I had the immense privilege of judging the majority of the Musical Theatre rounds in this year’s CS Vocal Competition in Chicago. I heard so many impressive voices in both the high school and pre-professional divisions, but a large number of these accomplished singers chose musical theatre repertoire that was wildly overdone. I’d like to offer some advice about finding less common repertoire that really suits the individual singer and will help one stand out at auditions and competitions.
First off, when selecting a piece, you need to look at the show and role, not just the song. The conventional wisdom in musical theatre auditions is for you to present a song sung by a character that you can convincingly play right now, at your current age. This means that you need to research the show, look at the character breakdown, and be sure that you meet the proper age range and physical description for that character. I understand that in both high school and college shows you might be cast as characters who are much older than you (out of necessity), but for auditions, particularly for college admission and professional theatre, you should adhere to the age range guidelines. It shows that you have done your homework and that you understand your current “type”. Now for high school singers, I think it is okay to push your age range into early twenties for non-professional auditions, but I wouldn’t go farther than that.
Now, how do you know what material is overdone?
- Avoid songs from any show that is currently running on Broadway or Off-Broadway. Also stay away from material from long-running blockbuster shows like Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Cats, Book of Mormon, any of the Disney shows, etc…
- Musicals that are done a lot in high schools are also rife with overdone material: Hairspray, Seussical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Little Women, Dogfight, etc…
- There are also songs that have been on the overdone list for decades. The number one offender in my opinion? “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me! I literally heard this song 17 times at the CS Vocal Competition this year (not including all of the online submissions I heard), and every director I know dreads this piece because it is so overdone. There are so many great comic soprano songs out there, so do yourself a favor, and look beyond this little ditty. Google “overdone musical theatre songs” for a fuller list of songs to avoid.
Okay, so what can I sing? How do I find more unusual material?
- Expand your listening library. There are so many free resources at your fingertips these days! One of my favorites is a website called: accuradio.com. It is also available in a free app format. Accuradio is basically a streaming radio service that has stations for different genres of music, such as Blues, R &B, Adult Contemporary, etc… The Broadway station currenly has 46 subchannels of streaming music such as: 1950’s Broadway, Broadway Rock, Comedic Musicals, Composers: Kander & Ebb, Now on Broadway, etc…Pick a subchannel, put in on while you’re cleaning your room, and you are bound to hear some new and exciting repertoire! I would also check out the Cabaret channel and the Pop Standards channel.
- You can’t go wrong with a good song from a flop show. Lots of great composers had shows that were critical failures; however, there might be some great songs hiding in those scores! Get familiar with the major Broadway composers: Jule Styne, Cy Coleman, Kander & Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Frank Loesser, Lerner & Loewe, Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein, etc…These folks wrote a ton a great music, but the songs from their flops are generally far less done than those from the hits.
- Get familiar with the American Songbook composers such as: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, etc…these were incredibly prolific composers, and there is a wealth of music to choose from beyond their most famous songs. Dig deeper into their catalogues.
- Check out newer musical theatre composers! There is some great music to be found from today’s up and coming musical theatre and cabaret songwriters. There are sites such as: newmusicaltheatre.com ,and www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com , which help you find and purchase music from newer composers. There is also a database called www.musicaltheatersongs, which can help you find a wide variety of lesser-known songs ranging from the early 1900’s to today. You may even be able to contact some composers directly through their professional websites or Facebook. Many newer composers will be happy to send you a digital copy of their sheet music for a small fee.
- Avoid the low-hanging fruit, and by this I mean the published musical theatre anthologies, particularly The Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology by Schirmer. While this series is an invaluable resource, most of the material found in these volumes is highly overdone for auditions. Most of the songs in these volumes are part of the musical theatre canon, and you DO need to know these songs as an educated student of musical theatre. However, I do not recommend singing these musical theatre classics as your first song for an audition. It is okay to have one or two canonical musical theatre songs in your book if you are really perfect for the role and nail the piece, but let the auditors ask you for the classic after they are wowed by your first selection.
- Research your favorite singers, and find out what shows they’ve been in. Have they released any albums or posted any live performance videos? If you think you have a similar sound as a particular performer, take a look at any other roles or material that singer has done. You might learn some exciting new repertoire that way! Don’t be afraid to look back at singers from earlier decades. Ask your friends and teachers for suggestions of other singers to listen to or show and roles you should look at.
My number one recommendation when choosing audition repertoire is to find songs that really speak to you. If you truly connect to a piece, you are going to bring something unique and special to it. Also, if you have become a good vocal repertoire detective, you are going to be very proud of the rare vocal gems that you discover, and you will give a genuinely fresh and exciting audition. Happy hunting!!