by Lori Moran
So, you've worked on your acting and gotten your vocal technique down. You've mastered diaphragmatic breathing, you've built a cohesive sound throughout your registers, developed great tone quality, control, power, yada yada yada... Now what? Are you really ready to put yourself in front of directors and casting agents in musical theatre auditions? Well, that all depends on the songs you have chosen for your "audition book".
Many singer/actors make the mistake of trying to learn a new song for each audition that comes up. Thus, they are perpetually on the search for something that will be just perfect for the character they are auditioning for that particular time, and hope to find something obscure enough that not every other singer will walk through the door with the same song. (Trust me, the directors are hoping that same thing.) However, it's nearly impossible to get a new song "show ready" in a week or less, which is usually about how long you have between when you hear about the audition and when you stand in front of the directors. Of course, you can learn a song in that short amount of time, but you are not going to have lived with that song long enough to bring your fullest and best rendition of the song, as you would with something that you've sung in front of an audience. You only get about 30-60 seconds (16 - 32 bars) in the audition room. Think about it. Would you rather have the directors say to themselves, after hearing you sing, "Wow, that was a great song for this audition", or "Wow, that is a great actor/singer"? Instead of always being on the hunt for yet another song for each new audition, why not build your audition book with a few well selected songs across a variety of styles that will serve you best, no matter what the role, and allow the confident performer in you shine through?
Here are a few tips for building your musical theater audition book - one that will provide you with enough material to use for all your auditions because they will really showcase the YOU that directors want to see and hear. (See also "9 Tips for Successful Musical Theater Auditions".)
1. Collect songs that reflect your personality, type, and vocal abilities. Try to find songs that match the character type for which you are most likely to be considered. It's better to have 10 - 12 well-chosen songs that you know you could perform at the drop of a hat at any moment, than a vast collection of songs you've only "been working on" but haven't ever gotten up to performance level. And you must keep these songs up to that level all the time, so it's important to continue singing them on a regular basis. Anything that gets rusty or stops having relevance for you should be replaced. Also, as you age, the roles for which you will be considered will change. Be sure to update your book accordingly.
2. Choose songs that you have a strong connection with and develop a deep understanding of the characters embodied in those songs. Most directors DON'T want to hear songs from the show they are casting in auditions, because they will get sick of hearing the same songs all day. If you have made good choices for the music you've included in your audition book, you will probably have more than one song that will work for most any audition that you are likely to attempt, so you won't need to run out and learn a new song for each audition. And if you remember that the acting is really the key thing directors are looking at, and the singing, while important, is secondary, you'll make better choices for the songs you put in your book.
As vocal teachers and singers, we like to think that the singing is the most important aspect of your audition. But the unavoidable truth is, acting will trump singing every time in the musical theatre world, so choose songs that allow you to show off your acting skills as well as your vocal prowess. Know your "type" - what kind of roles you are most likely to be cast in - and choose songs that display those types.
3. Prepare an Up-tempo & Ballad for each audition. Since most professional auditions require that you come prepared with both an up-tempo (fast song) and a ballad (slow song), even though many times, you are likely going to get to sing only one selection, your audition book should contain at least one up-tempo and one ballad for each of the main styles/genres of musical theatre:
Classic or "Golden Age" Musical Theatre (1943-1959) "old school" shows, such as those composed by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein, Rodgers & Hart, et al. Two to four 4 contrasting songs from this era is optimal.
Rock/Pop/Folk/R&B/Hip-Hop, etc.- (NOT something from a "rock/pop" musical, but actual songs as you've heard them on the radio). Should include at least one Top-40 tune.
Sondheim - You should have at least one, but preferably two contrasting Sondheim songs that embody characters with whom you feel connected, and that you can sing really well.
Disney / Film
After those main categories are covered, you should add a novelty song, a country song, a comedic song, and possibly even a classical or operatic song (if you can sing it well). As you advance in your career, your audition book can change, too - but keep weeding out the songs you don't use regularly. Keep your book lean - stress quality over quantity.
4. Make your cuts. Come prepared with the whole song, just in case they love you and want to hear more, but only expect to sing your best 16-32 bars (measures). 16-bars usually gives you about 30 seconds to show them what you can do, so you need to choose the BEST 16-bars of the song. There is an art to making these cuts. For many songs, the last 16-32 bars of the song will be appropriate. But not always. You want to choose the measures that deliver the "message" of the song, allow you to do some acting, hit the "high note", if there is one, and provide a beginning and an end, rather than sounding like you started or stopped mid-thought. That's a tall order, especially for 16-bar cuts. This is where an experienced voice professional (coach or teacher) can be worth their weight in gold. Be especially sure to have your intros and cuts clearly marked for the accompanist. (See also "Do's and Don'ts of Preparing Sheet Music for Musical Theater Auditions")
5. Songs to avoid: As a general rule, there are some song types you may want to avoid:
"Victim" or "angst" songs (unless these are traits specific to the character you are auditioning for)
Obscure songs are ok, but songs that are so obscure that NOBODY knows them are NOT good to bring to an audition. (There may be a good reason for their obscurity, and you don't want the directors to be focused so much on your odd song choice that they forget about YOU.) And please don't sing something you wrote yourself, God bless you.
Songs from the show in question (unless specifically asked to sing something from the show)
Overdone songs (i.e., anything from "Wicked", "Frozen", "Moana", or whatever the current Disney hit happens to be, etc. - shows that are currently playing on Broadway) You can even find a variety of videos online dealing with this topic:
6. Life is too short to sing songs you don't love! With such a plethora of music from which to choose, there is no reason to sing songs that you don't feel a strong connection to in some way. Whether you just love the music, the lyrics speak to you, or if you feel you could just "live in the skin" of that particular character, those are the songs you should sing because there is a reason why you love those songs. There is something magical and inexplicable about the way that certain stories and songs move us. The songs that touch you are the same ones that are most likely to touch others when you perform them. Take advantage of that connection and use it to land your next role!
7. Be kind to the accompanist! Consider the difficulty level of the accompaniment for the songs you choose. Remember, unless you bring your own accompanist (which is perfectly acceptable to do), the person who will be sitting behind the piano may have never seen your music before, and you take a huge risk of having a catastrophe if you bring something that is really complicated to play.
8. Get the music in your key. Many songs, particularly from the "Golden Age", are strongly associated with their original key, and should NOT be transposed to suit your voice. If you have to transpose a song from this style to make it work in your voice, it may be better to choose a different song. But when transposing the key is appropriate, and you can find the sheet music to download online, you must be careful to get the song in the key that is right for you. But if you don't know anything about music theory and how key signatures work, you'll need to get assistance from someone who does. And by all means, once you have your sheet music printed out, take it to an professional voice coach or accompanist to make sure that the music reflects the tempo and cuts as you want them for your audition, and that it looks right on the page. Online sheet music providers have come a long way, but sometimes the transposed music has strange symbols and and excessive sharps and flats, making it very complicated for an accompanist to read.
9. When in a pinch....like when you're still working on your "audition book" and you have no idea what to sing for a particular audition that is coming up in 3 days... Whatever the part you are going for, try to find something that portrays a similar character AND is from a similar style of show (or something written by the same composer/lyricist) AND has a similar vocal range. If the character calls for a belter, you don't want to come in with a legit soprano song. And if the role calls for a tenor with a high C, you don't want to choose a baritone ballad.
10. Create a Table of Contents page and put it at the front of your book. Most importantly, the first page should be organized by style/genre (Golden Age, Contemporary, Rock/Pop, Sondheim, Disney, Jazz, etc.). Have 3 columns - Song Title | Show Title | Composer. Beside each song title, insert a "B" for ballads and a "U" for up-tempo songs. See sample below.
Having this page will help you find something quickly when you are in an audition situation, the director asks you if you have anything else and your mind goes completely blank. This will keep you from having to flip through pages and waste what precious time you have.
All of this can take a lot of research, especially if you are new to the auditioning world, and if you aren't yet a particularly big musical theatre buff. A good voice professional can help evaluate your voice, recommend appropriate songs, help you polish your audition songs, and even provide regular performance opportunities (recitals, workshops, masterclasses) to help you prepare and get material show-ready. If you are serious about pursuing a career in musical theatre, regular sessions with a trusted voice teacher are the best investment you can make!