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Selecting Songs

A great deal of emphasis is placed on song selection when auditioning for musical theatre. There are almost an unlimited number of songs to choose from when selecting what to sing. While I certainly agree that singing an appropriate song is of great importance, it is not what gets the job. No one was ever hired for a musical just because they sang a great song; it is invariably the combination of song and performance. Many times singers have come to me saying they want a song “that nobody else sings.” Well, first of all, if nobody else sings that song, perhaps there’s a good reason. On the other hand, you don’t want to sing a song that’s so overdone that the auditors have already heard it several times that day.

Sometimes a performer can add his or her own special “twist” to a song. I remember one audition where the singer did an entire song in a straight jacket! And David Craig writes of Anthony Newley singing “It’s All Right With Me” posed as Rodin’s “Thinker.” I’m not suggesting that “gimmicks” should be freely used at every opportunity; however, occasionally taking a new approach to a song has its rewards.

Ultimately, what a director hires is not a song but a performer. So the main goal is to find a song that:

  • Suits you (voice, age, gender, style)
  • Is appropriate to the show and character you’re auditioning for
  • Is not overdone
  • Is playable by a pianist at sight (unless you’re bringing your own accompanist.) Of course, if you enjoy singing the song, that’s a plus! But just because it’s your “favorite song” doesn’t mean that you will automatically do it well.

Without some sort of relationship to the lyric a song will usually fall flat. You must know what you are saying, to whom you are speaking (your imaginary acting partner), and what response you are getting from this imaginary acting partner. This involves what actors call “subtext” — the meaning below the text. When you audition, you’re not necessarily bound by the show and circumstances the song came from (unless it’s the show you’re auditioning for). You’re free to create your own meanings and situations that suit you. Of course, you want to show that you can sing. But even a beautiful high B-flat will be much more effective when sung by someone who knows what the words mean.

So how do singers go about finding songs that show them off to best advantage? One of the best ways of developing a repertoire of suitable songs is to know thyself. That is, if you are the type that is right for the young ingenue roles that have been played by Barbara Cook, Julie Andrews, or more recently by Rebecca Luker, let that be your starting point. Begin listening to the widely available cast recordings of their shows. “Till There Was You,” “My White Knight” (Music Man), “Before I Gaze At You Again” (Camelot), “How Could I Ever Know” (The Secret Garden), are beautiful songs that not only show vocal range, but can demonstrate a performer’s ability to act and interpret lyrics. Remember, “you don’t have to be different to be good… being good is different enough.” Casting directors have spent entire days listening to different renditions of “Tomorrow” (Annie), and “On My Own” (Les Misérables), and can still (sometimes!) spot the best performances. What follows is not by any means a complete list of repertoire. These songs are simply a starting point to give examples of the various types of songs that must be any performers’ “arsenal.”

Children: Songs must be age-appropriate and within the comfortable vocal range of the performer. Obvious song choices include songs from Oliver, Sound of Music, Annie, and Secret Garden. Also, for the aforementioned shows, children are often required to sing a number from the show they’re auditioning for. “Where Is Love,” “Consider Yourself,” “My Favorite Things,” “Tomorrow,” “Round Shouldered Man,” and “The Girl I Mean To Be” are staples in any child singers’ repertoire.

Teens: The “middle-age” performers that play between thirteen and seventeen years old should sing songs with lyrics that don’t rely on experience or memories. “Love, I Hear” (A Funny Thing Happened…), “The Boy Next Door” (Meet Me In St. Louis), and “Out There” (Barnum) are the types of songs that work well for this age group.

Adults: There are four main types of casting for singers:

  1. Singing leads
  2. Singing character roles
  3. Singing chorus and smaller roles (“singers who dance”)
  4. Dancers (“dancers who sing”)

The singing roles in standard musical theatre require songs that not only show off acting skills, but specific vocal ranges as well. The song chosen must be appropriate to the show as well as the singer. If a female is auditioning for a “belting” role, it would make no sense to sing a high soprano song. Also, one would not choose the same song to audition for roles in Grease, Oklahoma, and Jekyll and Hyde. Some wonderful song selections can be found in “The Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology” (Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation, edited by Richard Walters). Published in editions categorized by voice type, the selections are excerpted from the original vocal scores, in the original show keys.

Sopranos might do well with songs such as “No Other Love” (Me And Juliet), “Out Of My Dreams” (Oklahoma), “One More Kiss” (Follies), and “Is It Really Me” (110 In The Shade). Mezzo-Soprano/Alto selections include: “Always True To You In My Fashion” (Kiss Me, Kate), “Look To The Rainbow” (Finian’s Rainbow), “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” (On A Clear Day…), and “The Music That Makes Me Dance” (Funny Girl). For the Tenor: “Being Alive” (Company), “Younger Than Springtime” (South Pacific), “Take The Moment” (Do I Hear A Waltz?), and “I Will Follow You” (Milk And Honey). Baritone/Bass singers might look into “Sorry-Grateful” (Company), “I Still See Eliza” (Paint Your Wagon), “Good Thing Going” (Merrily We Roll Along), and “Promises, Promises” (Promises, Promises).

Non-Standard Musical Theatre: At present, the casting call for certain musicals (Rent being the first to come to mind) asks for a “non-Broadway” song. Depending on the style of the show, you’ll want to look into material sung by pop performers who have a vocal range and style similar to the requirements of the show. Performers have had good luck with some of the songs of Billy Joel, Elton John, Paul Simon, Anita Baker, Tina Turner, Joan Osborne, Selena, and Alanis Morrisette. The possibilities are endless, and it becomes more and more important for the singer to develop style in addition to technique.