That Time I Directed a Musical and I Thought it Would Kill Me But Then It Didn’t

In case you’re the one person in my universe who hasn’t heard about this, I recently directed the Willy Wonka Jr. musical at my children’s elementary school.

Perhaps you are thinking: “Oh that’s interesting!  I didn’t know you directed musicals, Leanne.”

Let me begin by saying – I don’t.  Well…I didn’t.  Until I did.

Here’s how the whole thing shook down.

About a year and half ago (fall of 2014) I got this idea to start a little drama club in my kid’s school.  I don’t have any drama training or professional experience, but I enjoyed drama in high school and thought this might be something fun for kids who may not be interested in other types of extracurriculars.  As I shared the idea around with some parents, it morphed into the suggestion to try our hand at a musical.  “Well,” thought me, “I can’t really lead a musical but I can help get it together.”  I invited anyone interested to come to a meeting, and at our first meeting we had a packed room of parents and teachers eager to be a part of the endeavor. What was really exciting was the talent in the room.  A professional director!  Teachers with musical theatre degrees!  Actresses!  Professional dancers! People who knew what they were doing!  

Clearly, we had all we needed to go ahead, and so go ahead we did.  With relief that I wouldn’t be doing this on my own,  I signed on as an assistant director/ general overseerer-ish person.  

We picked a musical that we thought would be fun – Willy Wonka Jr, based on the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Because Oompa Loompas would be SO CUTE, wouldn’t they?  And that was that.

willy wonka set
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This was in January of 2015.  Auditions happened over the next month during recess breaks and it took a while for the scripts to come in.  Then it was March Break.  Finally, at the end of March we got started,  planning to perform in June.  We began with the music, and I showed up each week to lend a hand to our musical director, who was – you guessed it – a professional musician.  I plunked out songs with one hand on the piano and tried to teach a few songs on the side.  It was about this time that we realized Willy Wonka Jr. is a HARD MUSICAL.  Holy flip, some of these songs are CRAZY. Then we read the introduction to the play where it suggested that we might use “younger kids, like grades 7 and 8” for the oompa loompas chorus groups.

Our school was kindergarten to grade six.

My little squirrel from Senior Kindergarten, who sat through many rehearsals with her five squirrel friends.  I use the term “sat” very loosely.

This was also when things in the “helper” side of things started to kind of fall apart.  People who planned to help had to drop out, for reasons ranging from family health to schedule changes.  To make things even more interesting, the teachers went on work to rule so none of them were allowed to help anymore.  And then one day, about a month into rehearsals, the director (the professional knew-what-she-was-doing one) found out she got a new job and much to her regret, could no longer attend rehearsals.

And so that’s how for the first time in my life I became the director of a musical.

It should be noted here that not only had I never directed a musical, I had never been IN a musical.  Or taken acting classes. Or dance lessons. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to even GO to dances for quite a while in my adolescence.  And now here I was each week teaching kids to grapevine.

Now, because this was the musical where everything that could go wrong did, we ended up not being ready to perform in June.  We had to push the performance to the fall.  Then the fall came and we had a new principal. Three new principals over the fall in fact. And there was still work to rule. And our school was renovating. And I was also barely keeping my head above water at work where I was doing two jobs instead of one as my husband/associate pastor had started a new job in the summer. I cannot tell you how many days I wanted to just throw in the towel.

But I had committed to this musical. And it had to end one day…right?  Plus, the kids were amazing, and I didn’t want to let them down.  I had to keep going, even if I was unqualified and overwhelmed.

So what did I do?

Well, I showed up.  Each Wednesday and Thursday after school I showed up and I did my best.  I prayed.  I asked God to help me and I tried to remember that it wasn’t about me and that if it failed and everyone hated me afterwards that God would still think I was okay.  I re-assessed what it means to set boundaries and say no and learned some great lessons for next time.  I enjoyed the kids, and let myself laugh at their jokes and at the chaos that often ensued around me (such as when we added those “so cute” oompa loompas the first time.  All 40 of them).  I watched youtube clips to figure out how to turn Violet into a blueberry and how to make Charlie and Grandpa Joe fly.  I tried stuff that didn’t work and tried something else.  I relied on some pretty special people who were carrying the weight of this thing along with me and kept the pieces together that I absolutely couldn’t.  I got the girls who took dance lessons to teach us all dance steps I didn’t know how to do. I lost sleep. Every day I got a different song from the musical stuck in my head.  I got tears in my eyes every single time Charlie and Mr. Bucket sang “Thank Positive” and got to the part where they did the can-can.  (That’s right folks! I don’t know much, but I do know that every kid’s musical needs a can-can!!).

willy wonka full cast
Yes, that’s right 40 Oompa Loompas. From grades JK-3. Plus the other 30 for a cast of 70.

Then on the night of each performance, I showed up.

And after a year and half of roadblocks, exhaustion, stops and starts, and saying “I can’t do this!!” the magic happened.

What was magical?

The kids were magical.  They shone every night.  They glowed.  They were fantastic.

My view from the “pit” each night. Also we had to create a pit…since our stage doesn’t actually have wings.  And we had to rent a second stage. Because turns out Willy Wonka Jr. also has complicated sets.

The team was magical.  Everyone did their part and the beautiful sets and costumes and lights and props so lovingly contributed by the other people just trying to do their best took my breath away.


The applause was magical.  And the smiles on the kids’ faces.  And the way they would say each night: “I can’t wait to do this again!” and give me hugs with big thank-yous.

willy wonka kids

It was magical that 29 people from my church came to watch our little musical, to tell me and my kids:  we love you.  

It was magical when parents told me things like: “My child has changed from being in this play.  They are so much more confident!”  

And each day it still feels magical when I stand at school to drop off my kids and my new young friends wave at me and wish me good morning and I tell our Willy Wonka that I love her hair in purple.

Please note: If you are uncomfortable with the word magical in any of the above instances, I am equally comfortable with the word “sacred” in those places.

And how did the magic/ sacred happen?  

This is what I learned:  Magic (sacredness) isn’t about being perfect, or knowing everything you’re doing or getting everything right.  It is about faithfulness, patience, and pushing through even when you’re tired and feel ready to quit.  It’s about two rehearsals a week, one week a time, one month after the other.  It’s about trust and encouragement and saying “let’s keep going.”

I didn’t need to be magical for something incredible to happen.

I just needed to show up.         

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Written with much love and thanks to all of you who showed up with me. You know who you are.  

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