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Back Stage Panel Offer Musical Audition Advice

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On Thursday July 16, 2009, as part of its Successful Actor series, Back Stage held a free workshop, "How to Get a Callback at a Musical Theater Audition," at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. The panel included composer-lyricist Douglas J. Cohen ("The Big Time"); musical theater director Sara Louise Lazarus; and musical director-composer Alex Rybeck who has worked on such Broadway as "Merrily We Roll Along" and "Grand Hotel." Rybeck is also a teacher in partnership with Lazarus and was mentored by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. The workshop was moderated by Back Stage Editor-at-Large Sherry Eaker.

Through the two-hour workshop, eight audience members performed their audition pieces and received feedback. First up was Amy Wheelar who sang "Out Here on My Own" from "Fame." Wheelar had a great voice but seemed to be struggling with owning the lyrics. As Lazarus pointed out, "all three of us are really lyric fixated. We hear thousands of voices at any audition but it's how you particularly interpret what you are singing that makes you stand out." Cohen added that often performers do not realize there is a lot of subtext to the average 16-bar audition song and it's up to the actor to bring it to the surface. 

"The big thing about auditioning is that you are not only showing your talent but you are also showing how accessible you are," said Cohen. Lazarus stressed the importance of flashing a smile and being yourself before becoming a character so that people can get to know you. She also spoke of showing as many different sides of your character as possible while remaining true to the lyrics of the song. The panel told Wheeler that her challenge would be in showing the different shadings of feeling besides unhappiness expressed by the character in the "Fame" song. When Wheeler performed again she was able to put across a range of emotion through both her facial expressions and body language. 

Cohen gave interesting advice on the importance of finding humor within lyrics, "even a sad or serious song can have a certain joy factor in that it is a very cathartic experience. We in the audience want to know what it is that attracted you to the song. As humans we are attracted to joy and to share joy is a great palpable thing."

Participant Martin Fisher performed "Make Them Hear You," from "Ragtime" in a rich, operatic, and almost overwhelming voice. The panel explained that since his piece is a soliloquy, his challenge would be to make the song active. Rybeck expounded on the importance of having a motivating thought before you sing: "Musical theatre is about storytelling and acting. Even a 16-bar audition should feel spontaneous. We want to believe you are composing the song on the spot. It's in the excitement of having just made the discovery of; this is what we need to do! If we feel like you are just telling an ancient story we sink back but if you are living it and discovering it for the first time and the stakes are there then it is riveting." Lazarus told Fisher to practice his song as a monologue so that he could discover personal meaning behind each line as well as decide on his vocal emphasis. 

While one gentleman was performing "Where I Want to Be" from "Chess" the panel reviewed his resume. At the very bottom he put that he had been in "Mamma Mia!" in London. The panel almost didn't catch the credit as they quickly scanned his resume. Lesson learned: always put your most impressive credits on the top.

Auditioning is very different from performing for the stage.  In an audition an individual is showcasing their talent using an excerpt of a song to show a connection with the words and the music. As Rybeck said, "Knowing the context of a song can help inspire you but you have the choice to accept or reject it. You become not only the author of the lyrics, you literally are the composer of the melody."

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