We’re halfway through the six-week session of my musical theater class, THE GYM, and halfway seems like a good time to write a little bit about working with actors. I’ve been coaching actors for years. Right after college and before grad school I took a year and worked in the music department at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. I remember one day an actor from the mainstage show tracked me down in my office and asked if I would coach her. I did a double-take to see if maybe she was talking to someone behind me, and then I said, “sure, why not?” I played through her music and we talked about the lyrics and I corrected some of the notes she was singing incorrectly, and then after about an hour of her recording everything I said, she wrote me a check. Seriously? It seemed like the easiest money I’d ever made.
Over the years I’ve gotten better at coaching, to be sure. I figured tonight I’d write about one of the things I find myself saying over and over and over again in classes and coachings and even auditions. For you non-actors reading this, maybe you can find a fun way to interpret this week’s blog and translate it into something useful for you. Or maybe while the actors and I are talking, you can tackle that John Irving novel I couldn’t finish. Mild entertainment either way.
One of the most important things an actor has to know is how he or she is perceived. One of the main reasons actors (young ones, especially) have trouble getting hired is because they’re so eager to prove they can do everything, and as a result they wind up lacking distinction. It annoys me to no end when, during auditions, actors throw in high B-flats and Cs that aren’t anywhere in the song and aren’t justified by the storytelling — just because they want you to know that they have high notes. (There’s a great story that my husband tells about the singer Laurie Beechman. Legend has it that she was once asked at an audition if she could belt an F. Her response was, “Do you have anything worth belting an F for?”) In my book, high notes have to be earned, and if I need to know if you can technically hit a high B-flat, I’ll ask for it. I know not everyone agrees with me, but arbitrary high notes only make your audition generic and unspecific.
Another big problem people (young and old) have is choosing audition material that is appropriate. Sometimes you’ll see a beautiful, petite, delicate-looking 22-year old white girl in a pretty sundress come in and she wants to sing “Your Daddy’s Son.” You musical theater nerds will know that first of all, that’s a bold, belty song that would crush every sunflower on that girl’s dress, and second of all, that character is black, and it’s kind of important to the plot that she be so. As I’m making my notes about that girl’s audition I might write, “pretty girl, big voice, but huh? totally confused.” And I would not call her back. Auditions are not the time to sing your favorite songs. Go to a piano bar for that. Auditions are strategic performances designed to get you jobs, and you have to be very smart about how you prepare for them.
I have some homework I often make my coaching clients do.
1. First, write down the names of five characters from musicals that you know you are EXACTLY RIGHT to play right now, if only someone would give you a break and let you do it. Are you the perfect Ado Annie in Oklahoma? The perfect Jim Conley in Parade? The perfect Toby in Sweeney Todd? Write ’em down, and I challenge you really to come up with five. If you don’t know enough musicals, go to the library. It’s your business, after all. Get to know more musicals.
2. Second, write down the names of five more characters that you think might be a long shot, but you’d really love to have a chance to try playing. You’re too young to play Mame but she’s the essence of your personality. You’re so tall that no one would ever let you be Squeaky Fromme in Assassins but that character speaks to your very soul. You’re boisterous and silly but you know inside you could pull off Amos in Chicago if only you had a shot at it.
3. Finally, think about the Broadway actors you admire, contemporary and historical. Who are you most like? Is there an actor that you think is getting all the roles you would be getting if only the casting directors knew who you were? Is there someone for whom you would be the perfect understudy?
Now we have the raw materials for improving your audition book. Look at those lists of characters. Go through the scores or vocal selections from those shows and pull out their songs. Not all of the songs are going to work as audition pieces, but I’ll be amazed if you don’t find one or two that are exactly right for you and that show off your strengths as a singing actor. Then do some research on each of those performers you listed and find out what shows they’ve been in. Are you right in line to have Brian Stokes Mitchell’s career? Google him — and then pull songs from Ragtime, Kiss Me Kate, Man of La Mancha and South Pacific and put them in your audition book.
You’re always going to need to round out your book with specific things, and some of them will be outside the realm of your comfort zone. (Scared to death of the pop song? The comedy song? The legit piece? — stay tuned for future blogs.) But at least this will help you start somewhere authentic with a few songs you actually like to sing. And hopefully, no one will ever write “huh?” beside your name again.