This blog post originally appeared in January 2012 as David founded ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com
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My name is David Sisco, and I’m a singer and voice teacher residing in New York City. For the last five years, I’ve been fortunate to teach private voice at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. Through the Musical Theatre Program, I’ve collaborated with some extraordinary students who have gone on to flourish in their careers. Like many teachers, I do my best to prepare them for every eventuality, making sure that they not only technically master a song, but also find a way to bring their whole selves to it.
So much is being asked of today’s musical theatre singer. In the “olden days,” if you had a golden age ballad and uptempo along with a couple other options, you were covered. Today, my students spend their entire senior year putting together an audition book of 20+ songs with the help of Christine Riley, our musical director and vocal coach. Their books contain golden age songs, yes, but they must also feature country, folk, pop and a wide variety of contemporary musical theater songs.
Since I started teaching at Marymount, I’ve made a commitment to myself and my students to spend a couple days each semester at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, adding over 30 songs to my repertoire. This helps me offer my students a wide variety of songs to meet their needs. But finding well-written contemporary musical theatre songs has always been more difficult. While there are websites like www.newmusicaltheatre.com that feature some great contemporary work, most of the material tends to be heavily influenced by pop/rock – a small portion of the repertoire I know is out there.
My difficulty with finding contemporary repertoire is compounded by concerns I often have about the repertoire itself. As with most contemporary music, I have been a harsh critic of the composer’s often lack of knowledge about the voice and its capabilities. Beyond awkward leaps and the occasional mis-accent, many contemporary writers are focused solely on the song’s message and not nearly enough on the medium through which it will be communicated. I’m outspoken on this subject because I’m not only a singer – I’m also a composer, mainly of vocal works (art song and musical theatre).
Since 2003, I’ve been a member of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, founded in 1961 by legendary Broadway conductor Lehman Engel to foster new musical theatre talent. (To read more about the history of the workshop, click here). Through the workshop, I met my collaborator of over six years, Tom Gualtieri. We’ve recently completed a musical entitled Falling to Earth, and are currently working on a new project (For more information, visit our website: www.gualtieriandsisco.com).
I’ve been fortunate to witness some great writing over the course of my years at BMI. And not just good craft – an excellent understanding of how to use the voice to maximum effect while bringing characters to life. I have likewise introduced my students to many of these songs (which the writers are often eager to share). Several of these pieces now hold a place in my student’s audition books, and are being used to land them roles in other contemporary shows.
In July, 2010 I attended the biannual NATS Conference in Salt Lake City to accept the Composition Award for my song cycle “Missed Connections” (View the award ceremony here). While at the conference, I took part in many of the wonderful presentations, including the musical theatre masterclass. One of the young tenors sang “Purpose” from Avenue Q. When he finished, I overheard a teacher say to her colleague, “I’ve never heard of that song. What show is that from?” Avenue Q opened on Broadway in July, 2003.
I share this anecdote not as a criticism, but to point out that many teachers, especially those more classically based, are playing catch-up when it comes to contemporary musical theatre repertoire. Most of us are just learning how to best teach musical theatre singers so they can cope with the insane demands of their trade. Repertoire choices have sometimes fallen on the student’s shoulders, which can be a dangerous enterprise and undo the hard work of our collaborations with them.
It dawned on me that I have a unique opportunity to remedy this problem. I’m both a teacher looking for well-written repertoire and a composer with access to colleagues who are writing the songs I’ve been looking for.
I approached NATS about making a presentation on how to find good contemporary musical theatre songs at the upcoming convention in Orlando this July. I was just invited to make a “Poster Paper” presentation, which is like being part of a wonderful science fair of new information for voice teachers.
When I shared this good news with my wonderful colleague and friend Lorene Phillips, she helped me wrap my mind around the next steps. I will soon be reaching out to writers at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop and beyond, asking them to submit five songs that showcase strong writing for the voice. They will also submit a bio, headshot, contact information and how to purchase their music. With this information, I will put together the first (to my knowledge) exhaustive contemporary musical theatre song catalogue.
Lorene suggested I blog about my experience of putting together this mammoth project (a great idea). So here I am! I’m sure there will be much to share as I begin.
It’s a very exciting time. I believe this catalogue will not only unlock the door to immeasurable collaborations, it will foster the development of new work and encourage contemporary writers to create songs that engage audiences and support singers’ artistic freedom.
I hope you’ll follow this blog as I uncover some of today’s hidden treasures. I hope it will help us all understand the challenges and possibilities of this wonderful art form!
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Visit www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com for more information on over 180 contemporary musical theatre writers and 550+ songs, all searchable by voice and song type.