I give several private coachings each week to actors and singers who book an hour of one-on-one time in my studio. I work from the piano and guide the actors through song interpretation or vocal technique or audition prep. Each coaching is its own unique little thing, but today an actor was specifically looking for a pop/rock song. Ah, yes. That again.
Musical theater actor/singer/dancer types are being asked more and more to sing pop/rock, and often they have no idea what to do. They’ve spent years tap dancing and singing Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, Charles Strouse, and Ahrens and Flaherty and now they’ve got a big audition for one of the more pop/rock shows. (Think Spring Awakening, Next To Normal, Rent, Rock of Ages, Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia…. etc.) Actors want you to believe they can do everything, that they are malleable, versatile, skilled chameleons. Sometimes this is actually true.
But the actors who have for years relied on, well, acting, are freaked out at the idea that they will be required to stand in the middle of an audition room and sing a pop song. Here’s why.
The big difference between musical theater songs and pop (radio) songs is they way they function. For the most part, a musical theater song exists to get a character from point A to point B. Over the course of the song, a character will have a realization, make a discovery, choose a direction or solve a problem, leading us from one dramatic scene to the next, keeping the show moving forward. If a musical theater song does not have direction to it, an actor has nothing to play and the show stalls. We audience members don’t want that. We are sitting in the seats of the theater, waiting to see what’s going to happen to our character. We are listening. We are invested. We do not want to be here all night.
A pop song, however, is usually more of an elaboration of a feeling. Pop songs are designed to be sung along with. They make you smile or they make you ache or they make you dance. If you can’t sing along to the chorus by the second time you’ve heard it, it’s probably not going to stick. So if you try to act your way through a pop song, it’s likely going to be pretty awkward.
I remember one coaching where the actor asked, with earnest sincerity, “Won’t you take me to… Funky Town?”
So here’s the challenge. You’ve got to find a song that lets you rock out like a superstar on stage at Madison Square Garden, but you’ve also got to convince the panel that you can hold your own in a role in a musical.
I’m going to jump ahead and tell you that the answer is, and always is, you’ve got to figure out who YOU are when you’re wearing this particular costume. In the same way that you’d expect to dig deep into your personal experience to figure out where you and Nathan Detroit meet, you’ve also got to find your inner rock star.
Here’s what I think. I think the casting directors and the creative teams are asking you to show them what you look like when nobody else is looking. How do you sound when you’re in the shower? What’s on your iPod at the gym? What’s in your car on a road trip? What is the music that you feel, deep in your soul? In today’s coaching I asked my singer what pop music (recorded in the last ten years please, and five is better) he belted out in his car. His first two answers were Maroon 5 and Kings of Leon. So we spent some time on YouTube watching the videos of their songs, critically asking ourselves these questions.
1. Does this song have enough music in it? Is there an actual melody for me to sing? Is it going to sound decent when it’s played on just a piano? Is it in my vocal range? (Or could it be if I raised or lowered it a step or two?) Is it as satisfying to sing as it is to listen to?
2. Once I cut the guitar/keyboard/bagpipe solo out of the middle, is there enough song left for me to use? Is there an obvious place to end? Is there a full song here or just a really great 16-bar cut? (Both are useful.)
3. Is the sheet music available? (Everything we found today was available for $5.25 at www.musicnotes.com.) Important: Is it in the same key as the recording? Or perhaps better still: Is it transposable into a key that’s better suited for me?
4. Are any of these lyrics going to make the panel cringe? Do I believe what I’m saying? Will I be able to be authentically me when I am standing in that room, singing this song?
5. Can I sing this song without just imitating the original recording artist? Or if I DO imitate the original recording artist, do I sound awesome? (God forbid you sound like a pale imitation of the only other person we’ve ever heard sing this song.)
Ultimately, my client and I found a few songs today that he is going to learn, and once we’ve worked on them a bit he’ll choose what’s the most effective for him. His goal was to find the thing that would not make him feel like an idiot in the “I-don’t-really riff/sing-gospel/rock/improvise” category. If we find that song — or ideally, two contrasting songs — we will put them in his book, right after Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “If I Loved You.”
And my client sings a mean “If I Loved You.”