Reflecting on Senior Showcases

Laura Josepher and David SiscoAs music theatre industry folks, we get invited to a fair amount of senior showcases. Regardless of the school, we always try to go because it teaches us important things about how college students are being prepared for a career as a theatre artist. Timing out at 45-60 minutes, these jam-packed performances pack a punch, but not always in the way intended.

Having attended quite a few showcases over the years (and this season in particular), we wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the things we’ve noticed. We also wonder if this longstanding tradition has worn out its welcome.

Showcases are Kind of Impossible

Can we state the obvious here? God love anyone who has the unenviable task of assigning showcase repertoire. Finding songs and scenes that equally feature performers is next to impossible, especially if you’re dealing with a large graduating class of 25 or more. Programs who featured musical theatre performers in both a scene and song had the added challenge of making sure each student’s material showed range. Often times, this was not the case.

Also, it’s very difficult to get a showcase to flow in an organic way. So often, they feel disjointed – a hodgepodge of scenes and songs – and the audience can feel jolted from one transition to the next. Putting together a successful showcase requires someone with a keen eye on building the order in a way that makes the scenes and songs feel inevitable. That’s a real challenge, and some schools did it better than others.

Talent is Talent

We have seen talented students come out of the top ten musical theatre programs and we have seen talented students come out of virtually unknown programs. We’ve also seen the reverse. While one may argue some programs prepare students better than others, we believe incoming college musical theatre students need to focus more on finding the program that speaks to them. Sure, having Carnegie Mellon on your resume might be nice, but there are tons of people on Broadway right now who have never darkened a door of that or any other high profile institution. One of David’s colleagues is currently in a Broadway show and she doesn’t even have a music or theatre degree. The opportunity simply found her. Talent is talent, and the trick is finding the right place to nurture it.

Picking Material

Many programs leave it to the students to select their own showcase material. This is a very challenging job and should not be taken lightly. We find the most successful material is that which keeps the audience in mind. They (We) want to quickly see who you are so we can figure out if we can cast you. Be strategic. Know what you do well and choose material that is closely aligned with you are. Sounds simple, but by honestly assessing your strengths as a performer, you’ll be better able to find material that shows that off. Make sure your choices are age and gender appropriate. Remember: the goal is not to do what you like (although that helps), but to show the crowd who you are and what about you is unique.

What’s with the Foul Language?

We’re not prudes by any stretch, but we’ve been kind of shocked by the amount of swearing and heavy sexual content in showcase material. For us, the work ends up overshadowing the actors and often times only for a cheap laugh. There’s plenty of solid, funny material out there that won’t take the audience out of the moment (a danger at showcase anyway). We feel it’s more important to keep the attention on the performer with smarter/cleaner material.

Loud is Not an Emotion

It was an unfortunate, faulty thread throughout most the showcases we saw: Want to communicate a strong emotion? Be loud. This was especially true in the singing, with many seniors going for broke on what they hoped would be viewed as a showstopper. But in the audience, it often felt like we were being screamed at, and the performer’s lack of technical skill was highlighted more than their vocal or dramatic ability. It also underscored how ludicrous showcases can be: this attempt to show range from 0-60 in a minute and a half. This brings us to our last point…

Are Showcases Still Necessary?

In the end, showcases feel to us like a relic from a very different age. The industry has changed so much in the last 20 years and there are now so many competing music theatre programs. We’re noticing just as many fresh faces in the audience as on stage: the casting directors’ interns and assistants attending rather than people in a position of power.

Add to this the fact that a very small handful of students actually hear from casting folks after a showcase anyway. This can leave seniors to feel as if they’re on very shaky ground coming into the industry when that might not be the case at all. We wonder if the time and expense of showcase is truly worth it. Are there other, more effective ways colleges and universities can help young professionals build bridges to the industry? This year, NYU Steinhardt started an online showcase. We kind of love the benefit of watching from home and having a reference point for later.

To us, this must be a four-year commitment regardless of whether or not the school has a showcase.

In the end, every school must decide what’s right for them and their students. We recognized the challenges of producing a showcase and hope institutions will continue to take a good look at the landscape of today’s industry when putting theres together.

Check out our new book “Mastering College Musical Theatre Auditions: Sound Advice for the Student, Teacher, and Parent” now available on Amazon.

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