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Researching a Character: Researching A Role (Worksheet)

How to use databases and other reference materials to make a more comprehensive and accurate character.

Researching a Role

Creating a period specific performance that will resonate with a modern audience requires both a careful reading of the libretto and researching any elements of the character that are not already within your knowledge base.

We want you to look at research as going on a treasure hunt. We DON”T want you to see it as a test or completing a rubric to get a passing grade.
Your research should lead to specific details and behaviors that will inform, focus and enrich your work. Enjoy the search!

THE TEXT: Unknown Phrases and Words. 

You are looking for the meaning of the words and phrases, not just a definition. You want to discover the specific meaning both for the time period/location and for the character in that time period and the world of the play.
Some things to look for in the lyric/libretto:
       Word definitions
       Double entendres
       Foreign Words

When a teacher asks you, “what does that mean?”, and you find yourself answering “I looked it up!”, chances are you haven't really delved into the specifics of that word or phrase enough to make it specific to the character.


  •        The Specific Scene
  •        The Show
  •        The Period of the Show


  •        Character
  •        Period



  •       Gestures, physicality of the period
  •       Gestures, physicality of the character


  •       Expected For The Period
  •       Where does your character fit in society? What is their status? 
  •       Social relationship to other characters in the play?


  •        Area, Country, World Events of the Era
  •        Events for the specific world of the play

Creators, Originators, and Source Material


Many authors have specific styles and ways of writing. Once you learn that Cole Porter lyrics often contain sexual innuendo or that Yip Harburg makes up words (and writes about social injustice) it can help focus your research. Always check the Complete Lyrics books to see if there is information about the song itself. You might also find cut lyrics or fragments that will clarify the intent of the songwriter.

While some Golden Age composers were simply songwriters, most such as Rodgers, Weill, Loewe, etc are musical dramatists and you will learn to look for acting cues in their music. You’ll learn more about this throughout 2nd Semester.

Biographies and Autobiographies of the creators are also great resources. Meredith Willson wrote an entertaining book about the creation of The Music Man. You can read about the real people who inspired the characters in the musical. Agnes DeMille has written several great books about her work. Always search for first person accounts of the creative process. These will often be only a chapter or a small portion of a larger work, but may provide real insight and inspiration .


If a role was written for Ethel Merman, you can assume it is a brash, confident character- who belts a lot of “C’s”! If it was written for Ray Bolger you can assume it is a highly physical character who dances or moves very well. This doesn’t mean you have to do exactly what they did, but it is a good place to start. Watching these original performers in material OTHER THAN the show you are doing can give you insight into why a show was written to showcase their talents as well as clues on how to approach the part. Biographies and Autobiographies of the stars can have entire chapters devoted to the creation of your character. Mary Martin gives an airbrushed account of her personal life in her autobiography, but she is clear and specific when she writes about the creation of Venus, Nellie Forbrush, Maria Von Trapp and Peter Pan.


Many musicals are based on plays, films, novels and historical people and events. You can learn a lot by reading and watching source material. If you are working on My Fair Lady you can read the play Pygmalion or watch the film. For The King and I there are several films of Anna and The King of Siam as well as its source, the semi-fictionalized biographical novel by Margaret Landon. Even if your character isn't in the source material it can be helpful. You can ask yourself “Why did Oscar Hammerstein add the off-stage character of Will Parker when adapting “Green Grow The Lilacs” into Oklahoma!?” What conflicts does Hammerstein create using Will? Always seek out source material.