Darwin’s Musical Theater Principles

Musical theater Darwinism is alive and well in SMASH.

I popped in for the first rehearsal of a new musical workshop last week – after introductions, the cast started in on a table read. And you better believe even at this first read through, every person around the table already knew the script backwards and forwards, could sing their songs with the accompanist, and was ready to hit the ground running. They were prepared.

Was this a rare group of overeager theater nerds with nothing better to do than study their scripts before a first rehearsal? Nope. Were they getting paid huge sums of money to do their homework? Nope. Had someone told them to come in off book? Nope.

These were simply smart musical theater professionals who were just doing their jobs. These savvy professionals also knew that if they walked into the first rehearsal unprepared, there would be a line of other actors who could step in and replace them at virtually a moment’s notice.

These artists understood that Darwin’s survival of the fittest principles are alive and well in NYC. Whether you’re a writer, director, designer or actor – you are expected to show up prepared or to go home.

Unfortunately, this level of preparedness is not always the norm in other places. In many cities across the country, where there is less competition for roles, I’ve seen casts and creatives who have only glanced at the script before heading into rehearsal. Sometimes it even seems like a protection mechanism – if you say, “I haven’t had a chance to go through the script” you won’t have be accountable for being “good” the first time. And you can get away with it because you know that you’re the only person in town who’s right (or available) to play the part.

As a result, you’ve lowered the bar, wasted rehearsal time, and the result, more often than not, is a musical that is not as high quality as it could have been if rehearsals had been used to hone the show rather than teaching lines and plunking music notes from scratch.

Showing up prepared is always appropriate no matter where you are or what the stated expectation. It only takes one person – YOU – to set an example and encourage others (or shame others) into doing the same. Eventually, to reference Darwin again, evolution will occur and before you know it, you can raise the bar, improve the rehearsal process, and have a better show on opening night.

So, next time you show up to the first rehearsal, whether you’re in North Dakota or New York City, set an example and BE PREPARED.


  1. THANK YOU. There is great relief in validation. And great frustration in repeating and repeating, whether I’m directing or musical directing or acting, that performers need to bring it.

  2. Truer words were never spoken. How often have you been in a show and wished for this level of professionalism? From Community Theater to Broadway, everyone should heed this advice! Thanks for the reminder, Brisa!

  3. WORD.

    We did a Sondheim night where a small group of guests would gather for dinner and a concert. There were a few people who really wanted a chance to sing, and we said sure! The professionals came with their parts learned, and mostly off-book, their music in a notebook. The aspiring professionals who were getting their *big chance* had not learned anything beforehand. Guess who we will work with again?

    I think we can all raise our game (including myself here!).

  4. I’d like to add a caveat to this — prepared does not always mean performance level for an actor. It can be dangerous to push a performance level too early. Many fine actors will stay very contained, even interiorized, during rehearsal so they don’t form bad habits with the character. This method way of working scares the daylights out of some directors and producers as they’re concerned the performance will be flat, not realizing the actor will flip the switch and bring it to life further down the road. On the flip side, some actors get nervous that they’ll be misjudged early on in rehearsal and start going for performance level prematurely. Not a good thing. I think the best solution is for the actor to talk to the director and explain his/her way of working so that they can have an in-sync rapport.

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