Ten Tips for your Musical Theater Audition
from 4 years at KCACTF MTI
Over the course of my association with the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, I’ve seen hundreds of talented college students present at the Musical Theater Initiative Preliminary auditions. I’ve also had the privilege to coach many of those students as they prepare for the final round.
Over the course of my career as a professional actor, plenty of people have told me that you learn more about auditioning from one day behind the table than a hundred in front of it, and . . . well, they were right. It’s my honor to share what I’ve learned (and been able to apply to my students and myself) with you.
DISCLAIMER: The following are my own observations and opinions. I try to always make a point, before a round of group coaching, that I might be directly contradicting what another coach, director, or teacher has told you about your material, your voice, your physicality, and your acting choices. This isn’t because I’m right and they’re wrong or vice versa. This is because we’re doing theater, not nuclear fission. Everybody’s got an opinion. Your prerogative as an adult human is to hear feedback, examine it, and decide what to do with it. Sometimes, feedback is uncomfortable to hear because you know it’s right. Sometimes, it’s uncomfortable because you know in your gut that it’s WRONG. It takes practice to know the difference. As long as you feel safe, it’s often worth trying a new angle or idea. Then, examine it again. It’s all iterative.
1) DROP THE SCHTICK (or fill it)
There is a particular style of musical theater acting that involves a lot of big gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, pseudo-choreography (from that perfect Rockette-style bevel to actual dance moves) – and it suits some material. But for the most part, the professional theater world in NYC is moving toward a much more human-sized, authentic interpretation of even the oldest old school parts of the canon, particularly in the audition room.
It’s not enough to give me the Broadway-sized gestures and facial expressions of “ingenue”, “sexy dame”, “fabulous gay guy”, or “strapping leading man”, no matter how good your schtick is. Schtick is a costume, not a performance. For the most part: drop it. Show me who YOU are inside this song. Or if you’re great at super specific, exquisitely-staged comedy or you’re doing a song where a level of over-the-top or stylized acting works, fill it with real humanity underneath the precision. And speaking of over-the-top….
2) EXTREMITY IS (often) UNAPPEALING
There’s something about those really over-the-top songs that can be super fun as an actor. Who doesn’t love going to 11? The thing is, outside the context of a show, and inside a day when the person behind the table is seeing dozens (or even hundreds) of other auditions, it can be EXHAUSTING to watch someone who is going that far.
If you’re going to do an extreme song (like “Screw Loose” from Cry-Baby or “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada” from Avenue Q) – workshop it the opposite way. Instead of “playing crazy”, why not try playing the love song aspect of “Screw Loose”, and let the lyrics do the work of establishing that this girl is, as described in the song, “16 and schizo”? In the context of Avenue Q when the song is delivered by a puppet, “Girlfriend” is hilariously over-the-top. Sung without a puppet but with all the same choices that John Tartaglia made on the cast album, it’s a bit much. What if this closeted guy is really truly trying to convince us that he has a girlfriend – and he almost pulls it off – until he doesn’t? Now that’s interesting.
It doesn’t mean you can’t have extreme moments in your song, but they lose their power when the whole song stays at the same level. And just like schtick, extremity for extremity’s sake is just window dressing.
Remember that book The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants? Magical pants that fit all of the friends, despite their different sizes . . . If your performance is always deeply rooted in humanity, specificity, and emotional truth, the size of performance will follow and you can layer style on top of that.
Go deep to go big. Go deep to go small. Just go deep.
3) SUFFERING IS (definitely) UNAPPEALING.
We actors love a sad song, amirite? I got to perform “I Dreamed a Dream” in front of thousands of people – and then die onstage a few minutes later! Who doesn’t love making an audience cry?
The thing is, merely suffering inside a problem is boring. We don’t cry because Fantine is hopeless and helpless – we cry because we see her fight through circumstances forced on her by a cruel world. “I Dreamed a Dream” is a song of HOPE in spite of despair. Suffering, no matter how picturesque, is ultimately passive - and passive is boring.
Are you singing a sad song? Honey, find the opposites! What does the character want? Need? Desire? What would “winning” look like? If you’re singing a song about being in love with someone who probably doesn’t love you back, you better hope for 99% of the song that you just might convince them. Don’t give up right from the start – otherwise, why are you singing in the first place?
Fight back your tears, and the audience will spill them for you.
And speaking of “why are you singing?”….
4) YOU MUST HAVE AN ACTION TO PLAY AND/OR DISCOVERY TO MAKE
No matter how long your audition cut is, I want to see something happen. I don’t want to watch you remembering or merely describing something (again – that’s passive, which equals boring).
If this is a soliloquy, you are working through something – making a discovery, workshopping a problem, defining a why or a want. If you are talking to someone, you are trying to accomplish something with, through, or to them. What is it?
And every song needs an “aha” moment for you – that delicious moment of discovery where you learn something about yourself, the person you’re talking to, the problem you’re working out, your desire, etc. Don’t report about it - work it out IN FRONT OF US. We’ll be riveted.
5) YOU NEED AN ENVIRONMENT
Where are you playing your action, making your discovery, or connecting with your partner? The more specifically you can imagine the world of the mini-play that is your audition song, the more you can inhabit that world and not the stressful world of the audition itself. Are you in a crowded restaurant? On a windswept beach? In a grimy underground club in 1930’s Berlin or a farm in Oklahoma? Now, if you have a scene partner or partners, where are they in this environment? Are they looking at you? Are they moving toward you or away? Find yourself in this environment, then….
6) DON’T STARE AT ONE SPOT ON THE FOURTH WALL
I see this ALL the time (and have fallen prey to this instinct more times than I can count). Oh boy, we love a hot center spot on the fourth wall. It feels like stardom! What it LOOKS like, when we never break that focus, is . . . well, it looks like amateur musical theater - not humanity. Human beings, even when in intense conversation with other human beings (or with themselves) do not stare at one spot for 90 seconds.
If you’ve done the homework of figuring out why you’re singing, who you’re singing to, and given yourself an environment, there should be plenty of places to look other than hot center, including the soft focus that we often get when we’re talking to ourselves. Keep that “money spot” for something important: the dream you’re fighting for, the girl you’re trying to get to fall in love with you, the future you can almost picture, etc.
(Just don’t stare at the floor. We lose you.)
7) FIND THE MEAT OF THE SONG
Are you finding all this above homework a little difficult? It may be because you’ve chosen the wrong part of the song. Just because you hold out a high note for a long time doesn’t mean you’ve found the most interesting part of the song to sing. The most interesting part of the song is going to contain all those things we talked about in #4 – an action, a discovery, a problem to solve.
Audition cuts need a shift – a change – a story to tell. They don’t necessarily need a big finish. Those are fun, sure, but if your audition cut is all big finish, I don’t learn anything about you except that you can sing a (most often) long, high, loud note.
8) I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR HIGH NOTE
Hey ladies, can you belt a Q# or take the high option at the end of “I Could Have Danced all Night”? Gentleman, got a B to pop for me? Congratulations! So do many, many, many professionals in this business.
Good singing (or what we’re really talking about above, technical proficiency) is, in NYC for sure, a given. Good singing without anything underneath it is boring. There is a great deal of contemporary musical theater that is super high-belty and repetitive, and it sounds impressive in a cabaret setting, on Youtube, or on Spotify. In an audition, hearing 8 hours of crazy high-belting is stultifying. Remember the discussion about extremity? Imagine being belted AT for 8 hours in a row. Just because you can blow them back in their chairs with the power of your instrument doesn’t mean you should. Making them lean in can be so much more satisfying. Find levels in your song: of volume, vocal style intensity, emotional intensity, etc. If you can’t find levels, find a new cut or new song.
I also don’t care about how well you riff. IMO, 95% of added riffs can and should be cut. If the emotional moment is causing your riff, I’ll buy it. If it’s actually necessary to the style of the music (i.e. Dreamgirls), I’ll buy it. Otherwise, you’re just showing me you can riff. Boring.
This is your mantra: voice follows story.
9) YOU CAN’T BE THE DIRECTOR AND THE ACTOR AT THE SAME TIME
All of this beautiful discovery, rehearsal, iteration, and homework that we do when we work on songs? When it’s go time in front of an audience, all of that must drop away. If you’re thinking about your vocal placement, your arm gestures, or any of the 300 notes you’ve gotten from others or given yourself, you’re not fully present.
How you rehearse can help! Make sure that you aren’t rehearsing the song the same way every time. If you’re just hitting rote blocking beats and emotional moments, you’re creating something that’s fixed. You’re checking boxes, instead of living a story. Break it up! Play the opposite. Play a new action or tactic toward your objective. Put the song in a new environment, or change up your moment before. Get it in front of a new coach or group of friends. You might find something that changes your whole perspective!
Turning off your inner director? This is HARD, yo. It’s the work of a lifetime, particularly for those of us people-pleasing perfectionists. We want to do it “right”. The thing is, there is no right. There’s you, the song, the audience, and this unique moment.
And on the theme of “the work of a lifetime” . . . .
10) YOU ARE ENOUGH
There is nothing more appealing onstage than a performer who trusts themselves. I’m talking about the person who feels no need to show us how talented they are, because they aren’t asking for the audience’s approval. They are inviting us into their world. They are giving us a glimpse of their humanity, on pitch.
I see the opposite happen so many times . . . I’ll work on a song with a student in the safety of the studio, and then when the same song hits the stage, all the work goes out the door because when you’re confronted with The Stage and The Audience and The Pressure, you must fill it and try harder and do more. You disappear into “trying” and “showing” – showing just how much you can feel the moment, just how big and fabulous your voice is, etc.
And I know how that feels intimately, because I’ve been working on NOT doing that for 15 years and it still happens sometimes. Learning to trust yourself – to trust that you are enough, just as you are – that you are unique, and interesting, and worthy of being listened to – it’s the hardest, best work we can do as artists.
It sounds like an ego thing — “I know I’m enough. I trust myself.”— but it’s actually exactly the opposite. It’s knowing that your worth as a human and an artist is innate, intrinsic, and inviolable, just as every human who shares the stage and sits in the audience also has this innate worth. We just get to share stories. We get to use our gifts, to offer them with generosity and no neediness.
Yes, KCACTF is a competition, but at the end of the day (a phrase which, thanks to Les Mis, will never be the same for me), we’re all artists together who get to tell stories to other humans. How forking cool is that?
PS: If you’re interested in working with me as a singing/audition coach, drop me a line and we’ll talk. I LOVE working with fellow artists. Let’s dig in!