Auditioning for Musical Theater: Tapping into Emotional Depth

Auditioning for Musical Theater: Tapping into Emotional Depth

As an experienced Broadway audition coach, I’ve had the privilege of guiding countless performers through the daunting task of building their dream audition repertoire. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the common approach to assembling a ‘successful’ audition book often falls short of truly captivating casting directors.

Sure, the industry-standard formula of ticking off the boxes – a standard ballad, an uptempo, a contemporary dramatic piece, and so on – can create a well-rounded portfolio. But in my experience, what really sets an artist apart is their ability to tap into the emotional depth of their material and present it in a way that resonates with the creative team.

Redefining “Showing Range”

One of the most ubiquitous phrases in audition breakdowns is “please sing a song that shows your range.” Most young performers interpret this as a directive to showcase their vocal prowess – those stunning high notes that make the listeners’ jaws drop. But I’d argue that there’s so much more to “range” than just hitting those glory notes.

Think about it – when a casting director asks for a song that demonstrates your range, they’re not just looking for a singer who can scale the heights of their register. They want to see an artist who can navigate the emotional spectrum of a character, taking the audience on a journey from vulnerability to triumph, or from indecision to action. A truly impressive “range” lies in the narrative distance you can cover, not just the vertical distance of your voice.

Take a song like “Moments in the Woods” from Into the Woods. The emotional journey from uncertainty to self-discovery is a far more compelling display of range than simply belting out the final, climactic notes. Or consider the shift from fragile introspection to exuberant joy in “Is It Really Me?” from The Light in the Piazza. These are the kinds of performances that will captivate the casting team and leave a lasting impression.

The Dramaturgy of the Cut

Another common pitfall I see performers fall into is the tendency to focus on the money notes at the end of a song, often sacrificing the emotional arc in the process. They’ll count back the requisite number of bars, starting from the big finish, and end up singing the final chorus or bridge – completely disconnected from the story’s beginning.

Imagine trying to join a movie midway through the climactic scene. You’d be lost, with no context to understand the stakes or emotional weight of what’s unfolding. The same principle applies to auditions. As the performer, it’s your responsibility to guide the listener through the full emotional journey of the song, starting from the very first note.

One way to accomplish this is by using a musical introduction to ease the audience (and yourself) into the storytelling. Think of it as an on-ramp to the highway speed of your performance. This allows the listener to understand the musical context and prepare for the emotional journey alongside you.

Another crucial element is choosing a cut that starts at a genuine beginning of the story, rather than a transitional moment like a bridge. The lyrics of the bridge in “Stranger to the Rain” from Children of Eden, for example, are clearly a middle-of-the-journey moment, not a starting point. Instead, consider using the opening verse to ground the audience in the character’s emotional state from the very start.

Embracing the “Overdone”

One of the biggest anxieties I encounter among my students is the fear of singing an “overdone” song. There’s a widespread belief that bringing a well-known piece into the audition room is a surefire way to get overlooked. But I beg to differ.

Think about it this way – the Bard himself wrote a mere 37 plays, yet every single Shakespeare monologue is, by definition, “overdone.” And yet, casting directors don’t mind hearing these classics time and time again. Why? Because they’re not concerned with the song itself; they’re focused on the unique interpretation of the material by each individual artist.

The same holds true for musical theater auditions. Sure, the casting team has likely heard “If I Loved You” a thousand times. But when those opening bars sound, they’re not engaged in an internal debate about the merits of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. They’re simply waiting to be captivated by your personal connection to the story and characters.

The key is to avoid getting too caught up in pleasing everyone else’s personal tastes. Instead, focus on pursuing the songs you truly love – the ones that allow you to tap into your authentic artistry. Because when you’re genuinely connected to the material, your performance will be truly unique, no matter how “overdone” the song may be.

Navigating the Exceptions: Comedy and Pop/Rock

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules, and auditions are no exception. When it comes to comedy and pop/rock songs, the conventional wisdom often goes out the window.

For comedy numbers, the goal isn’t necessarily to elicit an audible laugh from the casting team. Instead, it’s about effectively and authentically inhabiting the comedic world of the song and landing the punchlines with precision. The team isn’t looking for a miracle – they just want to see that you can hold your own in the realm of musical theater comedy.

Similarly, in the world of pop/rock auditions, the prevailing assumption is that most university-trained musical theater actors struggle to authentically embody the genre. That’s why song choice becomes paramount. Avoid any pop/rock songs that have appeared in musicals, as that will only reinforce the stereotype. Instead, dig deep and find a lesser-known gem that will showcase your genuine understanding of the idiom.

Embracing Your Authentic Artistry

At the end of the day, the most successful auditions are the ones where the performer has the courage to shed the assumptions and expectations of the industry, and instead embrace their own unique artistry. It’s about finding the songs that allow you to tap into your deepest emotional well, and then presenting them in a way that captivates the casting team from the very first note.

So, as you set out to build your dream audition repertoire, remember: range isn’t just about vocal acrobatics. It’s about the narrative distance you can cover, the emotional journey you can take your listeners on. Embrace the “overdone,” navigate the exceptions, and above all, stay true to your authentic self. Because when you do, the opportunities that await you on the musical theater stage will be truly boundless.

And who knows – maybe one day, I’ll have the pleasure of coaching you as you take the Broadway world by storm. Until then, break a leg!

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