July 30, 2013

Brigadoon for Kids

I just got done doing the classic musical Brigadoon with a summer theater camp that I work at every year. I thought I'd share some of the things I did to make the show a bit more manageable for kids.

The camp I music-direct at puts on a show every summer with around 80 kids aged between 6 and 14 years old. We also don't use microphones. There are some general things that apply every year, such as the need to maximize volume while keeping the health of the performers a priority, arranging the songs so that they remain interesting while not too difficult, and keeping the orchestra quiet.

Brigadoon has some unique challenges for a music director.

Vocal Ranges
This show (and lots of older shows in general) have insanely high soprano parts. The main song of the show, "MacConnachy Square" shows up multiple times across the show and in higher and higher keys. By the end of the show, the composers have sopranos singing a high B at a fortissimo dynamic. This note is just not feasible, or desirable, from most elementary and middle-school singers. I had to do a lot of rearranging and octave-dropping with my singers to make the songs not only palatable but good sounding.

This show relies heavily on the harmonies to make the songs interesting. We did a lot of work on singing parts this year but even with that emphasis I ended up collapsing most of the score into three part harmonies. With this age group you also have to deal with boys whose voices are unchanged or in transition. I ended up with a soprano/melody part which included the young boys, an alto part with some of the girls who sing strongly as well as some of the strong singing unchanged boys, and a tenor part. For the boys whose voices had dropped but weren't strong enough to sing a harmony part, they joined on the melody singing an octave lower than the sopranos.

On a few of the songs, such as opening and some other smaller features, I had groups of strong singers do four-part harmonies but even those I arranged to make the part singing easier. This show required by far the most re-arrangement I've ever done for a show. When writing harmony parts I essentially tried to make them as tuneful as possible while preserving the harmonies from the show. This meant a lot of jumping from voice to voice as written in the original score.

Solos and Duets
Brigadoon has quite a few large chorus numbers and even more dances (more on that in a second), but it still relies heavily on solo songs. We had strong actors in a our lead roles this year but a slow song can still feel like it drags a song down in the hands of a non-professional. I kept the solos relatively intact this year but in Act II I cut the bridge out of one and chopped some of the others down a bit to keep the show moving along.

A show that relies heavily on dance is great when you have professional dancers but for a choreographer figuring out what to do with 80 children, it can be overwhelming. We ended up cutting most of the big dances out completely, and kept the big spectacle dances as special features. One of the big centerpieces, the "Entrance of the Clans" turned into a somewhat improvisational set of music that required a lot of chopping apart of the written music to fit what the choreographer had created.

We were lucky and got a really great piper to work with. The show only requires him to be used in a funeral scene, but we decided to use him for a scene change before the "Entrance of the Clans" as well as to open the second act. I found that a melodica sounded pretty close to a bagpipe for rehearsals and would have substituted pretty well in a show as well. Just bring earplugs if you're in a confined pit!

Operatic Style
Compared to modern musical theater, some songs in Brigadoon sound fairly operatic, with high soprano lines and dramatic flourishes in the orchestra. Keeping the orchestra down enough to hear the singers was difficult at times and getting young singers to grapple with these songs in a way appropriate to their voices was a constant source of work.

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