Crossover Corner : Seven Questions to Consider

Many classical singers find themselves ready and excited to embrace the challenges and opportunities presented by musical theatre. But then what? Where do you go for information on auditions? What should you sing? Do you need different or additional training? Start by taking it one step at a time and evaluating exactly what tools you have and what skills you might need to develop with these seven questions.

 

Where Do I Type?

In musical theatre, the conversation is not about Fach but about type or castability. A performer’s type refers to stock characters like ingénue, villain, or comedic sidekick. In opera you are cast according to your Fach, which is entirely based upon your voice. In musical theatre, there are other factors that contribute to a person’s type such as body size and shape, dance skills, personality, poise, and the energy or the aura that you manifest. You may be a soprano or a tenor but may not type into the leading roles. It is important to understand where you type and to bring the appropriate repertoire into an audition.

I have found that often the best way to determine type is to ask people how they perceive you. Ask people who know you well and people you just met how they would describe you. Are you bubbly and funny or more poised and serious? Ask yourself which stock character you are most like in your personal life.

In Guys and Dolls, for example, are you a Sarah Brown or an Adelaide? Are you a Sky Masterson, a Nathan Detroit, or a Nicely-Nicely Johnson? Classical singers who want to cross over are not usually highly skilled dancers. This can narrow castability to roles rather than the ensemble, which tends to require a high level of skill in dance.

Classical singers who have a difficult time finding their Fach may find their type more easily. For example, men who fall into the “baritenor” category will find baritenor repertoire in musical theatre. Spintos and lyric mezzo-sopranos may also find that musical theatre repertoire is well suited to their voices. But, again, these voice Fachs must also understand their type and prepare repertoire accordingly.

Also, please keep in mind that in the current social climate discussions about changing the traditional ways of typing and casting in musical theatre have begun taking place. Things like ethnicity and gender are not as defining as they have been in the past. We may even begin to see that body shape may not be as defining or limiting as it has been. And your type will likely change as you age, so finding your type may be more flexible than it seems at first glance.

 

Can I Dance?

As already mentioned, most ensemble roles are for highly skilled dancers. Anyone auditioning for musical theatre, however, ought to be able to perform a few simple moves. Sometimes auditioners will separate the dancers and the movers and teach different combinations to each group. If you are not a dancer, you should make sure that you are a mover and can do things like walk and sing at the same time, the grape vine, a jazz square, skipping, marching, and a waltz all with poise, a smile, and graceful arms.

 

What Kind of Music Do I Listen To?

When you have leisure time and you get to choose what you listen to, what do you choose? Those who are listening to a variety of styles and genres will have an easier time crossing over into those styles. Even if you already include a healthy dose of musical theatre in your leisure listening, you should really consider also including pop/rock on your playlists. You may have no aspirations of a recording label, but this genre is a huge influence in contemporary musical theatre.

Some audition postings ask for pop/rock “off the radio” songs to be sung. This distinguishes a pop/rock song that is not written for or featured in a musical. It is also important to be familiar with the oldies and pop/rock history. Try creating a playlist for each decade beginning with the 1950s to the present.

Do you know the difference between Motown, R&B, protest rock, disco, folk rock, jazz standards, and poetic pop/rock? Also, are you familiar with Latin dance terms that are used to describe the groove of jazz music like samba, merengue, mambo, etc.? Can you sing a jazz standard both straight and swung? Classical singers are highly trained musicians, and if your music expertise extends to more contemporary styles, you may find you have an advantage in the audition room.

 

Do I Have Access to Acting Training?

This does not refer to “acting the song” or “acting for singers” but straight up acting classes for actors. If your acting training has always been connected to singing, you should consider seeking some acting training that doesn’t involve singing. The curriculum for a BFA major in musical theatre always includes acting classes, and the integration of text and interpretation is happening from the beginning of their training.

They are always also encouraged to be fully engaged as an actor in the voice studio and are taught that their choices as actors will inform the vocal technique they are using. Classical singers generally focus first on their singing technique and then add the acting later; they also find that beautiful singing may illicit forgiveness from an audience if they are not as connected to the storytelling. This is not true in music theatre, which is much more open to a variety of sound choices especially when they are emotionally motivated and sung with skillful storytelling and vulnerability.

How Is My Speaking Voice?

The study of voice and speech is closely connected to acting training. These are the classes and methods that actors use to develop healthy speech techniques for stage and screen. It may be helpful to familiarize yourself with one of the common methods being taught and used today like Lessac, Fitzmaurice, and Linklater. Having a dynamic speaking voice is closely connected to mix/belt techniques, and the ability to speak in dialects can also be an advantage.

 

Do I Know How to Sing into a Microphone?

You may have spent many hours honing your singer’s formant and can easily soar above the orchestra without a microphone, but in musical theatre you will almost always be given a microphone. Thankfully, there is also usually a sound person who will take care of the sound mix—but you should consider learning a bit about microphones and how to sing into them as well as some tips on how to wear and use a body mic. For example, it can be a challenge to hug someone in a body mic without adding the disruptive noise of costumes or cheeks hitting the microphone.

 

Do I Understand the Business of the “Biz”?

Classical singers may already feel confident performing in an audition but may find that auditioning for musical theatre has a lingo of its own. Understanding terms like equity and non-equity (often shortened to “non-eq”) and acronyms like ECC (Equity Chorus Call), EPA (Equity Principle Audition), and EMC (Equity Membership Candidate) will be very helpful when navigating the audition scene. An understanding of how the Actors’ Equity Association—the labor union for American actors and stage managers—influences this industry will help you navigate the auditions you can attend.

You may also want to look at your audition attire, which is generally more casual for musical theatre auditions. It is not only OK but encouraged to wear jeans (maybe even holey ones) to an audition for a rock musical, and women often wear higher-healed, trendier shoes.

There are no Young Artists Programs for musical theatre, and this is generally an industry for a younger crowd. Most college-aged students interested in careers start hitting the pavement in their early 20s. While not necessary for success in this industry, many students are aiming to graduate with a BFA and a couple of summer stock gigs on their résumés. Those who are no longer in their early 20s may find they are very successful in the non-union sector, which is generally looking for actors with some age who have not yet joined the union.

There are several websites where auditions are posted and where you may find information to help you understand the audition lingo: Playbill.com, Backstage.com, ActorsEquity.org, and Broadway.com. Also, there are many seasoned Broadway performers in New York City who now offer their expertise in guiding others through the business of the “biz.”

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.