September 2003

A Musical is Born!

The art of directing musicals.


Director Randal Kleiser with actors Olivia Newton John and John Travolta on the set of Grease

From classics like Cabaret to recent successes such as Chicago and Moulin Rouge, musicals are a recurring theme in American moviemaking history.

During Outfest 2003, DGA Third Vice President Paris Barclay moderated “The Art of Directing Musicals,” comprised of a panel of filmmakers familiar with the craft.

According to Billie Woodruff (director of the urban rags-to-riches tale Honey opening in November), music videos can be a successful starting point for aspiring directors who aim to produce musical features.

“The former president of Motown Records knew me from my music video work and showed me the script to Honey,” Woodruff recalls. “He called me right away, brought me in to Universal the next day, and a week later I was hired.”

Getting the job may have been easy, but delivering the project wasn’t Unlike conventional musicals such as Chicago, contemporary projects such as Honey, or Carmen: A Hip Hopera often require constant choreography and songwriting changes on the fly.

“Our choreographer had to map things out to tempos that would then have to be changed,” said Woodruff. “The actors, including Jessica Alba, had to rehearse to material that didn’t end up becoming part of the final score. You could say my music video experience came in handy—because I didn’t freak out.”

Grease director Randal Kleiser, whose current projects include a retelling of the classic Little Red Riding Hood story with music by Bruce Roberts, believes musical filmmaking’s top challenge involved coordinating choreography and music.

Barclay, Shankman and Woodruff share a laugh during the Outfest 2003 DGA Panel A Musical is Born!

“Choreographer Patricia Bush did the Broadway version of Grease, and knew everything about where laughs were and how timing broke down,” Kleiser said. “We adjusted her choreography from stage to screen; she’d work with the dancers in the morning, I’d work with the actors, then we’d switch. When we were on-set, she focused on the dancers while I worked with the actors and cameramen—but tremendous prep time was required throughout.”

Sometimes, more personal challenges emerge for musical directors.

“The song ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ hadn’t been written,” Kleiser said, “but part of [Grease co-star] Olivia [Newton John]’s contract was a solo. Someone brought the song in and I thought it sounded too country & western. But she said, ‘I like it,’ and slammed the door. It went in the movie and won an Academy Award.”

Director/choreographer Adam Shankman’s future projects include a Disney remake of The Nutcracker Suite based on the Duke Ellington score, with new material from Alicia Keys.

“Taking on the classics can be scary,” said Shankman, “But the difficulty of doing modern musicals is that they can become period pieces almost instantly.”

Funding concerns are a perennial dilemma for directors in all genres, but low-budget projects are particularly tricky when they’re musicals, according to Carmen executive producer Loretha Jones.

Bille Woodruff, Adam Shankman, moderator Paris Barclay, Kleiser and Loretha Jones gathered to form the Outfest 2003 DGA Panel A Musical is Born!

“The good news was that they offered me the project. The bad news—I had to do it for $3 million in 16 days. I had to come up with a lot of things for no money, from sets to cast to material that had to be developed quickly throughout.”

Adapting Bizet’s operatic tale to a hip-hop theme proved too daunting, but having an unusually fast and talented songwriter on board helped.”

“We looked at contemporary beats to the original opera,” said Jones, “From a script of about 90 pages, about 50 pages were lyrics for actors to rap or sing. [Lyricist] Sekani [Williams] would go into the room and come back in 15 minutes with  phenomenal material. We were working with a lot of major hip-hop stars—Beyonce Knowles, Wyclef Jean, Mos Def, Bow Wow—and they never changed a thing.”

What is the required skillset for directors who want to do musicals?

“You have to really, really like them,” quipped Shankman.

“You have to have both a sense of visuals and a sense of rhythm,” added Kleiser. “You have to see it in your head while you’re listening to the music, because when you cut it later it has to flow.”

“You have to love music and believe in the magic of musicals,” said Woodruff. “And no everyone does.”


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