Mack and Mabel was to be Jerry Herman’s next big hit after Hello, Dolly and Mame. A Golden Era-style musical, the show had 41 people on stage. Then the production hit the realities of the floundering economy of 1974. Ticket sales could not match the demands of the payroll. The show closed in less than eight weeks.
The successful shows of the 1970s had smaller casts. Grease had 16. A Chorus Line had 26. Ain’t Misbehavin’had five. That trend has continued as producers try to hold expenses down. But it takes people to make art — or artifice — and people cost money.
Producers bringing out revivals of shows from the Golden Era rework them to reduce cast sizes. When The Music Man opened on Broadway in 1957, their cast numbered 53. For the Broadway revival in 2000, they had trimmed it to 40, a 25% reduction. Windwood Theatricals will bring 26 cast members to Popejoy Hall for their production of The Music Man coming in March.
Fortunately, what producers have learned in the years since Mack and Mabel is how to make the most of smaller casts. Sets often have more layers, levels and moving parts to them than 40 years ago to help fill the stage. Fully amplified shows, a rarity in 1974, have become commonplace, meaning that smaller casts can produce big sounds. Fast wig, makeup and costume changes have become an art form, meaning that one actor can play more than one part with little time between appearances on stage. While the Golden Era producer could cast a few actor/singers, a chorus and a dance chorus, the modern producer hires only people who can sing, dance and act.
You’d think cast size would not be a concern for local amateur groups, since they don’t pay their actors, but downsizing is a consideration here, too. For one thing, original productions or recent revivals tend to influence how local theater producers look at shows under consideration.
Fewer cast members, especially in chorus parts, means fewer costumes. For theater companies with smaller stages, techniques used for filling a stage by touring shows with fewer performers can help local productions look as big as the professionals.
Tonight, Albuquerque Little Theatre opens Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure, a play I’ve directed for them. The play was originally written for a pair of professional companies to produce in tandem. As such, the twelve characters Steven Dietz wrote into the script were covered by eight actors in the original production. We have followed that pattern.
When I proposed to direct Damn Yankees for Musical Theatre Southwest this coming summer, I discussed cast size because they work in a theater with limited space backstage. They can rent an extra area of the theater for additional dressing rooms, but if we keep the cast size down, we eliminate the need for that expense. We’ll consider everything from fat suits to putting beards on women to give us the flexibility we need to cover all the parts with a cast considerably smaller than the 40 who appeared in the original 1955 Broadway production. The artifice will be to make it seem bigger than it really is. But that’s part of the magic of theater, right?