THE INS AND OUTS OF SELECTING AUDITION REPERTOIRE

by Aaron Galligan-Stierle

For almost a decade, I have taught an audition technique class in New York City called Advanced BuildYour Book. Every time I teach this course, I reconsider the challenges of constructing a binder of audition repertoire, since each song must serve many masters: it must highlight vocal strengths, showcase acting chops, embody type, and speak to the artist on a deeply personal level.

As a professional audition coach, I spend my days analyzing, discussing and dissecting the many assumptions surrounding musical theatre auditions. My methodologies often fly in the face of standard audition practices, yet they succeed. In this article, I’ll offer up some of these unconventional insights regarding audition song selection.

THE INDUSTRY STANDARD

A typical approach to building a successful audition book is to begin by breaking repertoire down into eras and styles: Standard Ballad, Standard Uptempo, Contemporary Driving/Dramatic, Contemporary Ballad, Comedy, and Pop/Rock. 

When I am hired as a professional coach, I make sure each of those boxes are ticked by at least one or two songs, and then I workshop material with the singer to ll any "holes." I use this strategy to make sure that actors have a musically-diverse book. For Broadway-level performers, my focus then shifts to how to make an artist authentically stand out from the crowd.

Another strategy that I offer my clients is to ask them to create a list of “dream roles,” and who originated those roles, and then cross-reference those actors with the other shows/roles/songs that they’ve performed for more ideas.This strategy is good for gathering type-appropriate material, but it's rarely enough to book the job.

What's needed in addition to these starting points is a deeper understanding of what makes an audition succeed or fail. It's not enough to simply add the songs and cuts that we hear “everyone else” doing, or deferring to the commonly-accepted choice. Instead of accepting conventional musical theater wisdom at face value, we need to dig underneath the surface to see why some songs work and other songs don’t for professional auditions.

MINING THE SOURCE: AUDITION NOTICES

If you skim audition breakdowns, you’ll see that one phrase crops up in almost every notice: “Please sing a song that shows range.” Most young musical theater performers will interpret this as a directive about vocal range.They need a song that showcases their glorious high notes, and call it a day.

Here’s my take: in this fast-paced industry, the creative team often doesn’t have time to specify their needs in a casting breakdown. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the team doesn’t even know their needs until they’re in the room seeing brilliant actors making inspired choices. But they can’t simply request that auditioners, “Please sing a song.” The extraordinary lack of specificity would be both cringeworthy and laughable! By requesting that actors “please sing a song that shows range," the team has a convenient shorthand to sound like they have more clarity about their needs then they may actually have. And now, this terminology has become industry standard.

Does this mean that a team does not want to hear vocal range? Of course not.The music department will need to determine a contralto from a high belter, but most skilled music directors don’t need to hear a High C at 8 a.m. to discern that you're a legit soprano with a range for days.

If you’ll buy in to my theory that to “show range” implies more than high notes, a whole world of exciting possibilities opens up by tapping into a much more expansive understanding of “range” and it’s many connotations. I’d encourage the savvy young actor to consider choosing a song that expresses a more nuanced understanding of range: perhaps the narrative distance of a story arc, the emotional journey of a character, or an outside-the-box take on one’s perceived type. A fully-realized story from indecision to action in “Moments In The Woods” will demonstrate a gifted actor ; the emotional journey from vulnerability to joy in “Is It Really Me?” could show an available and willing performer. A character actor’s type-defying rendition of “What Is It About Her?” might be a revelation about both song and performer. Such choices will allow the team to see more of your artistic heart and authentic humanity, thus revealing much more than just your high notes in “Get Out And Stay Out.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am, by no stretch of the imagination, against big belty endings. But I contend that showing vocal range is worth very little if it’s not in service of the emotional and storytelling stakes of a song.

THE DRAMATURGY OF THE CUT

I’ve clocked many hours sitting behind the table with casting directors.At some point, almost every one of them has said some version of,“I wish everyone would stop yelling their songs at me.”Or,“I wish performers would sing less.”Is this because New York City is plagued with bad singers? Of course not! It’s because the team spends seven hours behind a table hearing performers sing the last 16 bars of “The Life I Never Led (Reprise)” at the top of their lungs.

Now, “The Life I Never Led” can be a quite valuable audition piece. As with any song, the catch is in the cut.

Most musical theatre singers, believing that "showing range" is about high notes, look for the spot of the song that showcases those high notes, which is usually the end of the song. From there, they simply count backwards the requisite number of bars, which means that they are usually singing the final chorus for a 16-bar cut or the final bridge and chorus for a 32-bar cut.

This approach, though logical, does artists the profound disservice of creating an emotional disconnect with their audience from the jump. 

In order to illustrate my point, let’s think about every moment of a song on an emotional spectrum from one to ten.The last moment of the song probably requires an emotional intensity on the level of a nine or ten.Working backward to the bridge, which is already more than halfway through the song, we’re at, let’s say, a six.

Every audience member—which, in the context of an audition, is the people behind the table—starts every story at the beginning, which is an emotional zero. If a singer's cut begins at the bridge (and therefore an emotional six), the audience immediately joins at an emotional deficit.They don't know what the issue is yet, much less the stakes that call for so much vocal output.The end result is that they feel like they’re being yelled at, and for no justifiable reason.

It’s the responsibility of the auditioning artist to get the listener onboard right away, and to keep them on pace throughout the whole performance. Create the emotional buy-in at the top, and those big belty notes at the end will be earned. In order to do this, singers must begin their songs at the only place their audience is able to meet them: at an emotional zero.

The first way to accomplish this is to always use a musical introduction to ease the audience—and, just as importantly, the performer—into the story.Think of the musical introduction as the “on ramp” to the “highway speed” of the performance.This allows the audience time to understand the musical context and to prepare for the emotional journey alongside the performer. And whatever you do, please avoid bell tones.The only acceptable use of a bell tone is as a comic “lightbulb” that highlights a physical choice of discovery as the first moment in a song.

Next, start at a part of the song that sounds like the beginning of a story. The bridge will rarely allow for this. Consider, for example, the bridge of “StrangerToThe Rain,”for which the lyric begins,“And for the boy who’s given me the sweetest love I’ve known.” Most inexperienced performers use this bridge as the start of their cut and yet there is no way to think of this lyric as anything but the middle of a journey, because it is so clearly a transitional phrase. Instead, consider starting at one of the earlier verses; perhaps even the very first verse.A cut that travels from the very beginning to the very end of a song in 32- or 16-bars can be challenging to find, but it’s worth the creative effort.You’ll have taken your audience from a zero to a ten in 32 bars.Talk about range!

As an example, let's look at “The Only Home I Know” from Shenandoah: check out the lyrics here: LYRIC SAMPLE. Most singers want to show off the floated tenor notes at the end ("The only home I know"), and therefore start at the bridge to achieve 16 bars. However, without the starting verse, the lyrics of the bridge ("The memories I left behind") have no context.

A much stronger cut will tell the full story. I suggest you start at the top of the song (8 bars), skip verse two, do the bridge (4 bars), and then do the last 6 bars of the final verse (starting at "A replace").This cut tells a more complete story, works melodically, shows off the high notes at the end, and is only 4 bars longer than starting at the bridge. (This is perfectly within the margin of error. As long as a song feels like it’s the approximate length of time it takes to sing most 16-bar cuts, no one will be bothered by an extra couple of bars.)

If for some reason you can’t avoid starting midway through the song, use the accompaniment to your advantage. For example, in “A Fine, Fine Line” from Avenue Q, if you emotionally connect with the verse two lyric about “fairy tales and lies” more so than the verse one lyric about “lovers and friends,” sing the verse two lyrics with the less full verse one accompaniment underneath. Or, sing the verse two lyrics and meld together the first eight bars of verse one and the second eight bars of verse two for the accompaniment.This will provide the full on- ramp from the simpler beginning-of-song accompaniment to the more musically complex verse two accompaniment, and it will launch you perfectly into the emotionally full bridge.

THE MYTH OF THE OVERDONE SONG

In my work as an audition coach, I am frequently asked whether a particular song is “overdone.” This anxiety around overdone material stems from a belief that a professional artist shouldn’t, under any circumstances, bring an overdone song into the room.

First off, we have to acknowledge right off the bat that the notion of “overdone” admits a tremendous amount of subjectivity. Most casting directors do keep a running tally of songs they’d prefer never to hear again. But no two casting directors’ lists look exactly alike. In fact, a song that one person considers overdone is often a song that brings great delight to someone else!

In order words, what's “overdone” is a matter of personal taste. And the moment we start worrying about pleasing everyone else’s personal taste, be they industry decision-makers or our peers, is the moment we start losing touch with our authentic personal artistry. By taking the "overdone" consideration off the table, an artist is free to pursue songs he or she truly loves.

For comparison, consider that Shakespeare wrote about 37 plays. Given this fixed pool of material, there is no way to avoid the fact that every single Shakespeare monologue is, by definition, overdone. And yet, casting directors don't mind when the 55th person walks into the room and says,“I left no ring with her...” Textually, they know exactly what happens next, and this serves to streamline their jobs. Secure in the embrace of Shakespeare's good material, a casting team only has to adjudicate one variable: this artist’s unique performance.

The same holds true for musical theatre auditions. Every casting director has heard “If I Loved You” upward of a thousand times. But when those opening bars sound, they’re not having an internal debate over the merits of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Instead, they’re free to focus on the artist's unique interpretation of the material.

To clarify, I don’t mean“unique”in this context as bizarrely out of the box.When an artist is connected to his or her authentic truth, history, emotions, and desires, a performance is unique simply because no one in the world has those exact same personal experiences and ways of expression.

In fact, an artist can get in trouble by swerving too far to avoid overdone songs. Some singers think they will get bonus points for bringing in unknown songs. On the contrary: you will distract a casting director from your audition if you send them down the rabbit hole of “name that tune.” Their internal monologue may be:“Hmm...okay, the song lyric just mentioned red hair...is it from Redhead? Or maybe Flora the Red Menace? Oh, I’ve got it! Maybe it was cut from The Little Mermaid—Ariel has red hair, right?”

The finer details of a brilliant performance will be lost on a casting director who is shuffling through their internal playlist.Audition songs should be part of the standard musical theater repertoire — even if they might be considered overdone.

EXCEPTION TO THE RULE: COMEDY

I constantly remind my coaching clients that there are about a hundred exceptions to every audition rule. Every time I say “Never ever do ( fill in the blank),” there are a hundred real-world examples that prove the opposite is true.

So: when it comes to comedy and pop/rock auditions, you want to avoid the overdone.

In comedy songs, every artist is working at a de cit if the song is well-known. After all these years, it would take a miracle for even the most comically-gifted performer to elicit a laugh with “Tonight At Eight.” For this reason, there is great value in bringing in a new comedy song to an audition.The catch is that finding a virtually unknown comedy song is next to impossible.

Many performers go through a logic chain that resembles the following:

1) The team asked me to sing a funny song.
2) They didn’t laugh.
3) Therefore, I was unsuccessful at that audition.

The implicit assumption in this all-too-common thought process is that an audible laugh is a necessary condition for a successful comedic audition. But that is not the case.

I'd like to offer a different metric for success in the context of a comedic audition. I believe there are two specific things that every comedy audition must include:

1) The ability to effectively and authentically exist in the comedic world of the song; and 2) The ability to land a punch line.

It's well worth an actor’s time to try and find a diamond-in-the rough comedy song. But by focusing on the larger issue—the craft of comedy rather than the audible response—the actor is empowered to make other choices about material and
presentation.

EXCEPTION TO THE RULE: POP/ROCK

Pop/Rock is relatively new to the musical theater scene.
In the lag time between the emergence of Pop/Rock as a musical theatre genre and the development of pedagogy around industry-preferred techniques—vocal styling, physical adjustments, and emotion-based acting—musical theatre actors developed a bad rap. Unfortunately, it is a current industry assumption that most university-trained musical theatre actors cannot live authentically in the world of Pop/ Rock. So when a musical theatre actor walks into a pop or rock audition, they are often at a disadvantage before they open their mouths to sing.

This is where song choice becomes paramount. Step one is to avoid any Pop/Rock songs that have ever appeared in a musical.This includes Billy Joel, Carole King, Elvis, and even Green Day. When a performer sings one of these songs, it only serves to bolster the assumption that they have no true knowledge of Pop/Rock repertoire beyond Broadway original cast recordings.

In contrast to my advice regarding musical theatre rep, singers should avoid overdone Pop/Rock songs. No matter how well an artist sings “What’s Going On?” by 4 Non-Blondes—a song that is done by just about every musical theater belter in NYC—they will often get a strike against them for picking such a generic, overused piece.

I encourage artists to find a deep cut on the B side of an album they love. Pick a song that the folks behind the table will love but haven’t heard in years. Ideally, the artist’s song choice should stir up longing and nostalgia in the listener, while also giving the singer authentic Pop/Rock "street cred" for their nuanced and innovative song choice.

CONCLUSION

Many young musical theatre performers spend far too much time listening to and internalizing the noise and assumptions about what most people are doing.The tragic irony to this, of course, is that most people aren’t booking jobs.

Those who do book jobs, on the other hand, are those who have found authentic ways
to stand out from the pack.These people are willing to question the status quo and
break the mold. As a Broadway audition coach, I believe it is my responsibility to educate performers about the genesis of and rationale behind some of the prevailing conceptions and misconceptions around auditioning. Once performers understand the reasons for these commonly-held beliefs, they are empowered to unleash their authentic artistry as they thoughtfully and strategically "build their books.”

 

 

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