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.
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
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.
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.
Lerner and Lowe
Rodgers and Hammerstein
Rodgers and Hart
Jason Robert Brown
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.
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.