How To Prepare a Song for a Musical Theatre Audition
Choosing the RIght Song
At a typical audition for a musical theatre production, you should only expect to be able to sing 16 bars of a prepared song. So the choice of your song is paramount. Tips on choosing the correct song:
- Choose something that is in your repertoire. If you have a month before the audition and can perfect a new song before then, by all means go ahead, however if the audition is next week, don't try to learn a new piece. Choose something that you've already practiced and have thoroughly prepared. (See below for how to prepare an individual piece for performance at an audition.)
- Choose a piece that is appropriate for the type of show you're auditioning for. For example you're auditioning for Rent, don't choose a song from Showboat as your audition piece.
- Choose a piece that is appropriate for the role that you're auditioning for, based on the character type and age. If you are auditioning for a real "character" role (for example, "Matron Mama Morton" in Chicago), don't use a piece intended for an ingenue character (meaning a sweet romantic lead, like "Marion the Librarian" from The Music Man).
- Try to choose a piece that you can start at the very beginning, and will show of your skill and talent right from the start. If you're way better at the chorus than the beginning verse, you can start there, however in the case where they like what you're showing them, they may let you sing the entire song, so it will be much better to have started from the beginning.
Prepare Your Song
Ideally, you should have a repertoire of 10-14 songs that you have each prepared the way I will outline below. The songs should range in music type and character type so that you can audition for any role in your age and voice range with at least one up-tempo and one ballad appropriate to the character.
Preparing a song to perform at an audition is different than preparing it to perform in a show. To begin with, you don't have the same context at an audition as you do in a show. Your audience (the auditioners) have not had a chance to see you develop a character. You need to show them through the song that you have a character in mind for the song, and that you can deliver powerful emotion through song alone, without props or other actors to work with.
The song needs to be delivered as if it were a monologue. The song itself is only a part of the story, underneath the lyrics there should be an inner monologue, or "subtext", that you develop which is your motivation for each lyric you sing. In the case of an audition piece, the subtext does not have to be at all related to the character or show that the piece came from. For example, your song might be "Still Hurting" from The Last Five Years, but rather than write your subtext as the character of Cathy from the show, you can write it as yourself, talking about issues from your own life.
To write the subtext for a song, do the following:
- Determine who your monologue is being delivered to. Is it to a good friend? To God? To your dead mother?
- Write all the lines of the song on a blank page, with a bunch of space between each line.
- For each line in the song, write a corresponding line of subtext underneath it. For example; my chosen song is "As Long as He Needs Me" from Oliver. My subtext is going to be about my crush on the guy at the video store, who is happy to chat with me when I want to buy a movie, but ignores me as soon as a leggy blonde walks in. The song (in bold) and subtext (in italics) for the first verse might look like:
As long as he needs me...
I'm going to keep going to that video store
Oh, yes, he does need me...
I know that he enjoys talking to me when I'm there, he can't be faking that
In spite of what you see...
And he may flirt with that leggy blonde when she comes in, but we have a real connection that she can't come close to matching
...I'm sure that he needs me.
Yes, deep down I know he doesn't value her physical beauty over the bond we have over good movies!
Prepare Your Performance
Knowing how to sing a song amazingly well isn't enough. You need to not only sing that song, but perform it. That is where the subtext comes in. When you sing a line of the song, you must be thinking and acting like you are saying the subtext. It should shape your facial expressions, your emotions, and your movements.
Determine where the "audience" of your monologue is situated. Is it at the right side of the stage? In front of the stage, above the auditioners' heads? (Never use an auditioner as your monolgue audience!)
Start at the center of "the stage" (which may be your bedroom floor). Then, for each line of the song, look at your subtext and determine:
- Does this line motivate me to physically move? For example, on a line where you're pleading with your audience, you might be motivated to move a step or two closer to them (wherever you have determined that they are.) Or perhaps another line shows that you are embarrassed, and so you might move away from your audience. Be careful with this, you do not want to move too much. Not every line needs physical movement (less than half of the lines should have movement attached.) Try to finish the piece back at center stage. You should never have traveled more than a few feet in any direction from your starting point.
- What emotion does this line raise in me? Hatred? Sadness? Regret? How should my face reflect that?
- Where am I motivated to look for this line? Am I talking directly to my audience? Or is this line more about me talking to myself, so I might look slightly down instead of out? Perhaps the line is more of a daydream, so I would stare off into the distance. There are many possibilities. You don't have to change your focus for every line, many consecutive lines may all focus in the same location, however you should change your focus at least a few times throughout the piece.
Practice Make Perfect
As with all things, practice makes perfect. Practice not just singing your piece, but performing it, keeping your subtext in mind, and delivering movements and facial expressions based on it. There is a wonderful phrase, which has been muddled about a bit over time, but comes initially from Stanislavski, which goes:
The difficult must become easy, the easy become habit, and the habit become beautiful.
Keep that in mind while you practice! Your piece will eventually become so habitual that you won't need to explicitly think about the words or the subtext, you will just feel them and be moved by them, and that is when you will achieve the real beauty of the piece, and that is what the auditioners are looking for!