Musical Theatre Auditioning

One of the most frequent inquiries I receive, whether it’s from regular students or from community performers seeking coaching, regards auditioning.  Whether it’s for school productions, community or professional productions, or advanced academic programming, auditioning can be scary, by its very nature—all the pressure of a job interview with the added stress of putting your performance in the hands (literally) of an accompanist you may never have seen before!

So how do you make sure you really shine in your audition?  Here’s the best advice I can offer, based upon my decades as an accompanist, director, and performer:

Select your auditions

One of the biggest mistakes I see inexperienced performers make is auditioning for Every. Single. Show. That. Comes. Along.  While it can seem wise to get as much experience auditioning as possible, the best place to learn how to audition is in an audition workshop (like my Vocal Performance Masterclass), or working privately with a teacher (like me) who specializes in preparing students for auditions.  When actually auditioning in the “real world,” some selectivity is wise:

  1. Audition only for shows that have characters you can see yourself playing. Take into consideration not only your “look,” but also your experience, vocal and stylistic range, etc.  (The criteria for selecting academic auditions are obviously somewhat different, but here too you want to consider not only the kind of graduate the program produces, but also the demographic of the folks who are auditioning to enter.  If you’ve never taken an acting class, the Neighborhood Playhouse might not be your best first audition experience.)
  2. Ask, “How will this show help me to grow?”  I’ve seen waaaaay too many students turn their backs on their school shows for the sake of landing an exciting role in a community theatre production.  And while playing Tevye might be more of an ego boost than “Third Townsperson,” community theatre directors are generally (and understandably) concerned about one thing: how the show looks.  Your growth as a performer—and your increased appeal to future auditioners—isn’t on their radar.  Better to stick with a director who’s also a teacher, who can help you to grow into future roles.
  3. Consider your own schedule and energy level.  Running from show to show to show might seem like a good way to pad your resumé, but it’s also another great way to make sure you never grow as a performer.  (Learning a role is very different from developing your technique and broadening your palette of skills!)  Make sure you have at least as much time during your year to polish your strengths and grow your weaker areas as you spend preparing for shows.  (And keep in mind that things like eating, sleeping, and doing academic homework don’t go away just because you have four tech weeks this semester.)
  4. Ask around about the production team and company.  Administration, scheduling, communication, and general demeanor might seem like secondary concerns to “making art”—until suddenly they’re getting in the way of “making art.”  If other actors you know have had bad experiences working for a company, you’re probably wise to save yourself the hassle—unless you have a lot to gain from doing the show (see #2, above).

Select the right repertory

Experienced performers have a “book” (usually a well-loved, fiercely guarded 3-ring binder) of audition charts they can have ready to perform at a moment’s notice.  But if you’re still in the process of building your “book,” or if you just haven’t found the right piece yet, there are a few guidelines I can offer.

  1. Make sure your song is from the Musical Theatre (MT) canon, and is stylistically similar to the show you’re auditioning for.  Pop music (the kind you hear on mainstream radio) too often relies on production and instrumentation for its characteristic “sound,” which means it doesn’t make for a good vocal audition—remember, you have to win this part with just you and a piano.  There are tons of MT anthologies available, often curated by voice part, gender, and age.  Many of these even include recommended audition cuts (see below), and newer anthologies often include recorded accompaniments either on CD or online for you to practice with.
  2. When in doubt, pick a song that makes you feel good.  Unless you’re auditioning for an unadulterated tragedy, choose an upbeat song that makes you smile.  (Remember, if it makes you smile, it has a much better chance of making the casting team smile.  One can only hear so many versions of “On My Own” before one considers leaving the theatre for a career in pastries.)
  3. Find the right audition cut.  Generally you’re looking for about 16 to 32 bars, or 30 to 60 seconds of music.  A safe bet is usually to take the last 32 bars of the song—which usually means the last verse and refrain, or sometimes bridge and refrain.  You want enough music to show a good range of pitch (look for good “money notes”!) and dynamic (growth from soft to loud or vice-versa), while still being “of a piece”—that is, the excerpt should tell an understandable part of the story without requiring explanation.
  4. Choose the right arrangement.  If you’ve chosen from one of the MT anthologies, you’re usually safe.  If you’re buying a single chart from a site like Musicnotes, look for the “Singer Pro” edition, or at least a “piano/vocal” arrangement.  Avoid arrangements for solo piano or other instruments, even if they include lyrics.
  5. Choose the right key.  I actually had a singer walk into an audition once—roughly four hours into a 6-hour block of auditions—and tell me he wanted to do a Sondheim piece a third higher than the chart he handed me.  (After staring at him for a few seconds to ascertain he wasn’t yanking my chain, I wished him luck and told him he’d have to audition a cappella.)  Professional transcriptionists easily charge upwards of $60 an hour to transpose charts, so asking your accompanist to do it “on the fly” is anything from unprofessional to inconsiderate to stupid.  Instead, arrive with your charts already transposed into a key that lets you show off your range without straining or flipping registers on the high notes, or fuzzing out on the low notes.  (If you buy your song digitally, you can almost always preview and select from a variety of keys before printing.)

Make it easy for the accompanist to help you look good

This means doing everything you can to eliminate any mechanical or technical challenges that might make it harder for your accompanist to focus on actually making music.  (And while it should go without saying, planning to sing your audition without accompaniment is NOT an acceptable alternative to the following.  If you’re not sure how to find piano music for the song you want to sing, it’s worth your time and money to pay someone like me to help you prepare for your audition.)

  1. Provide a clean copy of the chart.  Any marks on the page should be relevant to this audition.  Don’t make the accompanist wade through your study markings.
  2. Clearly mark your start and end points, and highlight any changes in key or tempo.  Do you need a bar or two of piano introduction, or just a starting pitch?  If you’re not singing all the way to the end of the piece, what’s the last chord you want played?  (The amazing Andrew Byrne has a great model for how to mark your charts on his website.)
  3. Don’t tempt gravity. Never give the accompanist a paperback songbook for an audition—you’d be amazed how poorly most piano music racks actually hold songbooks.  Instead, go for looseleaf printouts or copies on neat, un-curled paper.  (If you’re copying from a songbook rather than printing a digital purchase, see this handout for recommendations.)
  4. Minimize or avoid page turns.  I have a handout for this too, but in a nutshell:
    • If your audition cut is four pages or fewer, you can generally tape those sheets together neatly into a single strip that the pianist can stretch across the music rack, or accordion-fold into a mini-booklet with a single page turn if they prefer.  See the handout for details.
    • If your cut is five pages or longer, you’ll want to insert the music into a 3-ring binder—but see the handout for a few possibly counter-intuitive recommendations based upon my decades of experience as an audition accompanist.

Practice your audition—all of it

Too many students realize only after walking into an audition that there’s a lot more to it than “just” singing their song.  Make sure you are confident and comfortable with all of the steps of the audition:

  1. Enter the room confidently, enthusiastically, and professionally.  (Assume you’re trying to make a good first impression on everyone in the room, even if you’ve worked together before.  You want them to want to get to work with you!)
  2. Greet the accompanist, give them your music, communicate your tempo, and make sure they don’t have any questions about your chart (including whether they should give you a starting pitch or play an introduction).
  3. Greet the casting committee and “slate” by providing your name and the title and source (composer and/or show) of the piece you’ll be singing.  Take particular care not to rush through your slate—you want to sound relaxed and confident, and make absolutely sure they know your name!
  4. Look down at the floor and prepare to sing.  Recall to mind the answers to six crucial questions, that you’ve presumably answered while preparing for the performance:
    • Who are you?
    • Whom are you singing to?
    • What do you want from them?
    • How important is it?
    • What’s in your way?
    • How will you know when you’ve succeeded?
  5. When you’re ready to begin, raise your head and look over the heads of the casting team.  The accompanist will take this as their cue to begin (i.e., give you your starting pitch, or begin the piano introduction)… and you’re off!
  6. Stay “in the moment” (in character) until the pianist lifts their hands off the keys and the sound stops completely.
  7. Thank the casting team (as “yourself”) and wait to be dismissed.  (The team may want to talk to you before they dismiss you.)

Sound like a lot?  It is. But consider that your job at any audition is to convince the audition team that you have the experience, skill, and dedication to help them to tell their story in the best way.  A well-polished, professional-quality audition is the best way to prove to them that you’re up to the challenge.

Ready to get started?  You can register for Vocal Performance Masterclass here, and/or get started with one-on-one audition coaching with me using this form.

Break a leg!