I have often thought about how ironic it is that the kind of work a young musical theatre performer is most likely to do when they first get out of college is the one kind of work college has often least prepared them to do.
Sure, it’s great if you got to perform in Oklahoma and Next to Normal at school, but what do you do when you’re the first person to sing a new song in a new show and there’s no cast recording to listen to? Many performers break into the business by doing readings and concerts of new musicals and yet many colleges, universities, and even conservatories fail to train their students in this very specific type of work.
But let’s first take a step back and ask:
Why are new musicals different?
The biggest difference between working on a new musical versus working on show with a performance is history is — well, they’re new! No one has sung this role before. No one has put a stamp on this character. The writer(s) are still figuring things out and things change… a LOT. As a performer this can be both very exciting and extremely terrifying.
What is the difference in preparing a Golden Age vs. a Contemporary role both from a musical and dramatic vantage point?
I spoke with Amy Rogers, Director and Founder of Musical Theater program at Pace University, one of the few undergraduate musical theatre programs that has made a point of training their students to work on new material. Their Pace New Musicals Program was developed in 2007 and allows students to experiment with new, untested works without precedent-setting productions, a rare opportunity in theater education. I asked her about the differences in style a performer needs to address when traversing styles from golden age to contemporary. “I think there are 3 main differences: 1) Vocal styles are substantially different,” says Rogers. “You’re not going to belt Oklahoma and you’re not going to sing Kinky Boots legit. You need to learn to match your vocal technique to the style. 2) The way that your body is connected to the material is different. Contemporary is less kinetic. There are often no physical buttons. And 3) Contemporary lyrics are often more pedantic. Golden age lyrics are more open for actors to bring their own interpretation. Contemporary lyrics tell you what to feel.”
So what skills do I need to be able to do to work on a new musical?
When asked, Rogers said she feels there are several skills a performer needs to be successful when working on new material: “Sightreading, the ability to make strong acting choices immediately, and not having a thick skin.” When asked about that last skill she elaborated, “I always tell my students, ‘This is not about you. It’s all about the writer.'” As for the sightsinging, “Rehearsal times are short and you will be learning lots of new music.” And once you learn all that new music there’s a good chance you will come to rehearsal the next day to find that the music you worked so hard to learn last night was scrapped for something new — which you then need to learn by tomorrow.
How do I get those skills if I don’t have them?
First you’ll need to figure out which skills you’re lacking. If learning music quickly is hard for you: take a sightsinging class, practice plunking out melodies on a keyboard, or use a service like learnyoursong.com. Have trouble making quick acting choices? Take an improv class, or practice cold reading using sample scenes like these. As a director, I like to say the worst acting choice to make is making no choice at all, so practice making bold choices. Try playing the opposite from what realistically makes sense just to see what happens. I have seen writers write whole new scenes just because of a great choice an actor brought in to rehearsal.
It sounds hard! Why should I want to perform new musicals?
I often hire the same performers over and over again when I’m working on new material. Why? Because I know they have the ‘chops!’ It doesn’t mean they are the only talented actors I know, but working on new musicals is a specific skill and I know some performers are better at it than others. Why do you want to be that actor? The development process of a new musical is long. It takes an average of 7 years to create one. That said, many a musical has opened on Broadway with actors who have performed with that show since it’s first reading. If you don’t get to do the reading — you may not get to do the show. And the thrill of originating a role is an opportunity you do not want to miss.
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Visit www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com for more information on over 150 contemporary musical theatre writers and 400+ songs, all searchable by voice and song type.