It's July, so that means it's time to begin the search for this year's Christmas musical for the church job. It is insanely early to begin thinking about Frosty and the gang, but I have learned from experience that a selection needs to be made by the end of August in order to keep stress levels to a minimum. With the selections that I have seen in the catalogs this year, I am not expecting great things and anticipate that the selection process will be more difficult than in years past.
What makes a good Christmas musical? The answer to that question can be as varied as the noses on all the music directors in the world! Since this is MY blog, I'll give you my ideas of what I'm looking for. Some of these will hopefully be common to most of us; the other ideas will at least get you thinking. So, in no particular order, here are my considerations for finding the perfect Christmas musical for kids.
1. Theologically sound. I do believe this is the most important issue in selecting any type of music for your children's program. While most of the musicals we will review appear to be rather basic in their presentation of Biblical truths, a thoughtful examination of the script and lyrics will normally reveal some theological stances in the background. It is important to make sure that these positions are in agreement with the statement of beliefs of your local congregation. For instance, if a musical builds on the assumption of eternal security and your congregation does not take this stance on salvation, this is probably not the selection for you. I make it a practice to have a team of teachers review the finalists in the selection process to make sure everything is sound before I make a final choice.
2. Casting requirements. This seems like an obvious consideration, but I cannot tell you the number of times that I have heard from music directors that they started rehearsals for a program only to find out that they didn't have enough participants to bring it to stage. If you have worked with the kids for any length of time, you have a good idea of whether a kid will "definitely" participate or whether you should classify him as a "maybe" or a "no way." I generally don't pre-cast my shows (selecting people for roles before all the commitments are made), but I do come up with a possible -- and realistic -- cast list based upon who participated in my last show. This doesn't mean that you won't run into trouble with casting (a fact that was obvious with the last musical I did), but it can help to rule out some shows simply on the basis that you can't cast it. I don't want to waste my time looking at a musical for 30 kids when I can only be assured of a cast of 15.
3. Musically interesting. The music needs to be interesting to me as well as to the children. If I'm bored with the show -- even on the first hearing -- I'll have problems during the creative process and the final production will be flat and unexciting. Similarly, if the kids don't find the music energizing, you are going to have a difficult time getting them to stick with you for the long haul of preparing the production.
4. Unit Set. A musical that changes scenes is a logistical nightmare unless you have a committed crew of stage hands. Even if you have the bodies who are willing to do this job, but have no experience with it, I still recommend moving to the next show! You will have enough on your hands preparing the children during production week; you don't want the added stress of trying to train stage hands on the intricate choreography of making scene transitions work smoothly. Look for musicals that use a single setting for the entire story. The best scenarios are those that are in "generic" spaces -- a choir room, gym, classroom -- since your stage can easily be decorated to suggest these places without having to bring in a lot of props.
There is an exception to the preference for unit sets. If a scene change can be suggested by bringing in a couple of small set pieces and changes to the lighting, I would be willing to do it. When in doubt, let your motto for set design always be K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, Stupid!) In the end, you'll be glad that you did!
5. Applicable to modern society. While there are some wonderful musicals from the past that I greatly enjoyed as a child, many of them simply will not translate to today's kids. The music sounds dated, the topics are archaic, and they don't address issues in a kid's life. While we are looking to produce good theater, as a church director our first priority is (or at least SHOULD be) ministry to kids. If the story and the message aren't going to speak to kids, then it's not a show on which we need to invest our ministry time; leave that production for the Community Youth Theater down the road.
6. FUN! Even though this is the last thing on my list, it's importance is very high on the list. If the show is not FUN, kids aren't going to get excited about it and you'll spend the majority of your time trying to pump up the kids rather than working on making the show the best it can be.
There are some ways that you can increase the fun level for any show. Movement is an obvious choice. Start small and simple, but be ready to let it all out. My kids LOVE to dance while singing.....and it keeps the show's energy HIGH the whole way through. Don't forget about bringing in props or costumes that will make the kids laugh as well. The most important key to a FUN show, however, is YOU! Your advance preparation is crucial so you are confident and relaxed in the rehearsal process, allowing you to smile and play with the kids when things are getting tough for them.
This list is not intended to be all-inclusive. The fact of the matter is that my requirements will change depending upon the congregation with which I'm working. As you prayerfully review the options, you'll find the show that is right for you.
*If you are looking for a Christmas show, make sure you don't miss this budget helper! Lifeway Stores have an offer of 5 preview paks for $25. You'll want to take a look at the choral catalog in the store and find the full page ad before making your selections. Sadly, the offer is limited to titles that are on the shelves and doesn't apply to all the paks. My experience yesterday was that the associates were unaware of the offer, so take the choral catalog with you to the register; once you show it to them, they are happy to help.
Let the holidays begin!