of a sturdy canvas and stuffed it. After that was done, I painted the canvass to resemble the plant. I really think it looked just as good as what I could have rented for hundreds of dollars.

No matter what you choose, use your resources: parents, money, beg, borrow, etc. I always go by my rule of “good, cheap, easy”………with costumes, props, and sets. It can be two of those things, but it will never be all three. It might be good and easy to just rent Audrey 2, but it won’t be cheap. It might be cheap and easy to buy costumes at the dollar store, but they won’t be good. That rule has gotten me through many situations and has taught my kids how to evaluate issues of building, sewing, renting, or buying. Break a leg!