What constitutes a "lead role" in a musical?
March 27, 2009 9:05 PM   Subscribe

My friend's two daughters are in a school musical, and she is naturally extremely pleased. She's been telling everyone that they have the "leads", but neither is cast in the leading female role. I think "lead role" refers to the leading female and the leading male roles, as in this case there are both? (In single gender plays, I would think the "lead roles" would be the two characters with the most lines? ) Of course I won't point this out to her....and I'm wondering if I am wrong? The musical is "Thoroughly Modern Millie".
posted by ragtimepiano to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm not familiar with this particular script, but I did go to theatre school, so here's my take. The idea of a 'lead' is a reasonably vague notion. It can, in my experience, apply to any major, central role in a dramatic work. Some examples:

Romeo & Juliet: Romeo and Juliet, obviously.
Hamlet: Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia (essential, but not a lot of time on-stage)
Star Wars: Luke, Han, Leia

So without reading the script, I can't actually say if you're being accurate or not. So this answer probably isn't very helpful. Carry on.
posted by dbarefoot at 9:23 PM on March 27, 2009

Can you tell us the names of the characters they are cast as?

While "Thoroughly Modern Millie" is mostly about, well, Millie....it really is more of an ensemble piece, with 4-5 characters being central to most of the plot and action.

In 'ensemble' theatre, I think it might be appropriate to say you were in a lead role if the character you played was involved in a good portion of the action and story.
posted by miss_scarlett at 9:31 PM on March 27, 2009

The lead in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" is Millie. The roommate (I assume that's the part the other sister got), while not THE lead, is A lead and a great part, too.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:34 PM on March 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Lead" in a high school musical tends to refer to any character with a) a name and b) a musical solo. So yes, there is almost certainly more than one lead girl or boy, since most high schools seem to deliberately choose musicals with a variety of lead parts.

(This is based on my own experiences as a high school pit musician).
posted by muddgirl at 9:38 PM on March 27, 2009

Oh, I see. One girl is cast as Mrs. Meers and the other as Miss Flannery, the head stenographer. It's probably wise that most high school directors deliberately choose musicals with a variety of lead parts, and I guess my friend is fully entitled to her pride :-))
posted by ragtimepiano at 9:51 PM on March 27, 2009

The technical definition, at least according to American Theatre Wing (the folks who put on the Tony Awards) is that you are considered a leading actor or actress if your name appears above the show's title on the cast list in the Playbill. For example in the recent revival of Gypsy, Patti LuPone was the only cast member nominated for a Tony as a lead because she was alone above the title (with darn good reason). Of course, the committee can override this definition; in the case of Mary Poppins they accepted Ashley Brown (Mary) and Gavin Lee (Bert) as Lead Actress/Actor noms.

A little more specific, what roles are they in Millie? Although Millie is definitely the "lead", I would argue that many of the characters surrounding her qualify as secondary leads (aka "featured actor" in ATW parlance). Certainly, Dorothy, Meers, and Graydon are all featured actor material, and you could even expand it to Ching Ho, Bun Foo, and Muzzy if you were feeling in the mood.

It is incredibly vague though and ultimately there really is no objective way to measure it. Every show is different!

[as muddgirl said, it is a little different in High School theatre, natch. The definition of what a "lead" is can (and will) expand and contract, mainly because it is so flexible and everyone wants to be considered a lead!]
posted by cvp at 9:51 PM on March 27, 2009

I only know the movie version of Thoroughly Modern Millie, but.. I would say Millie is the 'lead,' but the other characters (Mrs. Meers - Beatrice Lillie's character and Miss Dorothy - Mary Tyler Moore's character) are integral to the entire movie and nothing to shake a stick at. I would still consider them something along the lines of 'supporting' roles, though. At least in the movie, Mrs. Meers steals every scene she's in (IMO).
posted by Mael Oui at 10:00 PM on March 27, 2009

I've been in any number of amateur musicals and each one had up to a dozen leads. See muddgirl's comment above.
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:50 AM on March 28, 2009

Unless they're cast as Millie or Muzzy, they don't have the lead (yes, both are leads). But she can say they have "a leading role," especially if they've got solo or small ensemble singing in more than one scene. If they've got one featured song, or important lines in 1-2 scenes, they're "featured." In fact, pretty much if their character has a name, they're either featured or leading. Otherwise no dice. I checked the rights page but for some reason it doesn't have the parts list.

That said, they're in high school. It's possible that the school itself has broadly defined "lead" to include as many of the parts as they can. Let their mom be proud of them. They just need to know that if they apply to theater school or at a professional theater and say that they had "the lead" in TMM, and didn't, their application will not be viewed kindly. Otherwise, who cares, at worst mom looks ignorant, and really, just indulgent. Smile and tell her how proud she must be.

I work for a musical theater.
posted by nax at 4:33 AM on March 28, 2009

I would consider both of those roles to be supporting characters, not leads.
posted by firei at 8:46 AM on March 28, 2009

Er, seeing as how she said she wouldn't point this out to her friend no matter what the answers here were, and she was just wondering if her take on theatre was correct, I don't really see how she's nitpicking apart anyone's joy.

My actual answer: my experience with high school theatre is that anyone who sings and speaks gets bragging rights.
posted by smoakes at 12:02 PM on March 28, 2009

I would say that "lead" refers to the protagonist(s). That's a bit of a tight definition, as there would be many more "leads" in something like an ensemble piece. The definitions definitely get blurry.

There is one thing a "lead" is not, as I discovered through one of my dotty aunt's forays into community theatre. She told us she had the lead role. When we were watching the play, it became clear to us that she did not have the actual lead, but rather, was merely the first person on stage.
posted by yellowbinder at 1:17 PM on March 28, 2009

[few comments removed - question is sort of specific, feel free to take side discussions to email, thanks]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:37 PM on March 28, 2009

Our neighbour was in musical theatre and seemed to make a distinction between being a lead and being in the chorus. It might just be a Canadian thing, I'm not sure.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:39 PM on March 28, 2009

Oh, I see. One girl is cast as Mrs. Meers and the other as Miss Flannery, the head stenographer.

I've seen the show. Meers is definitely a lead character, with two solos. Flannery is not a lead, although she gets a featured bit in a song or two. ("Barney Schreiber, CPA!", heh.)

They probably mean that they are leads, in the sense that they are not no-name chorus members. The Broadway version of "Millie" had about ten chorus girls.
posted by Asparagirl at 4:56 PM on March 28, 2009

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