Every year, the Franklin High School (FHS) theater department puts on a musical. Last spring they produced “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” This year, the fall production is “Mamma Mia,” a musical built around songs by ABBA, a 1970s Swedish pop band with many recognizable hits, such as “Waterloo” and “Dancing Queen.” According to Josh Forsythe, FHS’s theater director, “Mamma Mia” was chosen because he wanted something with a lot of parts for seniors, as well as plenty of chorus roles. Additionally, Forsythe said another reason he chose “Mamma Mia” was because of the music: “I love ABBA.”
In any musical, an immense amount of effort has to go into the production process beyond what you see on stage. There are people who make costumes, design and build sets, manage lighting and sound during performances, play music in the pit band, and more. There’s a huge amount of work and a massive time commitment going into the show from so many people.
Every weekday, the cast rehearses for around three hours. But there are people rehearsing different aspects of the production every day, at different times. “On Saturdays, the set crew comes in [as well as] costumes and lights, and they’re working Saturday from nine o’clock until two o’clock. The band comes in every week, or every weekend,” said Forsythe. “In a lot of cases we’re rehearsing in three, sometimes four separate locations all at the same time. So we’re in the mainstage, we’re in here, in the black box, we’re in the dance room, and in the choir room, and we’re all rehearsing for different groups.”
“Mamma Mia” also presents a few unique challenges, most notably the large number of songs it contains. “There are 28 songs, and an average musical has 20 […] but we’re having a hard time [cutting songs] because we like them so much.” said Forsythe. The show also has a slightly more compressed time frame than most musicals. Forsythe explained that, “Because of the way the calendar worked out this year, we ended up having one less week, but we’re doing fine.”
One of the key groups in the execution of the musical is the pit band, who provides the live instrumentals throughout the show. At a recent rehearsal I visited, the pressure of time and the urgency of the impending deadline were very present as they worked songs they hadn’t yet played together before the opening night in two weeks. They got through the songs quickly despite the pressure, but in talking to one of the members of the pit band, I later learned that they still had to dedicate a significant amount of their own time to working through the songs, including having to miss up to several class periods a day in order to practice.
“It’s been difficult,” said Jason Owens, the band director at FHS, “Because there’s […] still your normal classes, there’s still pep band, there are still other things to do, and so you have to find time to practice with these musicians […] and the people in the pit have to be able to practice on their own a fair amount.”
The integration of all the different groups is also an important part of the musical production process. The pit band musicians weren’t just practicing for the start of shows, but also for a sitzprobe, a musical cue to cue runthrough with the cast. The final product has to be a collaboration between everyone who has worked on the show, and as it gets closer to the deadline, the different parts of the show need to merge their rehearsals in order to practice and coordinate parts together.
“This is a time-sensitive art form,” said Forsythe at the beginning of an after-school rehearsal. He elaborated by describing how other art forms can be sold when they’re done, but a musical has to be sold at a particular date beforehand, and then worked towards and presented in whatever state it’s in. As the deadline approaches, the stress increases. Any musical—but particularly such a fast paced and song heavy one—takes a tremendous amount of effort and coordination. It’s easy to overlook the amount of effort and time that people put into a production like this, but whether onstage or off, everyone involved deserves recognition. And you can come appreciate their efforts on Nov. fourth through the sixth and the 10th through 12th. Tickets are available on the FHS website.