How To Break Into Musical Theater

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Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

Breaking into musical theater can seem like an impossible task. But keep in mind that icons like Audra McDonald, Patti LuPone, and Lin-Manuel Miranda started off just like you—as performers with ambition. Before you’re ready to take your shot, you’ll need a bevy of tools. That’s where we come in. In this guide, we’ll break down the vital information you need to become a musical theater (MT) actor on Broadway and beyond—everything from finding and nailing musical theater auditions to landing an agent.

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What gigs exist for musical theater performers?

When most people think “musical theater,” they imagine the Broadway stage. But many musical theater actors perform regionally for years before (and after) making their way to Broadway.

If your goal is to be paid to perform, regional theaters are an excellent gig. Regional theater contracts tend to be on the shorter side, which means less long-term stability. But shorter contracts also give you flexibility—you can play many different roles rather than get locked into a long run of a single show. Booking regional roles is an excellent way to build your résumé, especially if you land work at esteemed venues like Goodspeed, the La Jolla Playhouse, the Goodman Theatre, or the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.

Beyond traditional theater, MT performers regularly work in: 

  • Touring shows: Popular classic shows and hit musicals often have national and international touring productions. These can be union or non-union. Touring shows are an excellent way to gain experience and build community with other performers. Touring shows typically develop a family atmosphere as the performers and production team travel together from city to city.
  • Cruise ships: Cruise ships have become a fertile breeding ground for successful musical theater actors. High-caliber cruise lines often mount full-scale musical productions. And cruise performers get the benefit of a captive audience to pack the house.
  • Cabarets and open mics: One-off performances in small venues provide opportunities for performers to flex their onstage muscles. For example, in New York City, the midtown supper club Feinstein’s/54 Below frequently produces minimally- or un-staged productions of cult musicals or reunion concerts of shuttered productions. In Los Angeles, Rockwell Table and Stage is well-known for its cabaret-style musical parodies of Hollywood films like “A League of Their Own” and “The Devil Wears Prada.” 
  • Musical films: The first film with sound, “The Jazz Singer,”  was a musical. Hollywood has been making music ever since. Recent hits like “La La Land'' and “Hamilton” kept the trend alive. In 2021, we’ll see the release of “In The Heights”, “West Side Story,” and “Dear Evan Hansen.” Musical theater actors can flex their singing skills in animated films. 
  • Musical television shows: Popular shows like “Glee,” “Smash,” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” brought the stage to the small screen. In 2021, Disney plus will continue the trend with season two of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” and Apple TV will join the party with “Schmigadoon.” Adding to the musical-on-camera momentum is the trend of network telecasts of live or pre-recorded musicals. NBC got eh ball rolling in 2013 with “The Sound of Music,” followed by “The Wiz” in 2014. Competing networks have followed suit. Fox joined in with its take on “Grease” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” ABC contributed a “Dirty Dancing” remake.

What musical theater training do I need?

Musical theatre performers typically have some voice, dance, and acting training. Does that mean you need a degree in musical theater to book a gig in musical theater? Not necessarily. There are several ways to get the musical theater training you need. 

  • College BFA and MFA programs: If higher education is in the cards for you, choosing an institution where you can study your craft will help you pursue a professional musical theater career. Carnegie Mellon University, regarded as a musical theater holy grail, has spawned talents like Christian Borle, Josh Gad, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Billy Porter, and countless others. Many MT actors also attend Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the University of Michigan, all of which have renowned programs. Even state schools and smaller universities that are not known for their musical theater department can teach you foundational acting, music, and dance skills. 
  • Private vocal lessons: The most accomplished musical theater stars continue their vocal training throughout their career. In addition to refining your musical theatre sound, vocal training helps you develop the vocal stamina you’ll need to make it through an eight-show-per-week run.
  • Dance classes: Backstage Expert and dance guru Erika Shannon advises performers to begin with a ballet class, as ballet technique lays a strong dance foundation. She also advises that you join the class in which you feel comfortable, even if it’s you along with a bunch of five-year-olds. 
  • Acting classes: Acting classes are also essential for musical theater actors of any level. Not only will you be performing in front of an audience with each session, but you will also meet other performers, all of whom could be valuable industry contacts. For tips on finding the right option for you, check out our in-depth guide to choosing an acting class.

What skills do I need to be a musical theater performer?

Musical theater performers need three essential skills: the ability to sing, dance, and act. A phrase used with ubiquity in musical theater is “triple threat.” But what, exactly, does that mean? In simplest terms, a triple threat is a performer who excels all three key elements of MT performance. Do you have to be a prodigy in singing, dancing, and acting to book gigs? Absolutely not. Most working musical theater performers are stronger in two of the three elements. Regardless of your skill mix, there are roles in the musical theater realm you can fill. 

For example, performers cast in leading roles on Broadway are typically sensational actors and singers—but they are frequently less impressive dancers. There’s even an industry term for this: “movers.” On their résumés, in fact, it will say “moves well,” as the term “dancer” implies a higher skill level. 

On the flip side, performers who fill out the ensemble of a musical need to be excellent dancers with the ability to carry a tune,  but their acting skills are less critical. That being said, producers and directors expect musical theater performers to have some ability in all three areas. The more versatile and developed your skillset is, the more jobs you will audition for and book.

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How do I find musical theater auditions?

Casting platforms like Backstage are great places to find musical theater auditions in your area. Actors of any union status—and any region—can find ample audition notices in our musical theater casting calls.

Joining the Actor’s Equity Association is another excellent way to learn about paying musical theater jobs. If Broadway is your ultimate goal, you’ll need to join sometime. (All Broadway theaters are Equity.) There’s more than one route to Equity membership, though—you can explore your options in our guide to acting unions. Theaters throughout the country operate under Equity contracts, and any Equity-contracted theatre must hold open auditions at least once per season. If you are non-union, you can still land an audition at a union theater by signing up as an alternate. 

Fellow actors (perhaps those you met in acting or dance classes) are also a great way to hear about upcoming auditions. Stay on good terms with as many of your peers as possible. You never know, they may suggest you for a gig if they learn of a role that is right for you. If you get wind of a job and know someone who could be suitable, pass along the information. they’ll be far more likely to return the favor. Contrary to popular opinion, most actors want to see other actors working.

What should I prepare for a musical theater audition?

Voice, dance, and acting training is the best preparation for a musical theater audition. Beyond your training, you’ll also need specific materials to submit to musical theatre casting calls and auditions: a headshot, résumé, musical theater reel, and your audition “book.”

Musical theater audition materials include: 

  • Headshots: A good headshot reflects your type and accurately represents how you look right now (not, say, two years ago). Musical theater headshots aren’t that different from other acting headshots. Any headshot should be taken by a professional photographer, not your cell phone. 
  • Acting résumé: Similar to headshots, your musical theater résumé won’t greatly vary from a standard acting résumé. You’ll just want to add information about your vocal type and movement experience. You should specifically note your vocal type (soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone, etc.) and your range (“high F”). Dance training falls under the “Education” section of your résumé. 
  • Musical theater reel: Once considered a nice addition to an MT actor’s package, reels are now essential. Professional reel-maker Tim Grady says that a good musical theater reel shouldn’t “show every single thing you can do.” Instead, your reel should “highlight your talents and be brought back into the room later when you’re in New York or there’s a callback.”
  • Your “book”: Every MT performer needs a binder containing sheet music for their prepared audition songs. In MT terminology, this binder is your “book.” As voice teacher Andrew Byrne explains, “the preparation of your audition book is a clear way to show a casting panel that you are a pro. Having your sheet music well-organized and polished shows us that you understand the role of the pianist in making your performance successful.” Most MT auditions request an uptempo song or a ballad, sometimes one of each.

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What can I expect in a musical theater audition?

You should expect to showcase your singing, dancing, and acting skills at any musical theater audition. Depending on the production, one skill may be more important than another, which usually determines the audition order. If you’re auditioning for “A Chorus Line,” for example, you’ll likely dance first; an audition for “Sweeney Todd” usually starts with singing. In general, at a MT audition you should expect to: 

  • Sing: Any musical theater audition will require you to sing. Usually, the creative team requests a 16-bar or 32-bar section of a prepared song. Sometimes at callbacks, you’ll be asked to perform a song from the show itself. 
  • Work with an accompanist: In musical theater auditions, there will usually be an accompanist in the room for the singing portion. Casting director Benton Whitley says the most important thing to remember is to be kind, courteous, and clear in communicating what you need before going into your song. How you handle yourself under pressure shows the creative team what you might be like to work with during rehearsals and performances.
  • Dance: Dance-heavy shows will have a separate dance call. Here, a member of the creative will teach you a dance combination. You’ll need to earn the combination quickly, then perform it for the creative team. If that sounds like your worst nightmare, you are not alone. Just remember; what matters most is appearing confident. Backstage Expert Benton Whitley advises less-experienced movers to focus on the storytelling of the dance more than one flawless technique. He says that the casting team will be more focused on your face than your footwork. 
  • Read sides or recite a monologue: If you are auditioning for a specific production or a theatrical season, the casting team will give you a short scene to perform. If you are auditioning at an open call, the casting team may instead ask to see a short monologue that shows your range.

Do I need a musical theater agent?

Is it possible to book musical theater work without an agent? Of course. Are you going to book a heck of a lot more auditions and subsequent jobs with one? Also a firm yes. “Agents serve many purposes. Just the act of having one validates you to the rest of the industry,” explains Secret Agent Man. “People will take you much more seriously when you have representation.”

As we mentioned before, most professional musical theater houses in the United States operate under an Equity contract, which requires them to regularly host auditions. You can absolutely secure an audition slot without an agent, especially if you are an Equity member or an Equity Member Candidate. However, if you have an agent, they can communicate with the theater’s creative team to get you a scheduled slot or set a general meeting for you. 

Musical theater agents tend to be most helpful after you have some performance credits on your résumé. Once you have some theatrical experience, an agent can negotiate with theaters to pay you a higher rate than the union standard. If you have made a name for yourself, or have a specialized skill set, your agent may negotiate with a theatre to cast you without an audition. The industry lingo for this is a “straight offer.” 

 

What musical theater terms should I know?

If a non-theater person heard two musical theater professionals chatting about the biz, it would sound like a different language. Don’t be intimidated! We’ve rounded up several key terms that anyone working in musical theater will hear— and say— constantly. From EPAs to “the pit” to 16-bar cuts, here are nearly 100 expressions you should know:

Check out Backstage’s musical theater audition listings!

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
See full bio and articles here!

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