Choosing Your First Musical Theatre Song

This article was originally published in Classical Singer magazine. To subscribe to the print magazine, go to www.csmusic.info/subscribe.

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hoosing repertoire in a genre that is unfamiliar can be daunting and overwhelming. Where do you begin? It may seem to make sense to choose the repertoire that seems closest to the classical music that you are most familiar and comfortable with. It may seem quite simple to just pick up some Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe and consider yourself a crossover singer.

There are some key differences to interpretation and timbre, however, that classical singers should be aware of so that when you walk into the audition room or onto the stage you do not give yourself away as a classical singer. So how do you choose repertoire that will help make your first foray into musical theatre successful?

First, don’t choose the repertoire that you love and that belongs to roles you are perfect for. Save those for later when you are more confident with your musical theatre skills. The first repertoire you choose should help you to explore new sounds and colors of the voice.

This may be messy at first, so choose repertoire that you can experiment with that has no deadline for results. Choose repertoire that will help you to explore new ways of storytelling and ways that your voice can support the storytelling. Here are some sounds and colors that you should consider exploring.

Registration

Choose repertoire that will help you to explore and develop any unfamiliar registers in your voice. Generally, this means that male singers need to explore and isolate their falsetto/Mode 2 register, and female singers need to explore their chest/Mode 1 register. You may need to spend some time just making sounds in your unfamiliar register. Jared Trudeau, a musical theatre voice professor at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, calls this the “drunken owl phase” for those familiarizing themselves with Mode 2, and the “barking phase” for those exploring Mode 1.

If you are just getting to know your chest voice, try singing simple folk songs or nursery rhymes like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in Mode 1. Once you feel a little more comfortable, you may want to look at repertoire that stays primarily below the primo passaggio.

Female singers may look at something like “If My Friends Could See Me Now” from Sweet Charity, a jazz standard like Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean?,” and Arthur Hamilton’s “Cry Me a River” and sing it in a key that stays primarily below the primo passaggio.

For male singers, exploring Mode 2 can, again, start with some simple folk songs or nursery rhymes like “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” then progress to contemporary Christian or light pop songs by artists like John Mayer and Bon Iver. You may also consider looking at parts of musical theatre songs like “Breeze off the River” from The Full Monty and “The Word of Your Body” from Spring Awakening.

Keep It Conversational

Look for repertoire that is written intentionally to be conversational. Generally, it is rather introspective or giving information to help move the plot—very similar to the function of recitative in opera. It should feel and sound very close to actual normal conversation. You may feel like the diction is sloppy and that you are just marking it. Generally, this type of repertoire lives in the middle voice and will require that you relax the soft palate and the legato line.

Allow yourself to feel like you are using your natural speaking voice but with a melody. Many musical theatre songs will begin in this style, but many do not stay in this style for the entirety of the song.

Female singers can find examples of this in the recit of “I’m Not at All in Love” from The Pajama Game and the first verse of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” from Avenue Q.

Male singers can find examples of this in the recit of the title song from Guys and Dolls and “To Break in a Glove” from Dear Evan Hansen. Note that with this last example, the beginning of the duet is interwoven with actual spoken dialogue and the singing and speaking are fluid and the same timbre.

The Call

Another important color to explore is the call. The approach to this color is the same regardless of gender and happens in the same pitch range for both genders—from approximately F#4 to D5. The mastering of the call will lead a singer very easily into mix and belt, which allows for more energy and passion in the storytelling. Once you feel confident with the call, you can begin to look at more advanced repertoire.

For female characters just beginning to explore the call, there are some great Golden Age pieces like “It’s a Perfect Relationship” from Bells Are Ringing, “I Resolve” from She Loves Me, and “What Did I Have that I Don’t Have” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. For male characters, look at “Kansas City” from Oklahoma!, “All I Need Is the Girl” from Gypsy, and “I Met a Girl” from Bells Are Ringing.

Twang

Another color that you might want to explore is twang. While a little twang may exist in a lot of different varieties of musical theatre repertoire, you may at first want to go all out and explore the extremes of twang. You’ll probably want to stick to repertoire that stays in the low or middle part of your range at first.

For female singers, you can look at “Asheville” from Bright Star, “Don’t Call Me Trailer Trash” from Cowgirls, and “Always a Bridesmaid” from I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Male singers can look at “Bright Star” or “A Man’s Gotta Do” from Bright Star, “Waiting for the Light to Shine” from Big River, and “All Er Nuthin’” or, again, “Kansas City” from Oklahoma!.

As you are choosing repertoire, listen to a variety of musical theatre singers and a variety of different musical theatre genres. Also, listen to a variety of singers singing the same repertoire. It may surprise you how differently this repertoire can be interpreted. To singers coming from a classical background, it may be liberating to recognize that there is no bull’s-eye of technique or sound that needs to be pierced.

A lot of different colors and interpretations are acceptable if they are truthful and emotionally motivated. So remember to always bring your actor self along when exploring musical theatre repertoire and sound. Yes, even while doing vocalises you can be communicating emotions and expressing a point of view. Whether you are working on vocalises or repertoire, the acting will help access these new colors, and all the sounds should be connected to who the character is and what they are feeling in that moment.

Christy Turnbow

  Christy Turnbow is currently teaching at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and has taught at Montclair State University, Penn State University, and Brigham Young University. She earned an MFA in musical theater voice teaching from Penn State University and a BM from Brigham Young University in vocal performance and pedagogy. She has been seen in leading roles in regional music theatre productions and national tours.