Every year, musical theatre faculty at colleges and universities everywhere hold auditions for want-to-be musical theatre majors. If you will be part of this year’s class of audition hopefuls, it’s likely that you will be asked to prepare one to two songs and a monologue. It’s also likely that other auditionees will present some of the same materials you have prepared, will choose similar audition attire as you, and may even be more vocally skilled than you are at this point in your development. Amid these circumstances, what can you do to be noticed, remembered, and, ideally, offered a spot in the incoming class of a top-notch school?
As an acting teacher for a university musical theatre program, my aim is to help you stand out from the other hundreds of hopefuls, with some simple tips for acting your song that you can easily implement. By putting forethought and effort into as many of these tips as possible, you can jump ahead of the pack, appear more confident, give the people behind the table something to remember you by, and maybe even earn your acceptance letter!
Ideally, when you walk into each of your college auditions, you will be 100% prepared on your songs. You should have your music clearly marked, you should rehearse how you will communicate with the pianist with clarity and kindness (if live music is an option), and you should practice introducing yourself and your selections to the panel.
Tip #1 Define and Act the “Moment Before”
What’s next once you are in the room? After you indicate to the pianist that you are ready to begin, once the first notes sound from the keyboard, your performance has begun. Therefore, tip #1 is to define and act the “moment before.” In a song, the “moment before” includes the piano introduction, whether it’s one measure, two measures, or even more than that. This is the moment where you first show what your character (yes, you should have a defined character for every song you perform) is going through. It is where you portray that your character is dealing with something that has just happened, which inevitably leads to the first lyrics of the song. When you can immediately drop into the story and the character, and can show that you are reacting to something someone just did or said to you, which causes you to have to sing this song, you will get the attention of the people behind the table. Sadly, in my experience, most young singers do not start acting until they begin singing. But the music that makes up the introduction is part of the storytelling, and part of your acting real estate. Take up residence and use it!
Tip #2 Define Your Objective and Tactics
Once the first moment of the song is clear, then what? Next, you should focus on who your character is singing to and why. Whether you’re singing to another character in the scene or imagining you are singing to someone you know personally, you should define your specific relationship to them. And why are you singing to them in the first place? It’s almost certainly because you want something! When you know what it is you (i.e., your character) want in this song, and how you are going to attempt to get what you want, you bring clear and specific acting choices to your song. So, tip #2 is to define your objective and tactics. Hint: If there are multiple verses, find different tactics and reasons for each verse.
Tip #3 Act on the Breaths
Now, how do you keep the storytelling going through your song? One way is to follow tip #3 and act on the breaths. Similar to the “moment before,” your character’s life and story do not stop every time you inhale for a new phrase of music. If anything, each breath is a space—a tiny slice of more acting real estate. In these spaces your character figures out what they want to say next, checks in with the (imaginary) other person to see if they’re making any progress in getting what they want, and possibly chooses a new tactic for the next section. Just as you mark your song for breaths, accents, crescendos, and other indications, you should decide what each breath means and then practice acting those choices. Likewise, if there are any rests or empty bars of music, decide why they are there. Make them part of the story by deciding what your character would be doing during those silences. In this way, you will not only be acting on the breaths, but also through the rests!
By the time you are about to finish your song, you may be feeling great or maybe you can’t wait for it to be over (especially if it hasn’t gone as smoothly as you had hoped). Regardless, there are two more crucial tips to consider to ensure a strong ending to your audition.
Tip #4 Strong Final Acting Choice
First, be mindful of tip #4: The song doesn’t end with your final lyric; it ends with a strong final acting choice. If there is an “outro,” accompaniment that goes beyond your final lyric, make sure that you are acting all the way through that music. If you and the pianist finish together, keep telling the story after the song for at least another beat or two (meaning about two to three seconds). The story you are acting at this point is the “moment after.” It answers any number of questions: Did I get what I wanted? Did I achieve my objective? Have I changed the other character? Have I changed? I guide my students to suspend a specific, final question, like, “Do you understand?” “Did I convince you?” “Have I changed your mind?” or some other question that relates back to their objectives.
Once you get through the “moment after,” even though the song is over, your audition is not. Again, whether you feel triumphant at how successful it was, relieved that it’s over, or even a little embarrassed at any flubs you may have made, one of the worst things you can do is apologize, in any way, for your audition. At best, it will undo the excellent work you were able to accomplish in the song. At worst, it will bring more attention to the parts of your song you believe didn’t go well.
Instead, after your final “moment after,” break from that last acting beat with a smile to the audition panel, and start fresh for your second song, or your monologue. If you’ve completed all your material, break from the last acting beat—again with a smile—and thank the audition panel for seeing you.
Tip #5 Do Not Apologize
Before you go, the audition panel will likely ask you if you have any questions for them. Bonus hint: Do your research before the audition and be prepared with a thoughtful question about their specific program, faculty, or school. This shows effort, engagement, and interest in them, which will, again, separate you from the crowd. Then be sure you really listen to their answer. After that, gather your things, thank the pianist, and confidently exit the room. When you follow tip #5, do not apologize, you are more likely to leave a strong final impression on the audition panel.
When you add this acting work to your preparation, and include it in your regular process of learning and practicing audition material, you increase the chances of having a solid audition. In other words, following these tips may help you rise to the top!