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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 516-517
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How to Make it in Musicals:
The Insider's Guide to a Career in Musicals
Staging a Musical
How to Make it in Musicals: The Insider's Guide to a Career in Musicals. By Michael Allen. New York: Back Stage Books, 1999; pp. ix + 246. $18.95.
Staging a Musical. By Matthew White. New York: Theatre Arts Books/Routledge, 1999; pp. v + 137. $20.99.
Like most areas of scholarship, how-to books cover a wide range, and these two books demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the idiom. Michael Allen's How To Make it in Musicals is a well-crafted book, which could be of use to many actors pursuing a professional career. By contrast, Mathew White's Staging A Musical demonstrates the inherent shortcomings of learning theatre from a book.
The strength of Allen's book is that he knows his targeted audience. He seems primarily interested in supporting talented, privileged youth in middle and high school and their parents. Nevertheless, his emphasis on discipline, networking, and hard work is a welcome antidote to the romanticized career trajectories of many young actors, and his book would probably be useful for anyone seriously interested in working as a professional actor. Allen knows that most of the skills cannot be taught from a book and spends a great deal of space on how to choose a private vocal teacher, acting classes, and dance classes in ballet, pointe, jazz, tap, modern, and tumbling. He advises students to attend BFA or conservatory programs, arguing that "if you're serious about a career in musical theater, a liberal arts bachelor's degree program is not for you" (96).
How To Make It In Musicals is easy to read and reinforces much of the common sense that young performers need: work hard, be nice, and treat it as you would any other job, researching each step and adhering to a long-term plan. A primary underlying assumption, however, is that if one follows his precepts one can make it. He never looks at alternative careers in the performing arts which may be more realistic for some people. While he does confront the difficulty of making it as a performer with Equity statistics in the beginning, the rest of the book undercuts that by implying that the statistics are a result of people not having "personal inspiration and a strong work ethic, [and not being] willing to work through any hardships" (101). For example, he writes, "You'll have to train in all three areas. Otherwise, you may find yourself singing in the same musical, as a member of the chorus, for nine years" (11). His creation of a negative scenario of being in the same show (presumably, given the length of run, under an Equity contract) seems disconnected from the grim reality.
The book could have been strengthened by direct confrontation with the reality of the competitive nature of professional performing. There is no process for readers to evaluate whether they (or their children) have what it takes to make it. Allen does acknowledge that one has to be driven, but the ultimate message is "If you hang in there long enough, and don't give up, anything is possible" (232, emphasis in original). While anything is possible, performers might be better served by also looking at what is probable.
Allen also argues that one should not dissipate one's energy by having "too big a parachute" (233). The grim reality, however, is that, few performers, even those who have won a Tony award, are always working. Performers need to confront what kind of other jobs they will spend years doing. This book needs a more thorough discussion of additional forms of employment open to performers. Allen spends a page on these, although this information can be difficult to come by, and young performers do not always take them seriously. Performers need to have skills and experience for their day jobs before they get...