What, What, WHAT Are You Singing??? Part II

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com
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Last week, I posted a laundry list of songs that shouldn’t be sung at auditions, because they’re either overdone, too hard to put together in the audition room or don’t showcase the singer well.  With the help of some of my talented colleagues who are working in “the biz”, here are some further thoughts, free of charge…

Obscure Songs 

I pride myself on finding obscure songs for my students to sing, and most times I think they’d make great audition pieces. This isn’t always the case, however.  Sometimes there’s a very good reason they’re obscure!  True, we all have different takes on what’s good and what isn’t, but there’s usually a general consensus about songs that aren’t going to showcase the performer well.  You’re probably not going to bring in a song from Carrie (even though it was just revived by Manhattan Theatre Club).  We all have to travel that thorny path together to figure out what songs just won’t read.  Some of that is simply by trial and error.

Or, you could have the opposite problem: the song can upstage you.  Yes, it’s great to bring something new and fresh into the room, but you have to make sure it shows something about you.  Otherwise, there’s a good chance people in the room are going to be pricking up their ears more for the new (to them) song.  Remember, you want them to talk about you when you leave, not the song.

Setting Yourself Up For Disaster

There are certain songs that just beg for trouble. For instance, I love the title song from Adam Guettel’s sonorous Light in the Piazza, but it’s almost instant death at an audition. First off, it’s certain to grant you a death glare from the pianist – the accompaniment is incredibly hard to play. It’s near impossible to find your beat in the ecstatic strumming of what’s really a harp part poorly transcribed for piano. And then there’s the fact that it’s very hard to sing. I have the luminous Kelli O’Hara forever linked with this song. Can you sing it as well in an audition with a pianist you’ve never worked with before?  I have yet to see it happen, especially at college auditions.

Musical director and vocal coach Paul Stephan puts it this way: “Piano parts for contemporary pieces have become much more ‘interesting’ over the years.  When preparing your book, you should be aware of this, so that the song chosen showcases you and not the audition accompanist.”  Great advice from someone behind the keyboard who wants you to succeed.

Jason Robert Brown is known for these types of intricate, highly syncopated scores.  God love him, he can play the living daylights out of them, but you’re asking a lot of a pianist to do that on demand.  I’ve also found that we pianists (I’ve played some auditions in my day) often play much louder when we’re sight reading because we’re a little on edge.  This can end up making you feel like you have to shout over the piano – not a great audition experience.

Above All, Know Thyself

Before anyone writes in saying they’ve successfully done “Light in the Piazza” several times in audition situations, let me state the obvious: there are always exceptions. This is where really knowing yourself comes into play. It’s inevitable that your favorite audition song is on someone else’s “Oh No You Didn’t!” list.  I’ll be the first to admit that, if a young girl comes in and really owns “Not for the Life of Me,” I’m going to be on board, no matter what.

As musical director and vocal coach Christine Riley points out, “As long as the cut has an arc, shows off the voice, is something the actor connects with, and is appropriate for the person singing… I say go for it!”

Some Final Thoughts

Broadway actor and musical director Matt Castle shares this wonderful perspective in closing, showing there will always be flexibility in what performers present in the audition room: “For me it’s not about what song someone does.  It’s about overstaying their welcome.  I respect every actor.  I just hope every actor will return the favor by not treating me like a captive audience. In an open call, I only need a brief cut of a song to get the first impression.  In an appointment, a longer song is okay… though if it’s epic (“Meadlowlark”, “Tom”, “Schmuel”, etc..), I’d like a warning!

“Overdone doesn’t bother me.  When we rehearse the show, I’ll hear every song in the score over and over!  Poorly done is a matter of opinion.  I believe most actors do the best they know how.”

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Does all this seem ridiculously complicated? Good, because it is! It’s very challenging to help students find songs that will meet the rigorous demands of auditions and… Oh yeah – let us not forget the whole business of helping them to actually sound good! That’s why there are tons of college and professional classes dedicated to teaching actors how to put together their book and audition.

So, what should we as teachers or students choose for auditions?

Students: If you’re unclear on what songs work or don’t work for you, I highly recommend seeing a respected repertoire coach – someone who really specializes in all different kinds of musical theatre repertoire (shameless plug: if you’re in New York, I LOVE doing repertoire coachings.  E-mail me: dwsisco@hotmail.com).

Teachers: If you’re confused by all this (and I’ll be the first to admit I’m still learning myself), talk to musical directors, coaches and casting directors who are dealing with this stuff all the time.

Or better yet, stay tuned! I’ll be writing more posts and conducting interviews on the subject, including discussions about “type”, pop/rock auditions and much, much more!

Until then, keep singing.  Just don’t sing “Gimme, Gimme.”

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