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Can a Musical Theater Actor Learn from a Non–Musical Theater Coach?

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Can a Musical Theater Actor Learn from a Non–Musical Theater Coach?
Michelle Danner
The Acting Studio at Edgemar, Santa Monica, Calif.

There is a saying that a song is a monologue and a monologue is a scene. You want to approach breaking down a song the same way you break down a monologue or scene. Create the character who is singing the song, script-analyze each moment, and find an interesting intention to play for each line.

Create the person you are singing the song to and the relationship. You want to score a song breathwise and choose where you're going to take breaths. All these concepts apply when you're singing. In essence, it's also an acting exercise, because the storytelling of a song can be almost as powerful as, if not more than, belting it out and hitting the right notes.

Once you've done all the work and answered all those questions, you want to forget it all and just take a deep breath into your first moment. Hook into why you must sing that song at that exact moment.

Deena Levy
Deena Levy Theatre Studio, New York

I have witnessed some extraordinary musical theater acting, and I have found that almost every musical theater actor I have taught comes into my studio in some variation of the same rut: They overact. Many are stuck in a rhythm of "comin' up with the goods," fixated on the result of the performance. There's gotta be something better than this (to quote "Sweet Charity"). I call it breaking the code.

Intelligently, in pursuing hard-core scene study, the musical theater actor is often longing for a deeper, unstylized connection with the material. The actor is craving to break the code of "how it should be" and gathering some excellent tools along the way.

There are basically two reasons why musical theater actors should pursue nonmusical training. First, to enhance, deepen, and make more authentic their musical theater performances. There is uncharted territory that a musical theater actor may find tremendously beneficial by learning new techniques and processes—for example, the organic sound of words (not song) into actions, becoming a greater listener and responder, and then hitting the mark. Or exploring the concept of "the character is stuck with you" to trigger and unleash originality. Second, if a musical theater actor desires to go beyond and explore the myriad other performance opportunities in theater, film, and television, a nonmusical-theater coach would be a great asset, invaluable in bridging the strengths of a musical theater performer with the necessities of acting in front of a camera.

One particular actor, currently performing in "The Addams Family" on Broadway, kept coming to train in between musical theater gigs. I especially remember her working on a scene from "Keely and Du": tied up, pregnant, and held hostage against her will. This actress, intrigued and determined to break out of her singsongy rhythm, relentlessly pursued making the character hers. She got ugly and real and broke through a mechanical pattern of play-acting into a deeply personal and still entertaining performance. The discovery of irony created a nuanced and humorous interpretation within a nightmare: A dream comes true. Not to mention how much more expressive her singing became.

Lily Lodge
Actors Conservatory, New York

They would get their own music. They would learn something about the music inside them, their own rhythms. And then the music of language, which is very important—the rhythm of the playwright. Our acting work is based on sense-memory techniques. That's getting in touch with the five senses. And eventually, from that, you get into emotion memory. There are a lot of different tones connected with emotion memory, so there's a music of one's own system that one gets to know.

As an actor, what you're doing is using yourself as an instrument. You're kind of a musical instrument without having an actual musical instrument. You have no piano, no violin. You just have yourself. So you have to tune up your own instrument by getting emotional skills.

I think it's very important in musical theater to be able to act. Some singers and dancers don't realize that there's a whole other dimension to their work, that usually it's about not indicating something. What they're doing is enough; they don't have to add an extra indication. I've coached opera people, for instance, and that's one of the things we work on.

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