Choreographing For Musical Theatre – Making Moves

Is choreographing for musical theatre any different than making dances in other situations?

Yes and no.

You will need all the usual choreographic tools in your toolbox.

BUT you’ll need to make adjustments to creatively use and adapt these tools for choreographing movement in a musical.

I’ll give you some hints and ideas, but first, a bit about the choreographic process and your toolbox:

Actors in the musical Legally Blonde perform a production number.

Photo courtesy Eva Rinaldi

Got Skills?

No matter what you are choreographing, original movement will come out of improvising, experimenting, and exploring a concept. From there, the choreography is ‘set’, sometimes before rehearsals, sometimes during, and sometimes both. We call this the choreographic process. Everyone’s process is slightly different.

My 5-year old “choreographs”. When a song literally moves him, he finds movements he likes and then repeats or plays with them. He hears a change in the music (like from verse to chorus) and his movement changes. Often he remembers a movement he’s done and goes back to it when he hears the corresponding music. Sometimes when he hears the song again later, he can recall some or all of his special dance.

It’s choreography at its most basic, but the process isn’t all that different for you or I.

YOUR box of composition tools is developed over time and will be rooted in your knowledge and prior experience as a dancer, a performer, and choreographer. Such devices generally have to do with manipulating movement. Repetition, direction, and tempo mutations are among my son’s favorites, but in the tips that follow, I’m going to assume your skill and experience in making, setting, and arranging movement is greater than a Kindergartener’s.

Additional skills/experience you need to make musical theatre choreography:

  • A working knowledge of the crafts of acting, staging, and singing (first-hand experience is a big plus).
  • A regular intake of LIVE theatre and musicals… see a lot of them. Movie musicals are great but so very different in scope and limitation from the stage.

Make Your Moves

You’ve already got skills. Now adapt these to musical theatre choreography. The following considerations aren’t necessarily absent in other dance works, ballet, or recital and competition routines, they’re just super important when making movement for theatrical productions.

Get inspired

As mentioned above, see the live show, rent the movie version, watch video, choreography or documentaries on related themes. Research cultural or period dances and lifestyles. This will prepare and inspire you as you begin your process.

Remember, drawing inspiration for your work from others can be beneficial but copying entire sections of choreography (unless they are provided with the license and script of a musical) is taking someone’s work as your own.

Not to mention, what has been designed for professional dancers and actors will probably not suffice if your actors are less-experienced amateurs.

Let character drive

Keep character in mind when you create or collaborate on the movement.

Every actor portrays a very specific character (or characters) in a musical. Every action and choice made on stage is ideally developed with this character in mind. As choreographer, you are part of the process of character development. With communication, your vision should align with the director’s and the actor’s vision for a character.

Sometimes movement or movement quality for a character is self-evident. Animals, toys, and children, for example, move a certain way. The Whos, Horton, and Mayzie LaBird in Suessical; the well-known characters of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown; The Wolf in Into the Woods; the Brothers in Wind in the Willows; all these characters will have specific and inherent ways of moving.

Other characters may have a movement style that is a little more open to interpretation. Still, a Rizzo shakes her hips differently than a Frenchy; a Roxie Hart lifts her arms overhead in a way Eliza Doolittle never would, or could in that corset!

To come up with character-driven movement, first try some improvisation and get into character yourself. If you can make time in the rehearsal schedule, have actors explore movement that works on their own bodies, too.

Find music that matches the character you are working on (it need not come from the show). You could use the music for which the choreography is being set but this can be limiting. It’s often better to be free of this when generating ideas.

Encourage the actors to move or improvise like their characters. Acting-class games can usually be adapted and applied in movement sessions too.

Once you have a vocabulary of movements for the character and see what your actors’ strengths are, you can draw from that vocabulary to create the dance.

When a group of characters are dancing together, you might take the same basic movements but have each dancer modify the movement to fit their character, individualizing arm and hand movements or varying dynamics or qualities in the movement.

Let story lead

Big, “dancey” choreography doesn’t always make sense in the context of a scene or a production. Many musicals require a decidedly pedestrian movement palette (walking, everyday gestures, pantomime, etc.).

Even when the number calls for full-out dancing by some or all of the cast, it’s still on you to suspend the disbelief of the audience, making it perfectly acceptable that office workers barrel leap to their desks, or gang members pirouette before delivering a punch.

It’s easier said than done, but your job as choreographer is to convert familiar or everyday movements into something musically and visually appropriate in the context of the show.

This is where I bluntly tell you that…

Still, musical numbers shouldn’t just be “walking around” or singing and waving arms, either.

There are two main steps to making movement that really fits the story.

1. Reflect on the scene that your musical number resides within. How does it move the plot from point A to point B?

Sometimes musical numbers don’t move the story much at all but, even if just gets your characters through the cleanup of their clambake, all your movement choices and direction should make sense in that context.

Pay close attention to the scene after the song. Usually something important happens here, so find ways to help set-up the moment or emotional tone in the choreography if you can.

2. Exaggerate the everyday.

Experiment with abstraction when getting down to creating movement. The 5 Degrees of Abstraction exercise described in this article is perfect for developing movement based on character and story.

Take any “image” (an everyday movement) and manipulate it five times (make it bigger or smaller, use a different body part, imagine you’re doing it in zero-gravity… don’t think too much). Each of the five movements is more abstract, or further from the original, than the last. The fifth may not be easily recognized as related but the essence of the original is still there, no matter how small the connection.

You may use all five abstractions in one piece of choreography. Those big, “dancey” numbers may use the fourth and fifth abstractions. The pedestrian numbers may use only the first or second-level mutation. You might use less abstracted movements for certain characters or for actors with less dance experience.

Speaking of inexperienced movers:

Dance feels like a native language to those who have been “speaking” it since a young age. For “non-dancers” with limited training or experience, moving to music can look and feel completely foreign.

When working with this group, the following is key.

Time! You’ll need more of it in the rehearsal schedule to both experiment with and learn choreography.

Flexibility! Be ready to change or adapt anything you’ve planned in advance.

Patience! You’ll need a ton of it but you’ll need to temper it with authority and discipline to get things done.

So, those are my essentials for adapting the choreographic process to a musical production.

What would you add?

What are your questions or challenges when creating movement for actors or for musicals?

Nichelle (owner/editor)
Nichelle Suzanne is a writer specializing in dance and online content. She is also a dance instructor with over 20 years experience teaching in dance studios, community programs, and colleges. She began Dance Advantage in 2008, equipped with a passion for movement education and an intuitive sense that a blog could bring dancers together. As a Houston-based dance writer, Nichelle covers dance performance for Dance Source Houston, Arts+Culture Texas, and other publications. She is a leader in social media within the dance community and has presented on blogging for dance organizations, including Dance/USA. Nichelle provides web consulting and writing services for dancers, dance schools and studios, and those beyond the dance world.
Nichelle (owner/editor)
Nichelle (owner/editor)
Nichelle (owner/editor)
Nichelle (owner/editor)

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  1. Stacey Bramley says:

    Thanks to all for your excellent feedback! You have taken the pressure off. It’s all about just having FUN now. This is a musical COMEDY after all!!

    • Good to hear, Stacey. Yes it is about fun! It’s about work, too, but the work IS fun when we feel good about the work and ourselves. I think that’s what makes the arts so special and so necessary. Enjoy the process! 🙂

  2. This is such great advice, thank you.