Book Review: Production Stage Management for Broadway

by David J. McGraw
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Production Stage Management for Broadway by Peter LawrenceCome for the Stories, Stay for the Paperwork

The gateway for many theatre-lovers is the Broadway musical, so a growing trend is to teach stage management from the Broadway perspective. Peter Lawrence, recipient of a Tony Honor for Excellence in Theatre, has authored a book focused on the work of a Broadway PSM. Lawrence’s extensive resume (original Broadway PSM for Spamalot, Shrek the Musical, and Sunset Boulevard, among others) provides him with ample opportunities to explore different styles of stage management and to shape his perspective on topics ranging from why he prefers Sitzprobes over Wandelprobes to why he believes the American model of stage management is broader and stronger than the UK system.

The opening chapters are designed for novices with a multitude of theatrical definitions but they also include insightful observations such as “musicals tend to be taught and plays tend to be discovered.” Seasoned stage managers may want to start with Chapter 6, which is when the Broadway tales begin to fill every page. Lawrence is an excellent story-teller: the anecdotes (conveniently set apart with the subheading “A Story”) are concise yet entertaining and either present best practices or serve as cautionary tales. Yet he is also a true gentleman in removing incriminating details without watering down the stories and has no qualms in sharing his own mistakes.

Lawrence’s decades of stage managing has earned him the literary equivalent of a god mic to express his views on the field. Some positions, such as his questioning of the need for an associate director, will be quickly seconded by other stage managers. Others, particularly “A stage manager today would have to be an idiot to handwrite the calling script,” are fodder for message board debates. But he makes a point of always identifying and thanking his mentors, colleagues, and assistants throughout the book. He even shares methods of acknowledging every member of a theatrical production and building bridges for a long career in the small world of theatre.

Lawrence is also graciously generous in sharing his paperwork. The appendices, like the narrative, start slowly but quickly grow to include documents not found in other stage management texts: audition notes for a stage manager, tech table layouts in a Broadway house, etc. Even the most seasoned pro will find new ideas in this treasure trove of organization and communication.

The major challenge facing this book can be found in the opening sentence: “The theatre cannot be taught – but it can be learned.” Lawrence then proceeds to try teaching a broad range of readers. While his individual ideas are excellent, the book tries to reach all audiences. As a result, novices will struggle converting Broadway standards to amateur productions (two weeks of tech?). And experienced stage managers may find the opening chapters too introductory before the real stories begin. Lawrence shares how Spamalot kept reworking a musical number before jettisoning it to create a cleaner, better-paced production.  Production Stage Management for Broadway is an excellent advanced-level stage management book that could benefit from trimming some of its own exposition.