11 Things I Have to Tell Myself About Theatre…and Nachos


A castmate and I were musing about our respective moves to Chicago and how our 21 year old selves would view our current lives.  While I sort of wrote this blog post to my 21 year old self, I also know that I couldn’t have learned these things by reading a list.  I really had to learn these lessons authentically.  Still they are things I have to reiterate to myself and it’s nice to see them all lined up and spell- checked and in numerical order with a movie clip at the end. (Also note to 21 year old self, you are currently working on a project you LOVE.)

Sidebar: I hope my 41-year-old self writes something to my current self like, “Use that windfall of 14 million dollars to buy a villa NOT a yacht.  THAT was a hard-learned lesson, giggle giggle. Care for a bellini?  Let me just summon my faithful houseman Agador Spartacus.”

11 Things about Doing Theatre in Chicago

1.  Confidence means more when you aren’t onstage.  Talent, training, technique and rehearsal are the keys to a good performance or audition.  Confidence is deeper.  You have to know…you have to KNOW that the path you are on is your path and the one that is right for you.  Comparison to other actors is death.  It kills your spirit.  It kills your creativity.  And it kills your spark.  Judy is right, you have to “be yourself.  Everyone else is taken.”

2.  Have priorities.  Change them if you need to. And make sure they are actually yours, not someone else’s.  You can be a professional actor and not necessarily want to star in a tv series.  It’s your career.  If you want to do Cher covers while rollerskating, then the world will be a better place for it.  I am so serious.  The world needs HAPPY rollerskating Cher coverers not UNHAPPY commercial actors who wish they were rollerskating and covering “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.”  In the same vein, if that sounds like it sucks?  Dude.  Don’t do it then.  Only an performer thinks, “Ugh that project sounds horrible.  I’ll do it.”  Why?  WHY?

3.  As in the beginning…so in the middle…so in the end.  If that company sucked to audition for….if they were running an hour behind….if they were rude or dismissive…I assure you the rehearsal process will be the same way.  On the other hand, if the audition process was smooth, the people friendly, and the paperwork informative, that’s a huge high sign that they have it together.

4.  Make sure you love every single audition piece you use.  If you are bored by something, the people behind the table will be too.

5.  If you are offered a project and you have an inexplicable sinking feeling or  panic….that’s your intuition telling you to say no. (Not to be confused with feelings of healthy fear that indicate you are challenging yourself.)

6.  It’s okay to say no.  If you say no upfront to a project in a polite way, you won’t burn a bridge ( If you bail halfway through with a shady excuse, that’s a different story).  The project that feels “not right” for you might be a dream job for someone else who will love it.  If you know you can’t throw yourself into the project wholly, what’s the point?

7.  It’s totally okay to take a break for as long as you want to.

8.  When you take a break, it can take a long time to get back into the swing of things.

7.  If a role scares you, it’s probably the right role and you will benefit from playing it.

8.  If you have to force something from the get go, it’s not worth it. (Not to be confused with healthy competition)

9.  You have to love doing this for your own sanity.  I call it the Nachos Philosophy.  Sure every once in a while, I get tired of nachos.  Or am occasionally disappointed with a plate of nachos (what is with the cheese and pickled jalapenos only bullshit?).  Might you occasionally resent this inexplicable need for nachos and that it occasionally causes you to sacrifice other amazing foods in your quest for more nachos? Of course.  But can I imagine my life without nachos?  No I cannot, Madame.   You’ve got to love it like nachos.

10.  You can stop loving it and start loving it again.

11.  This: 

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Gone for a Soldier – My Spring 2012 Reading List


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I am an avid reader.  And now that I have a Kindle?  Oh my god.  I’m a reading machine WITH a reading machine. I sometimes get so overwhelmed by titles I have to read or watch that I come up with complicated spreadsheets to keep track.  True story.  And I’m fine with it.  I know who I am.  Lots of things inform what I read and when I read them.  I try to create seasonal To Read lists just to keep my thoughts together.  Two major elements that inform my “To Read” lists are the current season, and if I’m in a show.

In Spring, my reading usually takes on an outdoorsy feel.  (One of my favorite Spring reads is A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.)  I also read up on different religions in the spirit of Easter and Passover.  Since Chicago weather has been more early July in nature, than late March, I’ve also been tempted to read things with Summer on the brain.  I usually read some big blockbuster type book like a Michael Crichton that just begs to be read on a beach.

This Spring, I am also rehearsing a production called Opus 1861 which involves music from the Civil War era in a modern day wartime Afghanistan setting.  Since I have no personal experience with either conflict (although I have visited many a Civil war battlefield and museum, and am now in retrospect very grateful for the experience), I have been stocking my list with lots of research. (I also have a big list of documentaries I’ve been trying to plow through.)

My seasonal lists usually consist of around 20 books.  I try to make them a diverse mix of non fiction and fiction.  I try to learn about a subject I know little about.  I try to throw in a couple pulp fiction fun reads, and I also try to read some items that might help me in my personal goals.

Okay, so that said, here are the titles on my Spring 2012 booklist:

Part One:  Research

  • The March by EL Doctorow (I am exceedingly jealous of my husband who will be at the upcoming opening of Steppenwolf’s production of The March.)
  • War by Sebastien Junger
  • The Civil War by Shelby Foote
  • 1861: The Civil War Awakens by Adam Goodheart
  • Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq by Kirsten Holmstedt
  • What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes
  • The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers by Nancy Sherman
  • Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson
  • The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan by Bing West
  • The Girls Come Marching Home: Stories of Women Warriors Returning from War in Iraq by Kirsten Holmstedt

Part Two: Personal Picks

  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov – I try to attempt a classic on each list.  I figured a saucy one makes sense.  Lusty Month of May.  All that.  Whatever.
  • Game of Thrones Book 1 by George RR Martin.  After all this grit about the Civil War and Afghanistan, I think I will require something very escapist and fantastical.  I’m sure there are battles but there is no denying it’s pure fiction, right?  RIGHT????  *Twitch twitch*
  • Dune by Frank Herbert.  I promised Will I would read it.
  • Outbreak by Robin Cook.  THIS is my kind of science fiction.
  • The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  I love a good new agey fable every once in awhile.
  • Dance of Death – Book 6 The Pendergast Series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.  This is my favorite pulp fiction series.  It’s got elements of mystery, science fiction, occult stuff, and one of my favorite recurring characters: FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast.  If these books ever get made into movies, Paul Bettany just HAS to play this guy.  HE HAS TO.  I will accept NO ONE ELSE.
  • The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury.  More escapist conspiracy crap that I frankly love to read.
  • Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup.  A book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.  Other than exercising my vote, the best way to maintain autonomy over our own bodies is to learn as much about them as possible.  And then maybe reread The Handmaid’s Tale again.  Cripes.
  • Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chodron.  Sometimes I need to be reminded.
  • The Firestarter Sessions by Danielle LaPorte.  I preordered this one before I had the Kindle.  I bought this program when it was a pdf file.  I can’t wait to see the rehauled print version.  This woman is a genius.  An unmitigated fully feminine no compromises genius.  I think I will be glad I have the print version just so I can write “GENIUS!” in sharpie in the margins.

I won’t end up reading all of them.  That’s why there are so many titles.  Likely some of the books I’ve chosen as research won’t end up resonating for me.  Some of the ones I’ve chosen for personal reading will end up sucking.  That’s why I have the rule of 50.  If it ain’t working for me after 50 pages, I put it down.  I’m also sure I won’t make it through all 4 volumes of Shelby Foote’s comprehensive The Civil War before tech.  Or before I’m 40.

I also won’t read them in any particular order (although the research books will be heavily weighted towards the beginning since we open in mid-April.)

Hopefully, I can carve some time out in this gorgeous weather to sit back and dig into my list!

Musical Auditions: Part 2: The Audition Day


Career Post

Part 2 of a series about Musical Auditions.  (Click here to view Part 1: Preparation)

We all have our own little rituals when it comes to stressful situations.  Some people do a little yoga, some meditate, others pray.  Some people seem to be immune to audition nerves and bully for them.  For me, I like to know absolutely as much as possible about what to expect.  So, this post is sort of written to myself in the past in the hopes that a newbie musical theatre professional can get some sort of benefit from it.  If you are a seasoned old salt, please add any helpful hints.  Rather than focus too heavily on the nitty gritty details, I try to answer the question What is a musical audition like?

If it seems like the following is a lot of effort for all of 60 seconds of your life, well, it is.  But it’s worth it, in the end.  Preparation lessens the stress of a situation that is traditionally thought of as nerve-wracking.  But, it can, and should be fun, for the most part.  Why not?  Auditioning is absolutely as much a part of the actor’s job as anything else.  No need to look at it as a “necessary evil”.  It’s like a 60 second cabaret starring you.  This is a notion to keep in mind while selecting material, something I’ve blogged about here and here in reference to building your book.  I will also discuss it in an upcoming post about selecting audition material for a particular audition and how the book itself should function.

There are basically two situations:  Appointment or No Appointment.

Appointment

Auditions by appointment are posted ahead of time.  Sometimes you have to submit your headshot and resume in ordered to be offered an appointment.  On the day of the audition you show up a little early, fill out the requisite paperwork, and do your thang.  If there are no appointments available, ask if can be on the waitlist.  They still may be able to squeeze you in.

No Appointment

These include Equity crashes, waitlists, open calls and cattle calls. (I loathe and detest open calls.  But that really doesn’t matter.  Cattle calls, however, are not as horrid as the name implies.) I recommend crashing Equity auditions every once in awhile.   Particularly in Chicago.  While the talent pool is big, it’s hardly overwhelming and to date I’ve never not been seen.  Scare yourself every once in awhile.  That’s my motto.  (I know, I have like fifteen mottos.)

The purpose of this post isn’t to detail all the ins and outs of the different types of musical auditions because in the end, you are still busting out 16 bars or so and maybe a monologue.

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So Audition day dawns.  What to do?  Well, whether the audition is at 10 in the morning, or 10 at night, find some time to warm up and rehearse and hydrate.  Avoid caffeine and dairy if you can (makes you sound a little gurgly).  Don’t let the audition be the first time that day you’ve sung.

Of course there is the age old question of what to wear.  I am going to do a post about audition wear coming up, but whatever you choose should be pressed and professional.  I like to wear a dress to musical auditions.  It’s the most “me” thing.  Lots of women wear dress pants.  It doesn’t really matter.  The important thing is to look a little dressy.  Musicals, in particular, have a bit of a dressy feel to them. The makeup is a little more intense.  You are often wigged.  Even miked.  The costumes are a little more ridiculous (if not patently a lot more ridiculous).  Dressing up hints in that direction, and it’s a sign of respect.  Remember, as I’ve said before, at it’s heart it’s a job interview.  A creative one.  Where you sing.

Keys:

LOVE your material.  Love it.  Don’t get so caught up in finding obscure and interesting pieces that you forget to sing something you enjoy.  I tell you this from experience.  I have been guilty of this time and time again.  You should really love your whole book.  I sort of look at my book as a dream cabaret – with a few caveats.

I like to have a little checklist for myself  that I keep in my audition binder to remind what to bring along:

1.  Music – marked (I’ll talk about how to do this in the Audition Book post.)

2.  Sides (if provided)

3.  Monologue (for review, and if requested)

4.  5 headshots and resumes

5.  Shoes (if I plan on changing shoes when I get there)

6.  Water

7.  Audition/Rehearsal Kit (I will go over what is in this in a later post.  But it’s basically a makeup bag full of safety pins, lozenges, mints, kleenexes and other stuff I usually wish I have.  More important for long audition days.)

8.  Pashmina or something in case the audition area isn’t heated…this happens.  A lot.

9.  Calendar

10.  Phone/Keys/Wallet

11. Dance clothes and dance shoes.  (I don’t think you need to carry around your dance shoe collection, but having your characters on hand is not a bad idea.  Don’t do your initial audition in them, however.  Frankly…it looks dorky.)  You may be asked to come back and dance that day.  This is fairly rare in Chicago, but it does happen.  I am of the “Be Prepared” school of thought, so might well throw those trusty t-straps in your bag.

12.  The details of the audition including location, directions, and hopefully a phone number in case you get lost or are running late.

13.  Pens and a little notebook.  You might be called back immediately and given information that you will want to write down.  You might meet someone who’s name you need to remember.  You never know.

The Audition Itself

When you arrive, you will usually be met by a table where an audition monitor will usually be seated.  This person is your guide.  They have the sheet with your appointment.  They have the forms you need to fill out.  They know if things are running as scheduled.  They know who is in the room.  Be nice to them.  Follow their instructions, and ask them any questions you have.

Then sit back and relax, go over your stuff, observe.  Sometimes I even knit.  Pay attention to any announcements from the monitor.  Don’t make them repeat things over and over.

When you are called into the audition room, you could see any number of people: The director, the music director, the accompanist, the choreographer, the producer, the artistic director, the assistant director, the stage manager, the managing director, casting director,  interns….  Normally, there are usually 3-4 people in the room, and not the entire slew of production staff.   I often ask whoever is monitoring the auditionwho is in the room just to have a general feel for what will greet me.  I also like to know who is accompanying on the off chance I know them.  If we’ve worked on a certain piece together, it might be a good choice for the audition.

So what do you do once you are in there?  You are introduced by the monitor, typically, and then given a moment to speak with the accompanist.  Don’t lollygag with the accompanist, but do take your time.  They need the info to play to your specifications.  Bring music in your key.  Do not expect that the person at the piano can transpose on demand.  Even if they can, they may not because it’s a pain in the ass.  Also, make sure you bring actual sheet music.  Not chord charts, and certainly not fake book entries.  With the internet, libraries, and music stores are at your disposal, you’ve got absolutely no excuses other than laziness in this regard.  The accompanist is your partner and there really, more than anyone else, for you.  The director doesn’t need backup music, you do.  However, the accompanist may also be the music director.

Once you’ve established your music with the accompanist, you walk to your spot, re-greet the people at the table, introduce yourself and your piece(s) and do your thang.  Finish up.  Say thank you, and wait for them to dismiss you.  They might want to ask you questions.  They might not.  Don’t go running out of the room.  They might even ask you to sing, gasp!, something else.  (You should have several selections available in your book.  I’ll talk about that in the Audition Book post.)

Then you’re done, you’ve thanked the monitor, and before you know it, you’re back at home and it’s all in the past.  Except for that waiting part.  For reference, I like to make a note of who I met at the audition, who was in the room, what I wore, what my hair was like, the material I did, my thoughts on the audition, and any comments or reaction.  It’s just good info to have and info you’ll be glad you have the next time you audition for them.  I used to keep this information in a notebook.  But now I use an Excel spreadsheet.  Oh yes.  My dorkiness knows no bounds.

Coming soon I’ll talk callbacks, audition wear, your Book, the pieces themselves and how to approach their actual performance,  rehearsals and all sorts of other fun stuff!

Auditions: Musicals – Part 1: Preparation


Career Post

This is the first post (sort of) in a series about how I prepare for auditions.  I actually enjoy auditioning now, but for years it caused me much stress.  Was I doing it “right”?  Why was I so nervous?  How do other people do it?

I’ve been lucky enough to experience both sides of the table, as it were, and I’ve really relaxed into the process.  While that isn’t to say I don’t ever get nervous (I absolutely do), I am confident that I am now doing my best.  There is always room to grow.  I want to push myself to take big risks in both my selection and  interpretation of material.

So, in the interest of transparency in a particularly elusive and hidden world (shut doors!  OOooooo) I’m going to share my experiences in an effort to learn and hopefully calm down anyone like me.   Please chime in with advice or if you think I’m *gasp* wrong about something, or if you have had any experiences in the past that taught you something about auditioning, or if you have any sage philosophies.  I truly believe we aren’t all cut throat competing against each other, even though it might feel like it.  There are so many mitigating circumstances around casting that we may as well share what we know.

Today I want to talk about musical auditions.  I’m curious about other people’s audition strategy.  I’m always trying to improve my game, and streamline the process.  There are entire thick volumes written about the subject of auditions, so for  a mere blog post, I won’t go into too much detail.  In the future, I will get into the nitty gritty of things, but this post is more general and about preparation.

As a little bit of background, I am an actor.  However, I have been a musical director several times.  I’ve also directed and I play the piano.  The following is garnered from my experiences in those offices.

So, this is a bird’s eye view of how I prepare for musical auditions here in Chicago. (I chose musicals to cover first because I’m preparing for a musical audition at present.  I will cover that specific audition in detail once it’s over.)

  • First, I sign up/submit for the audition.  Then I note exactly what the posting asks for.  While I may take a risk with the material I use or my interpretation, I always follow the time limit or requested bars to a t.  I like to show the director and musical director that I’m responsible, professional, and I pay attention.  That’s the first thing I can do to demonstrate that.  At it’s heart, an audition is a job interview.  I treat it as such.  No, I don’t wear a suit and bring references.  But I show up on time, if not early and follow directions.

I’ll do another post about general auditions in the future,  but let’s assume this audition is for a specific musical.

  • The next thing I do is get familiar with the show.  I download the original broadway (or off-broadway, what have you) cast recording if it’s available.  I almost always go with the original recording.  The reason for that is that likely the composer was involved in the process and the material is presented as originally intended.  I like to know how things originate.  I can put my own spin on them later.  Sometimes I will rent a movie version.  This isn’t my favorite way to learn about a show, however.  Movies do massive amounts of editing to make stage productions film-friendly and they sometimes lose essential elements in the process.  While I love the movie Chicago, you’d never know Mary Sunshine is traditionally drag by only watching the movie.  (Jokes aside).  If the musical in question is an original piece (and that is really exciting if it is!) I get as much info as I can.  What is the style?  Does the composer have anything out in the ether I can read or hear?  Do I know anyone that has worked with them?  Is the score available to puruse?  Typically the posting will have some indicators.  I prepare my best contemporary piece, and I make sure I have a couple more ready to go.  Once I get to the audition, I might learn more that may inform my choice.  Having a few pieces under your belt can be really freeing in those situations.
  • Once I get a feel for the show, I select my audition song.  (I wrote a couple posts last year about my sources for material.  In an upcoming post, I will show what my “book” looks like and how I use it.)  I initially pick 3-5 songs that feel right.  They may be by the same composer as the show, they might take place in the same time period, or the subtext might be similar to a role I want. One piece usually sticks out to me initially and I try to remember what my first instinct was.  Then I sing through each of these songs.  Usually, in that process, 1 or 2 will be eliminated right away.  This could be for myriad reasons including the range, the subtext, or just a feeling.  Then I will try and make the appropriate cut in each of the songs.  Sometimes you just can’t find a good 32 bars, or 16 or even 8.  If I can’t get the song to match the length or time requirement, it goes.  That usually leaves me with 2 choices.    I mull these over for a couple days, sing through them, and then decide on the piece.  (If the audition calls for 2 songs, the process is basically the same, just expanded.  I look for one piece initially, and then use that piece to find a nice contrast.)

Sometimes  a musical audition asks for a monologue, sometimes a cold read, sometimes nothing at all.  I always default to my favorite comedic monologue unless they ask for something specific.

  • Then I rehearse.  Quite a bit.  I dig into the text of the song and pack with objectives and action.  It’s a monologue, at it’s heart.
  • If I really care about the audition and the project, I will shell out the cash to hire an accompanist to run the piece with me a few times.

As I get closer to the day, I do a few things.

1.  I up my hydration.  Theatres can be dry, dry places.  Good for a hairdo, but yicky for the chords.  I will never stop drinking coffee in the morning, but I try to lay off the afternoon diet cokes for a couple days (key word: try) and I drink more tea, along with good ol’ H2O.

2.  I start to think about what I’m going to wear.

3.  I try to get a little more sleep than normal (sometimes this is possible, sometimes it isn’t).

4.  I really nail down where I want the accompaniment to begin, and what I will say to the accompanist.  I make sure the music is marked clearly.  (Recently, a musical director friend of mine returned from New York and taught me never to begin with a bell tone and always to have an introduction, even if it’s just a bar. )

The day before the audition, I run the whole thing (all songs and monologues as requested) as much as I can in the shoes I’m planning on wearing.  I keep up the hydration and try to get some sleep.  (Again try is the key word.)

This brings us up to the day of the actual audition, and I will save that for another post.

In the meantime, what is your process?  What are your rituals?

Recommended Reading

The books I like the best for musical theatre auditioning are Auditioning for the Musical Theatre by Fred Silver and Charles Strouse and On Singing Onstage by David Craig and A Performer Prepares by David Craig.  (Audition by Michael Shurtleff is also grand but I will talk about that for non-musical auditions.)  Some of the information is dated, and of course, New York centric.  But preparation is preparation and these books are chock full of great advice.  Musical Theatre Audition.com is also a friendly and informative site to check out.  Great for initial show research.

The other thing I recommend is finding a way to observe auditions from the other side of the table.  It is the best learning experience aside from actually auditioning.

Sing, Sing a Song – Part Two of Musical Theatre Repertoire


At first I was loathe to write this post.  Why would I want to reveal my sources for cool, obscure and powerful audition material?  But love and be loved in return, right?

If you are a purist, these suggestions may not be for you.  These are non-traditional sources.  Some have a bit of a well-duh factor, admittedly.  And a word of warning:  Some songs are obscure because they simply are not good.  Beware.

New Musical Workshops

The time commitment is usually low, meaning it’s easy to fit a project in between other shows.  You meet great people.  You get to sing.  And many many times, you come home with completely original tunes, smack dab in your range.  One of my new money-note 16 bars is from a series of original musicals I performed at the Theatre Building last year.  I’m not sure what the future is for that particular program, but there are others.  Seek them out.

Small Sidebar:  My experiences at the Theatre Building over the years have been joyous.  I have met wonderful and supportive people and I have learned so much.  I don’t know what’s next over there, but I am forever grateful for every project I was a part of.  The sheer amount of talent that passes through that establishment on a daily basis is astounding.  I have been floored by the abilities of my music directors, the composers, and most of all Earth Mother Allan Chambers.  He provides many important opportunities to new arrivals and up and comers, all while keeping a relaxed and supportive environment.  I wish them all the best in whatever the future holds.

Moving on…

Obscure Disney movies

An obscure Disney move, you say?  Surely ye jest!  Well, pick one that doesn’t have a pj and bedding line at Kmart.  Even the non-musical ones usually have a theme song.  Try Freaky Friday (“I’d Like to Be You For a Day”)

Solo Albums

Check out your favorite chanteuse’s lesser known albums.  Composers are crawling over themselves to write for these ladies (and gents), and we are all the beneficiaries.

Dream Role

Guinevere

I believe we tend to be attracted to roles that “feel right,” roles that we have some connection with.  Of course there are glaringly huge exceptions to this rule (I’m probably not going to play Asaka in Once on this Island) it’s a good place to start.  Pick your dream role, then take the song from Act 2 that people tend to ignore.

Your Shower Routine

Oh, come on.  We all have one.  Perhaps there is a song you love, but you’ve never been able to find the sheet music.  Consider hiring someone to notate it for you.  It isn’t that expensive.  Try hiring a music student at Columbia, for example.  Many many music directors do it on the side for extra cash.

Old Movie Musicals

I’m talking about the ones that never really made it to the stage in any significant way: Funny Face, American in Paris, Ziegfeld Follies

Non-Disney children and family movies

Both animated and not.  Think Willy Wonka, Don Bluth movies, etc.

Randy Newman

Randy Newman

He’s a jackpot.

Old Vaudeville Ballads and Uptempo numbers

Some are heartbreakingly beautiful.  Others are absolutely goofy, and would work well as a comedic piece.

Burlesque

Those ladies may not be singing their songs, but talk about content, right?

Divas…but not the stadium Divas/Golden Age of Hollywood Stars

Instead of Judy, Barbra, Kristin, and Edina try Marilyn, Jayne, Jane, Bridgette, Sophia, Eartha, Blossom Dearie, and Ella

Instead of Frank, try Dean

Movie theme songs

Particularly look at the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.  Tootsie, for example has a very sweet theme song.

Country

Allison Krauss

Something to note about country:  As opposed to pop, rock, and r&b, country people sing legit, very near Broadway style songs.  Cut out the twang and steel guitar and you’ve got a number.

Singer Songwriters

Gordon Lightfoot - He looks like my Dad in the 70's here

Anne Murray, Carol King, Carly Simon, Bob Dylan, James Taylor

Older work from R&B -ers

Mariah Carey’s old albums have some great stuff.  Men might want to try Seal.

Elton John and Billy Joel

Both of these have forayed into the world of musical theatre.  But I’m not talking about their Broadway work. Particularly take a look at Billy Joel.  Elton John’s rep is a little more widely known.  Billy Joel has definitely had some gems pass under the radar over the years.  Now, I am an unabashed Billy Joel fan, BUT that is very much because much of his stuff is really theatrical.  If you’ve never listened to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”, I encourage you to do so.  I’ll reveal here, one of my 32 bar selections is from this song.  I don’t use it a lot, but I have used it.

Your Fave Composer

Alan Menken

Many many musical composers have done work outside the stage.  Sometimes they compose for individual artists, sometimes movies.  You never know.  Dig around your favorite composer’s archives.  You never know what will pop up.

I hope these ideas help you find new and exciting songs for your book and for performance.  Sometimes, nothing is more invigorating and inspiring than singing a song you absolutely love, and that feels like a personal signature.

Singer, Know Thyself


After a very long time out of the auditioning world, I am slowly coming back around.  Due to many different factors such as shows with a long run, offers on projects, etc. it’s been a really long time since I’ve had to break out 16 bars.  So I pulled out my enormous audition binder this week and did some updating.  Musical theatre is a small world no matter how you cut it, but Chicago in particular has a fairly insular community.  As such, you feel a certain pressure to have a unique audition piece that won’t bore the director and accompanist to tears.  The last thing you want is to slap your music down, begin to intro the piece to the guy at the piano and have him say, “Yeah, the girl before you did it, too.  We’re good.”

And then, of course, each musical audition or role or project has a certain feel that you want to embody.  If it’s Sondheim, you want them to know you have an ear.  If it’s new, you want them to see your range.  If it’s Schwartz, you want something other than Wicked.

But then you want something that makes you sound good.  You want something that is “You.”  I won’t ever play Evelyn Nesbit, but I may have some Emma Goldman up my sleeve.  I’m no Sandy.  But I can do Rizzo.  Archetypes are rampant in musicals, and it really helps to have an idea of which ones you embody.  I’m the rich bitch Queen Villain clever bad girl friend comedic relief type person.  Any ingenues I end up playing are always a bit alterna.  Mary Malone in Zombies From the Beyond.  Margie Frake in State Fair.  No, Margie’s not pushing any boundaries, per se.  But she is a brunette in a musical written in the 40’s.  I don’t resent this at all.  Lucky for me, I get the most fun out of the villainy wise-cracker.  I played the mayor’s wife in a mini-musical last year that lasted all of five minutes and it was a blast.  The point is, my book has to match my personality.  I’ve always been pretty good at seeking out selections that fit.

But I was missing one thing.  I didn’t really like the songs I was choosing.  Academically, they were perfect.  But I didn’t enjoy singing them.  So, this week, I went ear to the grindstone (H/T Chuckie in Good Will Hunting) and started making my book truly a repertoire.  Out with the Jo from Little Women.  I never even learned the song in the first place.  Begone Rags!  Sayanara “Whistle a Happy Tune”! (Sidebar:  this was a tough loss.  I don’t really like the song – I didn’t like singing the word “erect.”  I’m a child, what can I say? – but I was struggling finding an upbeat piece in my head voice.)

My audition book is a little sanctuary for me.  I keep little clips of lyrics I love in the pockets.  It’s dripping with pink and purple.  I want to add rhinestones, but I don’t want people to think Starina is about to do 32 bars of “What is this Dream I See?”  Oh hell.  Maybe I do.

Starina

I went through each and every song and asked myself a series of ten questions.  Each song had to fit at least 6, or out it went.  Of course there were a couple exceptions.  I needed to keep my Gershwin.  I also have a sort of rotating Alternative Source meaning country, hymns, pop.  But I ended up with a book I love.  And I can do 16 bars of any of the selections right now at this moment.  My goal is to be able to perform the entire thing, no prep.

Here are the questions I ask myself of each song (having first passed the initial test:  Do I like it?):

1.  Is it smart?

2.  Is it funny?

3.  Is it a character I could play? (God how I want to put “Something Wonderful” from the King and I in my book, but that’s simply a role I won’t be cast in.  Off to the “Use in a cabaret someday” file)

4.  Does it show off some element of my voice?  i.e. range, belt, color, etc.?  (I don’t sound like the current Broadway style when I sing.  I decided to play that up.  It might get me less roles, but it’s me.)

5.  Is it a big personality song?  Can I really take the stage with it?

6.  Does it have depth?  Is there something going on? (Many jazz standards are beautiful, but in the end, you’re singin’ about a tree.  Audition songs have to have what my old acting teacher would call “packing.”)

7.  Is it sexy?

8.  Is it interesting or quirky?

9.  Is it active?  (Ultimately, songs are just monologues to music.  So it really helps if the character is involved in some sort of conversation.  Sondheim songs are great for this.  R&H songs are not.  It’s the difference between doing and telling.)

10.  Is it accompanist-friendly? (Having been one myself, when an actor slaps down a chart with umpteen million sharps, three key changes, and 5/8 time, you want to kill them.)

If I can check several of those off the list, it stays.

MusicalTheatreAudition.com has some really wonderful resources for repertoire-building.  Using their advice, my experience, and my “type” I have built up a repertoire system that works for me.  I hope it works for you.  Here are the categories I am sure to cover with my book.

16 Bars (with easy expansion to 32 bars)

  • Upbeat Belt
  • Upbeat Head Voice
  • Ballad Belt
  • Ballad Head Voice

Faves

A lot of times, you don’t quite know what you are getting into (Season auditions, etc.), so you might as well have a few you absolutely love and can drop rightnow.

I like to have a fave upbeat, ballad, rangey (has either/or huge musical range or emotional range.  Preferably both.  And no, not Rose’s turn, Babs.  Find ya own.)

Make sure you have at least one piece that is decidedly comedic, and one that is decidedly dramatic.

Composers

Certain composers have a feel that is unique to them.  Sondheim comes to mind, of course.  But even Cole Porter is someone to consider.  I like to have a smattering from the big guys.  Like monologues, it’s good to have both classic and contemporary.  Since musical theatre, in it’s modern sense, is relatively new, classic can mean pre-1970’s (in my opinion.  Others would say it has to be 1990 or later, but I think Chorus Line is much more contemporary than say, South Pacific.)  If you really dig in and try to represent quite a few of these composers and others, you will automatically span a good chunk of the music theatre cannon.

Consider:

Cole Porter
Lerner and Lowe
Rodgers and Hammerstein
Rodgers and Hart
Cy Coleman
Stephen Schwartz
Jason Robert Brown
Jules Stein
Kurt Weill
Leonard Bernstein
Flaherty and Ahrens

Now, while I don’t have a Jason Robert Brown piece in my rep, I do have a piece that sure sounds like him.  The idea is to show the people on the other side of the table that indeed, You Can Do That.  So if you love a song, and it sounds like Schwartz, then for our purposes, it is Schwartz.

Early Selections

It would behoove you to have something early 20th Century and something Gilbert and Sullivan.  In all honesty, I still need to find a Gilbert and Sullivan.  I know what one I want to use, but I need to get my butt to the library.  They didn’t have it on Musicnotes.com.

Then we move into the Non Musical Theatre Category

With shows like Rock of Ages out there, it’s good to have some contemporary and pop pieces available.  I also like to have a country song and something folksy/bluegrassy.  I wouldn’t say you NEED that.  That is something I enjoy and seek out.  But it does illustrate that if there is something you do well that is outside the mainstream (opera, scat, foreign language),  have that available.  It’s not unusual in an audition for someone to say, What else do you have?  You should always have an answer that is not: “Uhhhh…nothing.”

I also like to have a couple picks that are representative of certain decades in the 20th century.  I have a 50’s piece.  I also have a 70’s piece.  I also have a piece that is a bit Celtic (It’s “me”), a somewhat gospel piece (another thing I love), I also have a classical piece because I am classically trained, so it’s good to be able to show that. (Sidebar: I have never had to use this.  But I assure you, the second I take it out of my book, somebody will ask.)

Then, we have, as Musical Theatre Audition.com calls it, The Idiot Proof piece.  Let me give you a scenario.  You are at an audition.  Several people have walked out of the audition in various states of dismay, anger, sadness, and bemusement.  There could be several causes for this but there are two likely ones:  Evil director or bad accompanist.  There’s nothing you can do about an evil director.  It is what it is.  You do, however, have defenses for a bad accompanist.  You can help yourself by chucking Plan A (your prepared piece) and going with Plan B – The Idiot Proof piece.  It’s simple, straightforward accompaniment.  Easy key.  Not many page turns.  The accompanist is generally an angel on earth put there solely to bring forth your backup, but they are human angels, nonetheless.  Keep them in mind when choosing material.  More often than not, my accompanists have been borderline musical geniuses who genuinely love helping an actor out.  But sometimes they get sick or get a headache or get sick of playing My Heart Belongs to Daddy.  Sometimes they are terrible.  The girl on the piano at my SETC audition in 2003 just sort of slapped her hands around on the keyboard and giggled.  Keep your ear to the ground at auditions and always assess if you think it might be time for the Idiot piece.  If you are super paranoid, in a two song audition, start with your normal piece and end with Idiot proof.

Finally, I like to have a few character types handy.  Like I said before, I know who I am, musically speaking.  So I have a piece or two that is perfect for a villain.  I have a piece or two that is very quirky best friend.  I have torch.  I have Comedy.  And I have Drama.  I have very little to no ingenue.  What for?  Oh, sure, if I had to, I’ve got some stuff that will work.  I believe that musical theatre types are often born into a show, so to speak.  This means that there is one show that will follow you and find you throughout your life.  For me, it is the Music Man.  I feel Marian the Librarian might be in my future.  And I’m ready.  But just know that I’m secretly wishing for Eulalie Mackecknie Shin.  But I am reticent.  Oh yes, I am reticent.  In other ingenue lemmings, I would love to play Guinevere.  But generally, I want the comedy.  I want the zinger.  I want the sight gag.

Now, none of this is hard and fast.  In the wierd world of the arts, a 90 pound blonde girl might fare well with “Old Man River” and “Ladies Who Lunch.”  Certainly she will be remembered.  I have flagrantly broken some musical theatre rule at one point or another.  I spend years looking for beautifully obscure pieces just to bust out “I Dreamed a Dream” as a semi-joke.  Why the hell not?  I sing it well, I’m comfortable with it, and it always feels a little badass to do potentially the most overdone audition song EVER.  It’s like wearing Poison perfume.  People are likely to assess it as familiar, and then pay extra attention because what in the hell is going on here?  Why would you do that song?  Why would you wear Poison?  Call me a narcissist, but you’ll remember me.  Just remember to do it well.

Next up?  Dance call.

You’re on your own, dude.