While musical theatre productions at the high school level are a given today, that wasn’t always true. In the early 1960s, Dramatics Editor Leon C. Miller noted a rise in popularity among member schools producing musical shows.

HAVING TRAVELED throughout the country during the past six weeks attending Thespian state and regional conferences, I am tremendously impressed with the number of our affiliated schools that will present and already have presented musicals this year. This kind of theatre is mushrooming everywhere. And why not? Whether or not we favor musicals is no longer a moot question. They are accepted by our public, for they are the shows that bring out the SRO signs.

I have to date seen three productions of Bye Bye Birdie since October 1 at Hibbing, Minn.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; and Cincinnati, Ohio. They were excellent shows, but more impressive is that the houses were sold out for each performance — and there were from three to four performances at each school! In Cincinnati, tickets went on sale for an additional presentation because of the demand.

Connersville, Ind., High School presented The King and I on November 16 and 17. And at the time of this writing, I am sure that many other schools have likewise presented or will present other productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musical shows — Oklahoma!CarouselSouth Pacific — as well as Show BoatAnnie Get Your Gun, and Babes in Arms.

All play publishers are aware of this demand for musicals. Samuel French now offers such non-Broadway musical comedies as First Impressions, Abe Burrows’ adaptation of Helen Jerome’s Pride and Prejudice. Other French musical productions which are rapidly becoming popular in the amateur field are Plain and FancyGood NewsVagabond King, and Seventeen.

The Dramatic Publishing Company likewise is keeping up with the times by adapting a number of straight plays as musicals, including Around the World in 80 DaysOur Hearts Were Young and GayLute Song, and Cheaper by the Dozen.

Music Theatre International also controls outstanding musicals popular with our high schools, such as The Boy FriendDamn YankeesGuys and DollsWhere’s Charley?Tom SawyerAll in Love, and Little Mary Sunshine.

And, of course, Tams-Witmark’s musicals, in addition to Bye Bye Birdie, are also much in demand, including Kiss Me, KateBrigadoonCalamity JaneFinian’s Rainbow; Girl CrazyLi’l AbnerWildcat; and the operettas of Victor Herbert.

This 1963 advertisement in Dramatics touts Bye Bye Birdie as the most-produced musical in high schools during the 1962-63 season.
This 1963 advertisement in Dramatics touts Bye Bye Birdie as the most-produced musical in member high schools during the 1962-63 season.

Current Broadway musicals and still nationwide traveling musicals not yet released for amateur production which are worth watching are The Sound of MusicMy Fair LadyCarnivalCamelot, and The Music Man, which may now be available.

Of course, it costs more to produce a musical show, but on the other hand, sell-out performances will still net sizable profits. I know of one school in the south that presented The King and I for four performances at a cost of $2,500; yet this school had a net profit of $2,500.

But there is more to be said about musical shows than SRO signs and net profits. What other activity in a school will encourage and challenge all other departments to work on one project? — music department; workshops for building and painting scenery; home economics for costumes; art department for scenery, posters, program, and stage settings; language departments when accents are required; history and English departments for research; physical education departments for choreography.

Even other extracurricular activities have their work cut out for them, such as the school newspaper (publicity), annual (photography), student council (organizational work) — this listing can be so broad to cover all activities.

Thus, the musical becomes an all-school project — and rightly so. In some school districts, it is really a school and community project. The musical show is indeed a real shot in the arm for the drama department of your school.

The 1967 Aurora (Ill.) West Senior High School production of Little Mary Sunshine.

From the above, you will conclude that I am enthusiastically in favor of musical shows, and you are so right. On the other hand, the musical is only a part of the entire theatre program. It is not the only production of the year. There are still the straight three-act plays, one-act plays for assemblies and festivals, and of course the all-important theatre for children. They must not be discontinued, nor hastily presented. I firmly recommend, as I have throughout the years, a well-rounded and comprehensive theatre program. Such must be the aim of every theatre department.

“Live” musicals are the answer to the competition of the living room television. And if they are done well, your community will again become conscious of your other productions. There is no substitute for theatre with its color, costumes, and living characterizations. Most persons want an occasional night out — and good high school theatre gives them that opportunity. Get on the musical bandwagon — your neighboring high school may have already taken that ride.

This story appeared in the January 1963 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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