The first job out of school for many recent musical theatre grads will be a reading or a workshop of a new musical. Musicals take a notoriously long time to develop. It’s not uncommon for it to take 7+ years for a show to make it to a full production. Often, many of the performers who make it to the production cast have followed the shows’ journey since its first reading, while others have not. So as a performer, how do make sure you’re the one who makes it to the finish line?
Working on a new musical demands a precise set of skills that is different from working on your college production of Guys and Dolls. If working on new musicals if something that excites you, here are some skills to work on to make sure you’re ready when opportunity knocks.
When I sit behind a table at an open call, I am always looking for performers who do more than just read the sides to me. Yet that’s what I feel like most young performers do when they come into the audition room. If you want to stand out, make a bold choice. One way to do this is to take the “strong and wrong” approach. When reading through the sides, pick just one trait for the character and then “supersize” it, meaning play that one trait as large as you can. I am always happiest to see an actor who has made a strong choice with the material, even if it is not the way I envision the character being performed. I will probably just give that actor an adjustment and ask them to do it again.
Want to get better at cold reading? Practice. A lot. Pick out a play or find some sides on the internet, choose a trait and make a bold choice. Then perform the scene out loud. After doing it once, try playing the opposite trait and read that through. New musicals move fast. The performers who can bring directors lots of options quickly will find themselves much in demand.
In the development process it is not unusual for a new song or arrangements to come into rehearsal daily. Learning to sight read is a critical skill if you want to work on new musicals. Things that will help you be successful when building your sight reading skills? Not singing the words when you are first learning a song. Figure out the rhythm, and be sure to note key/time signature. Sing the melody on “ni” (knee). And don’t forget to look for clues in the accompaniment. Ask your voice teacher or vocal coach to spend some time at each lesson sight reading. Put a sight reading app (like Music Tutor) on your phone. Just like cold reading, the only way to get better at this is just to do it.
Interpreting Text / Investigating Style
New musicals have many moving parts. There are multiple collaborators and one small change in a scene or song can cause an avalanche for the rest of the show. So during the development process, it’s not uncommon for there to be gaps in the writing, either in character development, the plot, or both. It’s your job as a performer to “make it work.” This means learning to be an excellent dramaturg.
Use a story arc map (like the one above) to practice mapping out the plot and characters in your favorite musicals. It’s not as easy as you might think! Being able to plot the elements of a musical and characters will help you more easily identify if/when something is missing. You’ll then be better equipped to make choices about how to play your character’s through line — even if some of it is still unwritten or happens off stage.
It’s also important for you to be able to identify stylistic markers. Today musical theatre performers need to be able to sing in so many different styles. Many performers fall back on imitating a sound when it comes to style, instead of doing their research and figuring out how to create the style in their own voice and body. Pop/Rock doesn’t need to sound like it hurts. Don’t riff if you’re working on a 1960s pop song. Doing your research into the style markers of a show will help you show yourself to be a smart performer who is able to sing healthy and make it through the whole run.
Talking to Writers
One of the thrills of working on a new musical is that the creators are often in the room. But that can also be a challenge when the material doesn’t work and the writers want to know what you think. The writers have been immersed in their show and it can be difficult for them to hear feedback. Follow the chain of command in the room. You should talk to the director before you speak to the writers. If the writers ask you a direct question, think about what you want to say and ask yourself first whether it’s constructive. Ask the writers questions to get more information before offering your thoughts. Writers often have say in casting, so you want to be the performer they remember for the right reasons.
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Working on new musicals can be exciting. Making sure you’re equipped with the skill sets to make you a good collaborator will ensure you will the “go to” performer when new musicals are being cast. “Opportunity does not waste time with those who are unprepared.”
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