do this, not that! (a musical-theater audition primer)

Edgar Degas

When you audition for a musical, you’re not only showing your voice, you’re also showing whether you know the rudiments of performance, like how to learn material, how to stand and behave on a stage.  You’re showing whether you can act and take direction.  And most importantly, you’re showing whether you’re a person with whom the production team will want to spend time.  Theater is a team sport and a social endeavor.  Production teams cast you not only because you are talented and fit the role, but also because they spend an awful lot of time with the people they cast, and who would want to spend time with someone unprepared or unpleasant?

From the perspective of someone who has been on both sides of the table, here are the rules:

1.  Auditioning for a rock musical, for example, when you don’t have those chops because you’re classically trained, is a waste not only of your time, but also that of the entire production team and everyone else who is auditioning.  Ditto for not knowing your audition song or not having legible sheet music accompaniment in your key.  They won’t be likely to cast you now or in future if you present yourself as someone who wastes their time.

2.  Learn the technical vocal differences between classical, standard musical-theater, modern musical-theater, and rock musical singing.  Very few people are technically equipped to cross over between more than two, and I’ve never met anyone who can do all of them well.

3.  Figure out, preferably with the help of your voice teacher or another trained professional, which style(s) fit your voice, age, acting ability, and persona, and choose audition songs based on those criteria.  Have at least two songs always at the ready (an up-tempo and a ballad), and if you’re crossing over, have at least two in each genre.  I can’t stress enough the importance of a professional’s opinion as to whether you actually sing the song well before trotting it out in an audition – don’t shoot yourself in the foot with it.

4.  When you go to the audition, know your song.  Know your song.  Know your song.  This means you have i) memorized the music and the words, ii) know what the song is about in the context of the show it’s from, and iii) know what you’re trying to achieve in the acting work.  You need to have practiced the song at least 25 times with accompaniment (which can be on tape for practice sessions, but a live accompanist is always best), *after* learning the three things above.

5.  If you already know a song (see #4 above) in the style of the show for which you’re auditioning, great.  If you don’t, but have time to prepare one before the audition, prepare it (again, #4).  Otherwise, paying attention to #3 above, sing a song you already know well that shows your voice and range to its best advantage, and also shows that you know how to stand on a stage and put a song across.

6.  Practice.  There is absolutely no substitute for muscle memory, which is the basis of singing well, and there are no short-cuts to being a good actor.  Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.  Running through a song in your head or singing it aloud while you’re driving doesn’t constitute practicing!

7.  As to what a director is looking for, don’t worry about it.  If you sing the song of the role you want, all a director need do is ask you to make a few adjustments and have you sing part of it again, to see whether you can take direction.  Worry instead about what *you* can control, which is presenting yourself in the best possible light.


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