Advice from Musical Theatre Faculty

Over the past few years I have offered a lot of my own advice on what to do in the audition room. However, I’ve always thought it is important to share other viewpoints as well. This spring I reached out to several of my esteemed colleagues and asked for their feedback based upon this year’s auditions. Below you will find a treasure trove of information from other university faculty to help you prepare for college auditions and professional auditions as well.

~Matt

What have you seen in the audition room that has worked really well?

Jeremiah Downes

Jeremiah Downes, Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre, Emory & Henry College The most successful auditions from my perspective involve a solid blend of the following: Appropriate material (too often, over ambitious and/or unknown repertoire sets a prospective student up for and results in disaster). Authenticity (more and more overly polished audition packages are overshadowing a prospective student’s ability to show us who they really are as aspiring performers and individuals, no amount of talent or potential supersedes a glimpse into who that prospective student is intellectually, personally, emotionally). A clear understanding of given circumstances and a propensity for clear choice-making specific to the text and music.

Paul Barker

Paul Barker, Professor of Music Theatre, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama When the auditionees respond well to the direction given by the course staff. When the auditionees see each others auditions. When the prospective students hear the current students answer their questions.  

Lara TeeterLara Teeter, Head of Musical Theatre, Webster Conservatory For me, a good audition happens when a student takes their time to really see their imagined other so clearly that they convince themselves (and US!) that the most important person in the room is, in fact, NOT THEM (the person auditioning) but, rather, the person they are talking/singing to! When that happens…well…it just doesn’t get any better than that!

Jonathan Flom

Jonathan Flom, Coordinator of Musical Theatre, Associate Professor of Theatre, Shenandoah Conservatory Simplicity. When a student knows who he or she is and doesn’t try to overshoot the mark and show us too many “tricks.” There’s a common misconception that they need to show their highest, lowest, broadest (anything “est”) material, and what we wind up spending time doing is stripping this away to find out who they actually are. So when a student comes in and chooses material that is close to them and within their general age range (teens through 20s works fine), that’s a big win for me.  

Amanda Wansa Morgan

Amanda Wansa Morgan, Assistant Professor of Theatre and Coordinator of Musical Theatre Concentration, Kennesaw State University Bold choices [that fit the personality, or rather, authenticity, of the performer] are always welcome.  When I say “bold choices,” I mean a couple of meaningful gestures in the blocking (physicality if its comedic); pauses when the actor is clearly choosing to imagine a reaction from their imaginary scene partner; creative and appropriate use of the chair or even a character stance, etc. Vulnerability is beautiful, no matter what kind of actor is in front of me.  Vulnerability doesn’t mean a full out cry-fest… it doesn’t mean screaming at me [see: things that have not worked well]… it doesn’t mean dejection or rejection.  It means finding material that lets us see who you are (or who you can act like, really well) behind closed doors and how much you’re willing to shed your armor for us in order to find your truths. I love to see a monologue that is cut to less lines in order to give the actor more time to play, listen, and respond – it allows him or her to have a true first moment [preferably where they hear/see/think/or feel something that triggers their first line to occur] and a true finishing moment.  This year [2015] we saw SO many students rush into and out of their material from their slate, it was hard to understand their words.  For example, we’d hear “AmandaWansaMorganNumber43, WHY WON’T YOU LISTEN TO ME” to begin; and then, something like, “AND THAT’S WHY I DON’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE, AmandaWansaMorganNumber43” – no breaks!  Good God, give us a moment to digest what you just did and give yourself a moment to come out of it and re-slate, showing me 3 seconds of yourself at the end.  When auditioning for programs, it is ESSENTIAL to remember that we are looking at YOU and want to see YOU because we will be spending the next four years with YOU and want to make sure that YOU are a good fit in our program.  Some students pick great age-appropriate material and that’s nice. Simple song cuts with beginning/middle/end that give a taste of vocal range but don’t stretch: Remember that auditions for college programs are much different that auditions for professional acting jobs (cattle call or individual shows) and also different from any other audition you do.  We are looking for potential and well as listening to your natural sound, range, quality, etc.  You don’t have to come in and show us how high you belt/screalt or how quickly you can maneuver through “Art is Calling Me” (and, really, that’s just rude to an accompanist in a setting like this…).  Pick a song that showcases who you are, what your voice sounds like, and what kind of material you like singing from the theatrical canon. Contrast in terms of “real you” and “character” – Let me explain… often when we see “two contrasting pieces” we think “one uptempo/one ballad” or “one comedic/one serious.”  Let me propose that it means “one close to you and your truth” and “one that requires you to embody a character that is not you.”  Again, this is solely for auditions into a program, not a professional job.  This shows us you and your vulnerability, true speaking voice, mannerisms, etc. in the “real” piece and you ability to make bold choices and take risks in the “character” piece.

John Leonard

John Leonard, Professor of Theatre, Head of Musical Theatre Program at University of Northern Colorado Students who know how to talk to an accompanist properly, know how to slate in a professional manner, having a current student talk with them prior to entering the audition room.  

Emily Herring

Emily Herring, Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre Voice, University of Alabama – Tuscaloosa It is always helpful when the student has his/her music clearly marked and can communicate with the pianist with regards to tempo, style, etc. Also, when they use minimal movement (gestures, choreography, etc.) and can focus forward and tell the story.  

Shawn Churchman

Shawn Churchman, Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre, University of Oklahoma I tend to be drawn to actors who are not reaching across the table to “grab us”. Rather, they are telling a PERSONAL story/conversation to their other and allowing us to come to them. It demands trusting the material, simplifying the delivery, and allowing us to get involved, rather than demanding we watch.  

Tara Snyder

Tara Snyder, Assistant Professor of Theatre, University of Central Florida Confidence!  That seems cliché, but for students who walked and exuded a genuine confidence in their material and choices- it didn’t even matter if the song was overdone (like “Pulled” from The Addams Family).  Beyond that I do like when auditionees bring in a piece that has been “forgotten”, something from Golden Age or early contemporary theatre that doesn’t get done all the time.  

What have you seen in the audition room that has not worked well?

Jeremiah DownesJeremiah Downes, Emory & Henry College To reemphasize the point above, choice of audition material is huge. Additionally, the way a prospective student presents themselves effects the overall success of an audition greatly. More and more, we see casual and unprofessional auditions and there’s no way that can’t alter our perception and evaluation of an audition no matter how talented or skilled the performance may be.

Paul BarkerPaul Barker, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama Auditionees with impractical expectations. Auditionees unable to change the way they work or approach challenges. Stress caused by uncontrollable nerves

Lara Teeter, Webster Conservatory The audition never really works well Lara Teeterwhen a students plays the emotion. When an actor plays the emotion they are simply playing the effect instead of the cause, and, therefore, they are making the audition more about “Hey! Look at me ACTING!” rather than doing the work of an actor by showing us the craft of an actor.  

Jonathan FlomJonathan Flom, Shenandoah Conservatory Students trying to do too much. Students trying to figure out what they think we want to see and getting further and further away from who they are. Over-the-top monologues and material that is stand-alone, rather than from a published play or a musical. This material is (almost) always terrible.  

Amanda Wansa Morgan, Kennesaw State University Screaming.  Any kind of angry Amanda Wansa Morganfry in the voice (unless its used for comic effect).  You just make us all very nervous that you’re going to poison the coffee in the back or trip us down the stairs when you yell at us…and that you may not listen to me or any of our voice faculty when we try to teach you healthy technique because you’ve got in your head that good acting means screaming or yelling at your subject.  Does screaming at someone in real life really ever get you what you want?  Not really; in fact, the opposite… so, screaming is a poor choice, on the whole, unless you’re at an audition for another sequel to the movie 300. WEIRD monologues.  There are some beautiful plays out there that are full of poetic nature, disjointed text, and potentially live in the category of “avant garde.”  Taking monologues out of context from those plays ends up making us feel like we came to beatnik poetry night and we spend more time trying to figure out what in the world you are talking about instead of how much scholarship money we can offer you. Durang. High school students – even the smartest – have a really tough time grasping the humor and the comic timing of Durang.  DMV Tyrant and a few other sources have good age-appropriate material…. but even then, out of context, Durang makes you look and sound strange.

John LeonardJohn Leonard, University of Northern Colorado Problems seem to happen if a student does not have proper music cuts, or brings in a cd that is not properly cued.  

Emily Herring, University of Alabama – TuscaloosaEmily Herring Someone who is scattered, nervous, unprepared, not familiar with the accompaniment, sings way more than 16 bars, looks at the floor, shakes hands, stands too close to the adjudicators, material not appropriate or wrong type, and has to start over.  

Shawn ChurchmanShawn Churchman, University of Oklahoma It’s difficult when you are doing many back to back auditions to avoid the “wind-up-doll” audition, but it should try to be avoided. By that I mean, it is completely rote and lacking in spontaneity. When this happens we miss the essential essence of the auditioner. BREATHE, take in the room, take your time, look at us (and listen), and then put all the focus on your other, and off of you.  

Tara Snyder, University of Central Florida In our most recent Tara Snyderauditions what we saw that didn’t work well was sheet music bought on an online site, transposed into a strange key and rearranged in a sub-par fashion.  While our accompanist could easily play it I think the students had in their mind it was going to sound like the CD- which of course it didn’t and if it was cut all over the place (like one version of “Good Morning Baltimore”) it made it hard to follow as a listener too.  Some students also gave no thought to what cutting out key changes would mean for them or the accompanist.  

Do you have any thoughts about topics, monologues, or songs students should not bring into the audition room?  

Jeremiah Jeremiah DownesDownes, Emory & Henry College In general the material should live within the known canon of repertoire, if it’s a monologue or song that is lesser known it should be well written. I don’t prescribe to the notion that any material is “over done.” If a prospective student comes into the room and is the 10th person I’ve heard that day sing “I Could Have Danced All Night” I have no complaints if it’s well-prepared, well-crafted and performed with precision and panache (I’m probably more inclined to respond in that case than to a song no one’s ever heard before).  

Paul Barker, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama Their own “accents” or Paul Barkervernacular should be employed; we have a lot of European and non-European applicants, so their own language is often useful to hear spoken as well. Contemporary choices are generally more successful than classical ones. All genres of music are acceptable, potentially. Performance live with a pianist is a necessity – no backtracks.  

Lara TeeterLara Teeter, Webster Conservatory I feel that the students should stay away from: a) songs that demonstrates a life that’s been lived (i.e. “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”), b) monologues that display one color of anger, c) material that uses too much profanity. Sometimes students will display similar physical and/or vocal traits in a dramatic piece as they do in their comedic piece, i.e. tight body, tight voice, lack of breath, a lot of intensity in both a dramatic and/or a comic monologue.  

Jonathan Flom, Shenandoah Conservatory A few years ago we made a listJonathan Flom because some of these topics were getting so over-used (and badly!). I believe they included: Cancer, suicide, rape, killing animals, killing people, divorce, and many more fun topics. Again, we don’t need to see how “dramatic” you can be.  

Amanda Wansa MorganAmanda Wansa Morgan, Kennesaw State University Avoid monologues about suicide, abortion, dead parents, dead babies, parenting (in general), and monologues that have an “I hate you” connotation [unless they’re comedic and, in that sense, ironic].  The majority of the topics I mentioned are (a) too heavy and (b) bring us all down.  The “I hate you” monologues only allow us to see you in one light and it ain’t a pretty one.  Remember, we are looking at you as a budding artist, and while we are looking for chops in terms of talent, we are looking at whether or not we want to spend a lot of time with you in classrooms, rehearsals, offices, hallways, etc.  If the 60 seconds that we hear you talk, you’re talking about killing someone or wanting to make their life miserable because they cheated on you, then I’m going to get the impression that you like to be angry…and that you may have anger issues…or that you’re just not nice…not a good light. Avoid material that is too sexual or sensual in nature.  Remember, the majority of the people in front of you in this scenario are at least 10-years your elder, if not 20…30…40…50 years older.  We do not want to see songs from The Wild PartyThe Life, A Chorus Line, Debbie Does Dallas, The Best Little Whorehouse, Spring Awakening*, etc. because we don’t want the image of you doing those things nor do we believe that you really understand the connotation of the material.  *Spring Awakening has a couple of very nice songs that are appropriate.

John LeonardJohn Leonard, University of Northern Colorado I always teach my students to choose songs that are positive in nature and that the song is fighting for something or someone. Make sure the songs are current and not speaking about past events  

Emily HerringEmily Herring, University of Alabama – Tuscaloosa Nothing violent, self-pitying, negative, or too charactery (as in accents)…songs should be within the singers range and voice type and age and gender/race appropriate.  

Shawn Churchman, University of Oklahoma Songs that are chosen Shawn Churchmanjust to show off money notes are never particularly successful. So when someone belts off “Johnny One Note,” and then attempts “My Lord and Master” there is 9 times out of 10 a crash and burn. And we lose the actor. It’s so NOT about a money note, or your range! For monologues, I much prefer pieces that allow the actor to be relaxed and release themselves and their instrument (body and voice) in an authentic manner. Trying to play too far above your age/life experience (in sing and monologue) doesn’t generally work out too well, nor do comedic monologues that tend to become manic and squeeze your instrument. 

Do you have any thoughts about types of materials that work really well in the audition room?

Jeremiah DownesJeremiah Downes, Emory & Henry College Anything that serves the student (their voice, acting ability, potential, personality). Again, new and unknown doesn’t always equal good.  

Lara Teeter, Webster Conservatory Standard ballads (i.e. “I’m Old Lara TeeterFashion”) or any songs from “The Great American Songbook” which require great vocals and clear actions. Also, monologues about the beginnings of relationships, certain rites of passage about becoming an adult, and material that shows a good range in character.  

Jonathan FlomJonathan Flom, Shenandoah Conservatory Material that tells us something about you. Material in which you are clearly singing or speaking to another (specific) person and trying to get this person to DO something, as opposed to telling stories and spouting philosophies.  

Amanda Wansa MorganAmanda Wansa Morgan, Kennesaw State University Age-appropriate: songs AND monologues.  I know this is hard for “character” types out there that play more mature than their actual age because I was one of those young performers.  However, if you are a mature 17 year old, then material written for characters in their early to mid-20s is… mature for you!  One girl came in and sang “Seventeen” from the new musical Heathers, and that was awesome because it was a great choice.  The lyrics literally sing about wanting to act like a 17-year-old because the character is that age!  What a concept!  In this scenario, if that means I hear songs from Hairspray, Heathers, High School Musical, 13, Bye Bye Birdie, Grease and other age-appropriate shows, then fine.  This is why I’m okay he I’d rather hear age- appropriate material done well then a bunch of actors doing “You Can Always Count on Me” “I’m Still Here” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”

EEmily Herringmily Herring, University of Alabama – Tuscaloosa It is very important for the singer to have two contrasting cuts. It really helps us know their strengths and weaknesses: range, vocal color, basic technique, control, personality, versatility, belt/mix/legit.  

Shawn ChurchmanShawn Churchman, University of Oklahoma You can’t go wrong with a standard ballad (Berlin, Porter, Kern, Gershwin etc) Monologues that highlight what you ARE: a fresh, sweet, enthusiastic young actor!  

Tara Snyder

Tara Snyder, University of Central Florida You really can’t go wrong with golden age songs (unless they tackle extremes of range like “The Golden Ram”- don’t do that one!) and I love a contemporary song that tells a good story like “Don’t Want to Be Here” from Ordinary Days.  

Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share with high school students and/or their teachers?

 Jeremiah DownesJeremiah Downes, Emory & Henry College Emphasize technique and performance as much (if not more) as authenticity and confidence. We’re looking for potential, talent, passion and a real person under all of that who is interested in developing their craft and intellect as well as going on to have a successful career on stage.

Lara TeeterLara Teeter, Webster Conservatory Take the time to understand that acting is about DOING SOMETHING to the “other”/imagined partner. Slow down and connect. Personalize the material. Understand the difference in being too performative and showing one’s craft as an actor. Breathe. Be in your body. Relax! Also, in the interview don’t hesitate to speak the truth about how you feel about yourself and/or your training.

 

Jonathan Flom, Shenandoah Conservatory Read plays. Read musicals. Jonathan FlomDon’t take short-cuts, like using monologue books or 16-bar cut books. Find material that speaks to you. Don’t worry if you think it’s overdone. We’d rather hear “If I Loved You,” “Breathe,” and “The Life I Never Led” a million times, done well, because they’re great songs; as opposed to bizarre and random material from a monologue book or from a song-cycle that has no context because you think it shows off your voice or your acting range. Don’t be afraid to come in and just be YOU.  

Amanda Wansa MorganAmanda Wansa Morgan, Kennesaw State University If you are challenged with finding good material, there are some ways to find a starting place.  I assign my students in my Intro to Musical Theatre Performance class (freshman year) 5 “Take Home Research” projects that are designed to help them take advantage of their resources to dig up information that may aide them in finding repertoire as well as familiarizing themselves with major musical theatre writers and performers.  One of those projects is called the “Role Models” worksheet – they are required to find a performer that can serve as a “role model” to them – hopefully one that fits their physcial type but also vocal type/range, and “essence.”  Once they find that person, they go on IBDB (International Broadway DataBase) to find that person’s credits.  Then, they need to listen to those shows and answer some questions about the performer, some of their roles, etc.  There are great books out there for resources: The Singers Musical Theatre Anthology series (sheet music from Hal Leonard), the Broadway Song Companion, Broadway: Show by Show… and Spotify – the online music streaming service – has many cast recordings to peruse for FREE! I implore the students to work with a **pianist/accompanist with their sheet music prior to the auditions.  Have that pianist help them with cuts, clear markings, tempo, etc.  Help them LEARN HOW TO COMMUNICATE tempo and feel to the pianist. **As a pianist/accompanist, I must say this… going by the generic “don’t bring in Sondheim or Jason Robert Brown” rule is a bit dated.  There’s two sides to this coin.  Chances are, if you have a good musical theatre accompanist (which, often you don’t know…) he or she can proficiently play Sondheim, Guettel, or Brown because he or she has, plenty of times in the past.  Furthermore, there are complicated pieces from less complicated composers.  There’s also various degrees of sheet music and their clarity (handwritten vs. type-print, strange accidentals, etc.) Always practice with an accompanist. DO NOT look at the accompanist with disgust if he or she messes up accompanying you.  We are humans and deserve to be treated as such.  And we hate seeing you do that because you look rude and ungrateful. We know he or she is off; its okay – you keep doing your thing. All the pieces can benefit from simplicity: Who are you?  Who are you talking to?  What do you want?  What are you going to do to get it?  Did you get it? [did you win or lose?]

John Leonard, University of Northern Colorado When rehearsing audition pieces make sure John Leonardyou practice the entire audition from walking in the room, talking to accompanist, slating, auditioning, exiting.  

Emily HerringEmily Herring, University of Alabama – Tuscaloosa It is crucial that these students have opportunities to run their audition package in front of a small audience. Set up mock auditions at your school or studio and video their audition. Make sure their music is no more than a few measures over the required cut. It should be marked “Start” and “End” and either “bell tone” or “intro”. Also, it should be in the correct key with the correct lyrics in the music. If there is a pianist that can record their audition cuts for them to practice, that would help them with the familiarity of the accompaniment. PLEASE, no FANTASTICKS monologues!!  

Shawn ChurchmanShawn Churchman, University of Oklahoma I think I’ve said it above: try to think of this more as a “getting to know you” opportunity, rather than an audition. If the audition becomes too much of a “performance”, we lose the essential qualities of the person. We are choosing who we want to teach for the next four years, so we want to get to know you. Imagine having a conversation with your other when you work, and then don’t be too scared to have a conversation with us! We’re really friendly and interested! BREATHE!  

Tara SnyderTara Snyder, University of Central Florida Please, please don’t bring Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, or some of the newer composers who like to show off their theory skills (or supposed theory skills) in their pieces. While the accompanist probably can play it, it will be stressful for both singer and pianist. Now with that said, we did have two women who sang “The Beauty Is” at our callback auditions and rocked it- but that is definitely the exception (hey every rule has an exception right?)

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3 comments

  1. What a fantastic article! I will share this will all of my students- so much wonderful advice. I think perhaps the only thing not touched upon is that high school students wanting to be prepared for college auditions should work with a voice teacher or coach that can help them to prepare. I see several students going at it alone- and making poor choices from lack or proper guidance and expertise.

  2. Thank you for this great article! Your panel has reinforced and added to what I’ve been telling my students-and now they get to hear that I didn’t make it up! This article will be required reading for my high school students this-it was so helpful!

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