I don’t recall how I met Sam Heldt. No doubt it was through a mutual writer friend. Or maybe his talent simply proceeded him, since I was very familiar with his performances of some of my favorite contemporary songs (David Gaines & Charlie Sohne’s “I’m Just Glad,” for example…).
I first worked with Sam in 2015 at the New Dramatists Composer-Librettist Studio. For those of you not familiar with the studio, it is the most crazy-amazing 15 days for 5 composers, 5 librettists, and 5 performers. Writers are paired together to create a new work for a particular performer in about 36 hours. The performer then learns the song in front of the entire group and everyone discusses the collaborative process and what worked and didn’t work about the piece. Rinse and repeat. At the end, the performers sing all 25 songs in a marathon presentation.
My now-friend Kate Cortesi and I had the opportunity to write our first song for Sam. I’m so proud of how it came out and Sam’s performance of it was spot on. Since then, I’ve been a huge Sam Heldt fan.
While the pressure of writing quickly might infrequently happen for a creative team in workshops like the Composer-Librettist Studio, it’s completely normal for a performer focusing on new work to produce fast, yet refined results that further inspire the writers. This is where Sam excels. In addition to regularly performing in readings at the NYU Tisch Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, he has originated several roles in readings and productions in New York. Because of his acuity in developing memorable characters and performances, he’s had roles written specifically for him.
In this blog, we often talk about the differences between performing standard Broadway repertoire and new work. I recently sat down with Sam to pick his brain about how he goes about developing fully realized characters in a new musical.
What led you to focusing most of your energy as an actor on new work?
I sort of fell into it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’d always been super excited by new musical theater. So when I first moved to the city, a friend and I boldly decided we were equipped to start a monthly concert series where we featured the music of a different new writer each month. Some of the writers were less involved, but some were very hands-on with us and the connections I made with them led to a lot of opportunities for me that pulled me deeper into the world of new musical development. And along the way, as I’ve developed a better sense of who I am, both as a person and as a performer, I’ve realized that my particular strengths are best suited to new works, and furthermore, I’m happier when I’m not fighting to hide all the weird contemporary quirks that make me who I am.
How many readings/workshops of new musicals came through an audition, and how many were you engaged because the writer(s) knew your work as a singing actor?
At this point I’ve done dozens of readings/workshops of new musicals, and I’m pretty sure not a single one came through an audition. Every one has either been because I’d worked with the writer or director before, or they had seen my work in another reading of a show written by one of their friends, or because I was recommended by a colleague they trusted. I’ve definitely heard from writer friends that they will watch YouTube videos and/or show them to their collaborators in lieu of holding auditions, so that’s just another reason why having videos of your work available online can be a huge benefit.
What tools have you developed in approaching a role in a workshop or reading setting?
For me the single most important thing is being able to learn music quickly. It’s kind of a paradox, because in my estimation, particularly in a development setting, figuring out how to tell the story is way more important than perfect singing, but you can’t start figuring out how to tell the story until you know the music so well that you don’t have to think about it. So, the quicker you can learn music and feel comfortable singing it, the more time you have to pay attention to storytelling, and since time is not usually abundant in a reading, every moment counts.
Beyond that, I’d say the next most valuable tool is being able to assess tone and character and feeling comfortable making strong choices within those confines without a ton of guidance. It’s obviously different with every process, but sometimes there just isn’t enough time to really dig in to a discussion with your director about what tone the show wants, or about who your character is. And on top of that, if a show is in a very early stage of development, the writers may not even fully know who they want your character to be, so coming in with ideas of how to turn their words into a 3-D human can be really helpful, whether it’s because it totally works for the character or because it helps show the writers who they DON’T want the character to be.
But being adaptable is important too, because over the course of the process the writers will usually be making changes to the script based on what they’re learning in the rehearsal room that may affect your take on your role. Being game to roll with these changes and to take a director’s adjustments helps the writers execute the best possible version of their current draft, giving them a clearer sense of what they actually have and how to proceed.
Have you had challenging conversations with a creative team about dramaturgical issues with your character? If so, how did you navigate that?
I’ve been in situations where writers seem very open to feedback and others where they don’t, so it’s helpful to feel out that dynamic before having a conversation like this, but my general philosophy is that my job in helping develop a show is to play my character, as written on the page, with as much integrity as I can, so that the writers can see what it is they’ve written, flaws and all, and then I’m happy to leave it up to them where they want to go from there. I’m not a writer and I don’t pretend to know how they do what they do, so I trust that they know better than me how to fix any problems they see. The few times I have gotten into the kind of conversation you’re asking about, it’s because there are things I find contradictory on the page and I can’t make sense of the trajectory of the story I’m being tasked with telling without asking a few questions. So I always approach those conversations with the attitude that I just want to help them tell the story they want to tell, and I think as long as it comes from a place of curiosity and collaboration these conversations are super helpful.
What advice would you give college students about pursuing a career focused on new musicals?
I’d echo some really good advice I’ve received which is to not try to be anyone else. Especially if you’re interested in new work, having a good sense of your own personal strengths and what you bring to the table that makes you unique is essential. If you’re always trying to emulate someone else or do what you think you’re “supposed” to be doing, you’re not going to be able to tell the most interesting truth, because you’re cutting off a lot of the avenues in yourself through which that truth could come.
And practice sight-singing. I can’t emphasize that enough.
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