Vocal Health on Broadway & Beyond: Musical Directors, Volume 1

This year we launched a new blog series dedicated to discussing the importance of vocal health on Broadway and beyond (click on the links to read the preamble and Singing Actors, Volume 1). Through multiple interviews with singing actors, musical directors, casting agents and writers in the United States and abroad, we hope to spark an honest conversation about how to help our young musical theater students and professionals sustain long and fruitful careers. We’re not interested in pointing fingers, but rather finding places where there are disconnects and seeing how we might address them.

In this volume, we’ll focus on musical directors and their part in making sure the singing actor is taken care of in a production. Two of the musical directors are based in New York the other is based in Australia.

In addition to being on our roster at contemporarymusicaltheatre.com, Zak Sandler has played keyboard on WICKED and MOTOWN and has musical directed several productions Off-Broadway and regionally. I asked him if he had encountered an actor who had vocal issues during a show’s run and how the problem was handled.

Zak Sandler
Zak Sandler

ZAK: “There was a production I did where the actor (a college student) didn’t have proper vocal technique. In that case, we lowered the keys of his songs. It’s tricky as a musical director – you have a very limited amount of time with the actors. We don’t always have time to incorporate healthy vocal habits in the rehearsal process. Once these issues came to light, I scheduled a little extra time with him – one session we focused on warm-ups and breath production. We also focused on trying to get him to relax his body because he was so tense. As we were rehearsing we tried to come back to some of those principals, but a lot of the old habits snuck back in.

In another production, I worked with an actor who had very good technique overall and never lost his voice, but the show was very vocally demanding. One day he showed up and didn’t have a voice for rehearsal. We told him to mark, which he didn’t know how to do. When I say mark, I think of speaking in rhythm. We had to try to teach him how to do it. We ended up having him just speaking it out of rhythm or speaking with a little pitch so he could get the acting and choreography in his body. 

What I’ve discovered with many actors is that it’s all or nothing: they either sing full-out or whisper. Neither of these was going to be helpful for them to save their voices.” 

Luke Hunter was the musical director for the Australian national tours of JERSEY BOYS and ADDAMS FAMILY and is a co-founder of the app Warm Me Up. I asked Luke and Zak the extent to which they felt it was the musical director’s job to protect the singing actor.

Luke Hunter
Luke Hunter

LUKE: “I think supporting the actor is probably my first line of defense. Can I help them with a passage they’re struggling with? Can I support them when they’re feeling not 100% to get through the shows successfully (Can we change phrases? Can the sound department assist? Are we making sure they’re warming up, cooling down, taking care of themselves?). I like to check in with performers regularly to see how they’re traveling. In terms of protection: if I feel they’ve been booked for too much publicity on top of performances, or a rehearsal schedule is too punishing, I’ll say something. But a lead role in a musical is a big responsibility. Singers are going to have weeks when they’re working really hard. It comes with the territory. I think it’s more my job to help the performer get through the busy and difficult times.”

ZAK: “I think it’s absolutely my job. No one else is going to do it and you have to have actors who can do the show. The actors – especially those who are less experienced –  aren’t necessarily going to know how to take care of themselves. Some directors (the best directors I’ve worked with) will chime in. But the buck has to stop with the musical director, monitoring how the actors are doing. 

If it’s a two-show day, I encourage the actors to pace themselves so they have enough for the second show.” 

MD, Broadway keyboard substitute and composer Jason Loffredo (also represented by contemporarymusicaltheatre.com) chimes in about reminding singing actors to pace themselves:

Jason Loffredo
Jason Loffredo

“I was the MD for ALTAR BOYZ for two years. The show has five guys in it who never leave stage and sing something in all 15 songs – whether it be lead or back-ups – in tight five-part boy band type harmonies (no vibrato, etc…). Also, they’re basically doing tae-bo type choreography the whole time. 

There was just no way to expect (or get) 100% singing 100% of the time for 8 shows a week. I figured out early on that I would get a better return on my investment by constantly reminding actors to sing somewhere around 80-90% full out. It was almost a less is more situation. If they sang 100% for a week, the following week their voice was only 90% of what it was the previous week anyway, and each week they sang to the max further decreased their effectiveness. What’s the point of singing 100% if you’ve only got 60% left? Most of the time this strategy worked. There was an occasional vocal problem that required a week or so of vocal rest, but considering that I saw maybe 25 different actors come and go, the maybe one or two that had some minor issues seemed like a victory of sorts.”

I asked Luke and Zak how much input they had in the casting process of shows they’ve musical directed.

LUKE: “Yes – I think if a role has a specific demand (sustained high singing, rock style, etc…) then it’s important to discuss whether a person has the natural ability to be able to achieve this in a sustained fashion. Sometimes I wish certain keys were different, and sometimes I can help get them changed, but sometimes I can’t. The tricky thing in casting is deciding who can get there with work (as you want to reward and encourage those performers), but working out who won’t make it. The last thing I’d want is to have someone cast into a role that was too difficult for them. I hate seeing someone lose confidence in themselves. I’ve got it wrong before in casting, I’m prepared to admit it. I blame myself each time, not the actor that struggled.“

ZAK: “I have had influence on casting as a musical director. The two red flags for me in an audition are: they’re singing in a way that’s unhealthy or unsustainable. Also poor pitch is a red flag. If there’s a pitch issue, it’s usually either some sort of tone deafness or technique. If it’s technique, it’s a judgment call – it’s it’s just one note, I can judge the rest of the performance to tell whether or not they can do it. 

Usually it’s not someone who just can’t do it. Often it’ll come down to someone with a better voice that isn’t the director’s vision for the role. Usually the director will win out if the voice is less than optimal but the actor is right . 

Once I was helping cast the lead guy in a show I was musical directing. It was a fairly big role and demanded a strong actor. We had three top choices at the end. I felt the guy the director wanted was vocally strained, particularly in the upper range. There was enough higher range in the show to concern me. I basically got overruled. Turned out he was fantastic. The thing is no one is completely objective in these situations. In that moment, you have your little perceptions of how you receive an audition. There were things about his acting that weren’t connecting to me, which may have biased me to him. But in the production he was very impressive.”

Jason makes an excellent point about the importance of sound design on a show:

“This may be the most underrated aspect of this whole discussion. The monitoring system on stage has to be good in order for a singer to sing in a healthy way.  There’s a definitive line between an actor hearing themselves correctly and singing at an appropriate level and not hearing themselves at all and singing way too much to make up for that. It’s so important to get this right. And this entails everything from the placement, level and mix of the monitors and even how close the mic is to the actors’ mouth. A good sound person will do much more for the vocal health of an actor than any MD could ever do.”

We close this blog with some very good practical advice from Zak on how best to avoid vocal issues during the run of a show:

  • Learn proper vocal technique, which starts with breathing – learning how to take a “singer’s breath” and connect it to the voice, not pushing or tensing up.
  • Learn good warmups – In professional rehearsal setting, a group warm-up is not part of the protocol. That’s one place where people often get in trouble. Even just knowing a 10-minute warm-up will help.
  • Lean how (and when) to mark. A lot of programs don’t teach students how to properly mark. Many college kids coming in as professionals are afraid of not giving 100% all the time. 
  • Stay hydrated. Know what makes you feel good.
  • Pay attention to how you’re speaking – if you’re irritating your voice all day, it will make it very hard to sing properly.

Stay tuned for our next blog, which will feature thoughts from various casting directors on this same subject!

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