So you’re going to audition for a musical. You’ve got an appointment (or the strength and spirit to wait in line), and you are going to do your best to make your musical theatre dreams come true. You have your headshot and resume all ready to go and now all you need to do is to choose a song. Here are a couple of questions you can ask yourself to help along the way:
What show am I auditioning for?
It’s important to tailor your material to the specific audition at hand. You wouldn’t sing the same song to audition for Carousel as you would for American Idiot, would you? Think about the style of the score and make sure that you are showcasing your voice in a way that shows those casting that your talent would be an asset to this production. Pick out three to four songs in the right style so you have a couple to choose from.
What question can help you narrow down your three or four songs to one? What character am I auditioning for? Think about the qualities of the character you want to play and figure out which song best brings out those qualities in you. Is this character sexy? Meek? Loud? Quiet? Stylish? Clumsy? For example, if you’re auditioning for an nerdy, meek character, you might sing “Grow for Me” from Little Shop of Horrors. If you’re auditioning for a seductive character, you might sing “Whatever Lola Wants” from Damn Yankees. Choosing a song that highlights your qualities that liken you to the character will make it easier for the folks behind the table to see you as that character. You can find hundred of audition songs to choose from on the StageAgent Audition Song Database!
Next is a crucial question that many overlook: Do I like this song? If you don’t like the song you won’t want to practice the song and you probably won’t do your best job performing the song. It’s that simple. If you don’t like a song, don’t sing it. Nobody wants to see you feeling bored or uninspired while you’re performing. We want to see you singing your heart out and living your dreams. That’s what inspires someone to hire you and want to collaborate with you to create theatrical magic.
So you have a song that you love in the right style that feels like the character for which you’re gunning. Now we come to a more difficult question and that is: Does this song showcase me? If you are a classical soprano and you’ve chosen a to sing a Beyoncé song, you simply aren’t setting yourself up for success. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work on material that stretches you. It’s great to set goals and to work on broadening one’s skills, but those songs should be in a separate binder from your audition material. Maybe one day you can “Run The World” your way into the audition room, but today is not that day, boo (I can still see your Halo, though).
Remember that people want to get to know you during an audition. If a song doesn’t quite fit the style or make sense on paper, but you have a gut feeling that it’s the right song and you love it with all your heart, take a chance on that love. Originality and creativity go a long way and have the chance to help you stand out and make a lasting impression.
Last time around we had an opportunity to hear from Casting Director Bob Kale on the specific challenges of casting a National Tour. That conversation bled into the much broader topic of auditioning for just about anything, with many more stones to be turned. I reached out to Alison Franck CSA, head of her own casting office (Franck Casting), for another perspective and further conversation on the casting process.
Alison has been casting everything from Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theatre, National Tours, Television, and Film for more than 20 years. She began as an assistant for the legendary casting office Johnson & Liff, where she worked on such modest successes as The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Cats, and Miss Saigon (insert wry emoticon here). She took her formidable skills to the prestigious Paper Mill Playhouse, where over a span of a decade she cast more than 50 shows, including the Broadway transfer ofI’m Not Rappaport starring Judd Hirsch, Anything Goes with Chita Rivera, The Full Monty with Elaine Stritch, and The Importance of Being Earnest with Lynn Redgrave. Her work has been seen on TV in the critical hit Freaks and Geeks, in commercials (as a partner at Liz Lewis Casting), and the children’s TV series Peter Rabbit.
This series is focused on the National Tour, so we start there. I ask, “What should an actor consider before even auditioning for a tour?”
“The main thing is, are they ready to live out of a box, a suitcase. And in my honest opinion, I think women have it tougher than men in this aspect.”
“Do you think it’s harder for women in general to be on a tour?”
“It seems to me that guys adapt to tour life easier than girls do, but that’s certainly dependent on the individual. And it’s just my opinion, though I did tour for 2 years when I was still acting.”
“Any advice for people on tour for the first time?”
“Go out and explore the area. When I would first get to a town, I would go walking by myself, see what was there, how safe I felt. I would see the country. Then I’d come back and work out, and prepare for the show. I was better about this process on my second tour than I was on my first. I just felt that I should use the tour as a real opportunity to see places I’d never been.”
“Some actors go out on tour, make potentially a substantial amount of money, but come home broke. Were you able to come back from your tours with some savings?”
“I was. I wouldn’t say that I was great with money back then, but I learned quickly. And sometimes you have to be willing to pay for your comfort. Do I need a single room this week? Yes. Yes I do. Sometimes you spend more money than you should, but you need that comfort. I would also say that you need to be aware of what is coming, like an unpaid layoff, which can happen frequently. Don’t let those things catch you by surprise.”
“How often does someone turn down a tour offer?”
“We do a lot of casting in advance, and by nature that results in losing people to other work. So we have to go to our backup files 2, 3, 4 times. Sometimes we need to have more auditions, and occasionally that’s the best thing we can do, get some fresh blood in the room.”
“How do you feel about the current practice of self-taped auditions?”
“This is my soapbox moment. You need to know what to do and how to do it. Yes, you can use your iPhone. You shouldn’t do it yourself, however, get a friend to help. Don’t procrastinate, do it when you don’t have a job so you can learn. Take a lot of selfies. Take a class if you need to learn the technology. Find a big, blank space to shoot, don’t do it in front of your messy kitchen. Practice by taking selfies, then videotaping yourself with your phone, to know your best angles and where the best lighting is, then start working with friends, having them shoot you, etc. Our smartphones really are a tool to improve how well we do on tape.”
“For theatre, we want to see a full body shot. For TV and Film, a ¾ shot is normal. And make sure that even your self-taped audition is authentic, that it’s not the fifteenth take and you’re a little too polished.”
“How often do you actually look at websites or reels?”
“A lot. I look at it if I’m not sure who a person is, or what they can do. If you are a singer, have a website with some song clips. If you’re a gymnast, a dancer, same thing. Have a reel with shows you’ve been in, so you can show your work. Reels are important for TV and Film, but I will say you can’t throw commercials on a reel (for rights-related issues). Maybe if it’s a non-union commercial, but you have to be very careful about using them.”
“If you are a writer, and you are interested in creating and producing your own work, then I say go for it. It may not go anywhere, but at least you’ll have some material to show people.”
“What kinds of auditions do you remember most?”
“Auditions that make me laugh or excite me. Also, when people truly make me cry I remember them But I don’t think people should use sad material for everything and it shouldn’t be the starting point, but as a contrast to something that shows humor or joy. Someone just made me cry last week and I was blown away. But she had already wowed me with something legit and fun.”
Welcome back to our ongoing series on that exotic bird known as the National Tour. Today we jump to the other side of the table and get our info straight from an expert’s perspective.
“What brought me here is that I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Bob Kale has been casting theatre, television and film for more than 20 years. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, he came to New York City to attend Julliard at the age of eighteen, with the intention of becoming an actor. Julliard brought an education that many could only dream of, and from there he went on to study with Sanford Meisner (wow), and eventually became Sandy’s assistant. Mr. Kale went on to do musical scene study with Lehman Engel of the world-renowned BMI Workshop. He trained in voice with Felix Knight, a well-known Metropolitan Opera tenor, and he became an actor for the next 19 years. A happenstance meeting with Barry Moss (who was already casting at the time) at the local dog run led Bob to a partnership of two decades and a career on the other side of the table, where he could use all of his considerable education to help aspiring actors and directors forge relationships. Hughes/Moss, later Moss/Kale and Moss/Kale/Anastasi, would cast big Broadway musicals such as Titanic, The Who’s Tommy, and Jekyll & Hyde, plus the films Jack and Jill, I Now Pronounce you Chuck and Larry, and television including Cosby Mysteries, FX, Ed, Elmo’s World, and As the World Turns.
“I always saw myself as inferior.” He wasn’t, of course, he was a very well-trained actor. But it’s a sentiment most actors can relate to quite easily. How strange it was to hear those words from a man so accomplished. It’s a reminder I guess, that no matter where we are on this path, just starting out or with many miles already logged, we all feel the same things. “I still feel in awe when someone like Maury Yeston or the late August Wilson walk into the room—I think to myself ‘what on Earth am I doing here?’”
In the interest of full disclosure, Bob was my first teacher in New York City. I enrolled in his musical theatre audition class right after I earned my Equity card, and have known, admired, and trusted him ever since. We had a chance to sit down over coffee and he shared his thoughts about the differences and difficulties of casting a National Tour, and the current state of casting in general.
My first question is the most obvious one: “What, if anything, is different about casting a National Tour versus casting a regional production of the same show?”
“The numbers. A Broadway show may have a cast of 28, but a tour, where you have to house and transport not just the actors but the crew, the musicians, and so on, may only be able to accommodate a cast of 22. So you have to consolidate. This is where you can have the occasional actor that also covers three roles, but he isn’t genuinelyright for one orpossiblytwo of them and wouldn’t have been used in an Original Broadway production. Itjust has to be thatway. And on a first National Tour, these decisions are made by the entire team, the Director, the Choreographer, Composer, Lyricist,everyone. That’s also why ‘tracks’ are created and usually adhered to. Once an actor has learned all of these parts, and costumes exist for each role, a replacement actor will often be very similar to the original both in physicality and interpretation. A hem can be raised, but not always lowered. It sounds inconceivable, but it’s true. And an actor that interprets the tracks in a completely different way throws off the actors who’ve already played 100 or 200 performances and are adjusted to the consistency of the show’s flow. In repertory, it’s essentially a new production and the theatre has purchased the rights to the show or play. It’s theirs to interpret.”
I went on. “Does it ever come up, that one actor seems to be able to handle the life on the road, whereas another actor may not? Assuming the talent level is the same?”
“It’s like, say you have a final callback. And there are five actors, and they’re all wonderful, and they all bring something different to it. Frankly, they all could be cast. The team narrows it down to three. Who’s going to get the job? The one who seems more pleasant to work with. Can they handle this life on the road? If they are sitting in the waiting area crying because they think they’ve messed up their audition, then they probably can’t. Or if they slam the door on the way out, for any number of reasons, they’re probably not going to be pleasant to work with. There’s a lot of talk in the studio. ‘Do you know so-and-so? Can you call someone and find out what they’re like to work with?’ Happens all the time.”
Me again. “What’s the biggest challenge in casting a Tour, or really, casting anything?”
“The biggest challenge honestly is the audition schedule.”
I look at Bob like I want something more gut-wrenching, more personal, but this is the honest truth.
“When you are down to the final rounds, everybody has to be there: Director, Musical Director, Choreographer, sometimes Stage Management, Producers, Assistants…the list goes on and on. Everyone is signing off on every cast member. So when you’re an actor down to the wire for a show, clear your schedule as best you can according to the CD’s requests. Most of the people in the room are working on three, maybe four projects at once. So if I can get them all in the same room at the same time, I thank my lucky stars.”
“What do you wish actors, especially younger ones, could know to help demystify the casting process?”
“I say to everybody, when I’m doing a seminar or something like that, the only thing you can control is your audition. Everything else is out of your hands. The only thing you can do is be the artist. The business will take care of itself, you show up and do the best work you can do. One audition is probably not the beginning or the end of anything. And if it is, you’re probably not going to know that for a while so why worry? Actors make such a fuss and it’s usually things they are creating in their own mind that get in the way of giving a great audition.”
I have to admit, that part sounds a little too familiar.
Bob then shared this story, from Tony- and Emmy-winner Tyne Daly.
“Tyne Daly was dying to be in this production of The Three Sisters, and there was a production being done at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, which was run by Gordon Davidson. She got an audition and she was drilling Mr. Davidson for any information. ‘Gordon, what can I do? I’ve wanted to do this playmy whole life, please tell me what can I do?’ Gordon finally looked at her and said, ‘Tyne, it’s a chance to act Friday at two o’clock.’”
“Actors need a perspective, a point of view,” Bob continued, “that each audition is part of a never-ending learning process. You go to an acting class and do a great exercise and that’s wonderful, but the next one won’t be. Or the next one will be average, then another good one, they’re all connected. Do you know the acronym for FEAR? False Evidence Appearing Real. That’s what I would give an actor if I could. That they could let go of the fear and really perceive it as an ongoing education because that’s what it is. Regardless of the impression you get of how the people watching you seem to be responding, you don’t genuinely know, and you mustn’t judge yourself—it’s artistic suicide. Do the best work you can, leave the audition at the studio, and get on with your life! Don’t ruminate on how evil the director is or, even worse, how terrible you are. These things are cerebral BS that just gets in the way of talent and craft. Of course, it’s easier said than done.
I thanked Bob, like I was his student again. Of course that’s exactly what I was in that moment. More than a dozen years ago, when I was actually in his class, most of this information would have travelled right through me with little impact—my mistake, not his. Now I get it. And I’m sure I’ll struggle to remember this solid advice when the chips are down, but if I just take a moment to breathe, the next audition will be exactly what it should be: a chance to act Friday at two o’clock.
Bob Kale is an “Advanced Musical Theater Audition Technique” teacher at the Musical Theatre Conservatory at New York Film Academy, https://www.nyfa.edu/musical-theatre. You can also find Bob’s classes at www.wbworkshops.net, or at his own website, www.bobkaleonline.com.
I am of the school of thought that when it comes to being an actor, auditioning is the real work. While I continue to hone this skill, I now recognize that performing is the reward for those seemingly endless hours of work. Rather than approaching them as job interviews, I think of auditions as a unique, albeit brief opportunity to perform for a crowd of few. After all, what more does entertainment require than the actor and audience? Dare to treat them with a touch of levity and you might just find that auditioning can be rewarding and, dare I say, fun.
What frays the nerves more than being ill-equipped for an audition? You go up on your lyrics, get that deer-in-the-headlights look, and next thing you know, you’re hearing, “Thank you, that’s all we need to see today.” Nothing is more irksome than blowing a genuinely awesome audition. Preparation is the first step in putting your best foot forward.
I look for songs that are type-appropriate and written for relatable characters. My go-to piece is “Free” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. As I identify with the larger-than-life style, the role of Pseudolus is right in my wheelhouse. “Free” is an up-tempo “I am/I want” song that showcases both a wide vocal and comedic range, which is an ideal choice for my type. Alas, being a one-trick pony doesn’t do me any favors, so I’ve got several different songs from various genres to meet my audition needs.
The night before an audition is my time to review. I look over my music, making sure I’ve marked it legibly. I double-check the casting notice to ensure I’ve prepared everything. If there’s the possibility of a dance call, I pack accordingly. And, I always make sure I’ve stapled my headshot and resume. One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone pesters me for a stapler. They are $6 on Amazon, and that includes staples and a remover. If you can afford headshots in New York, you can afford to prepare.
The Holding Room
For the majority of us at the audition, it’s business time. We’re there to work. There’s always one lone goober, though, who gloms on to whoever will placate them, prattling on about what they’ve done, where they’ve been, or who they know. I’m not sure if this is just how some people’s nerves manifest themselves, but this has got to be one of the most annoying things imaginable. It’s all I can do review my materials, calm my own nerves, and focus on the task ahead without dodging a Chatty Cathy.
I won’t argue that a good warm-up is essential to belting your face off, yet here we find another major holding room no-no. In NY, most studios will rent smaller spaces on the cheap, a service I’ve taken advantage of when those extra fifteen minutes of scales make all the difference. It’s ideal because you’re able to warm up in the privacy of your own studio, and everyone else gets to maintain their focus. I believe it was Aretha who said, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” And, as I know all too well the trials of the regional/community circuit, you have no better studio in which to belt those last-minute riffs than your car. My go-to method of warming up is a BeltBox, a device that is gaining in popularity amongst performers. As it cuts my volume about thirty decibels, I’m able to warm up full voice in the hall or bathroom without disturbing anyone. Ultimately, it all comes down to taking care of our voices while still respecting the holding room space.
In the Room
Just before I walk in the room, I tell myself, confidence is key. I drop all the mental baggage of the day and am completely open to whatever may occur. After a warm greeting and quick chat with the accompanist, the room is entirely mine for the next minute and a half. The spotlight will never be more yours than it is at this moment.
Prior to walking in the room, the three questions I ask are: Who am I talking to (relationship)? What do I want? What are the stakes? The more detailed your answers are, the more clarity your performance will have. I try to stick to the “16 bars” rule, but if you’ve an up tempo song like “Free,” you’re allowed to cheat it up a bit. I take a deep breath and ground myself, which is crucial because it establishes the firm foundation on which the rest of the audition is built. Most callbacks will require you to prepare sides, which are great because they add some spontaneity to the process. If given ahead of time, I’ll usually be 90% off book after reviewing them into the ground. The pro: you have the luxury of time to experiment and play with different choices. The con: the more set your choices are, the harder it is to be flexible in the room. With a cold read, you’re lucky if you’ve time enough to read the sides twice beforehand. That said, I prefer these! The pro: cold reads allow for a genuine sense of discovery in which the team and I experience the text together. Trust your gut instincts as they are often the most natural choice. The con: heightened nerves from not having worked the text often lead to rushing and fumbling.
From beginning to end and everything in between, an actor’s greatest asset is confidence. Rather than a cocky bravado, it’s a cool conviction that illuminates your work and holds attention. It’s the confidence that comes from choosing the appropriate material, making informed acting choices, and having fun! Be your best you and the rest is in their hands.
Whether you’re auditioning for a regional production of South Pacific or the pre-Broadway workshop of the next Hamilton (Hamilton II: Peggy’s Revenge), you need to prepare your music and be able to confidently speak to an accompanist.
Let’s start with your sheet music. Sheet music is a wonderful tool as it allows you to communicate with the person playing the piano clearly and efficiently. Sheet music is also a coy and dangerous mistress because there is potential for disaster!
Step 1: Find the sheet music for the song you are going to sing. Just because the accompanist knows “Younger Than Springtime” by heart, doesn’t mean that s/he will be able to play it from memory (in your key) after four hours of playing auditions. Set yourself up for success by having the things you need.
Step 2: Make sure your music is incredibly clean and legible. It’s best to keep separate copies of each song for a 16-bar, 32-bar, and full song audition. If you have more than one cut marked in the same piece of music, there’s potential for the pianist to misread the cut and start or stop in the incorrect place, leaving you looking unprepared. If you start your cut in the middle of a song, make sure to write the title of the song at the top of the page. If I know what song it is, usually I can be ready to start right away. If I can’t tell, my instinct is to flip pages back until I see the title, which eats up time. When copying music from an oversized book, make sure to reduce it. The magic ratio here is usually 93%. Telling the copy machine to reduce the image by this ratio ensures that all the notes on the page will copy.
Step 3: Put the song in the key for you. If you don’t sing the song in the key that it’s written, please transpose it or hire someone to transpose it. Once again, just because the accompanist can transpose on sight, doesn’t mean that they’ll want to be your best friend when you ask them to play “Astonishing” in C-flat major.
Step 4: Make sure that your binder is clean and organized. Most of the auditions I play are those that I’m also musically directing or casting. If you are someone I don’t know, I’m unlikely to consider you for a role if your binder has ripped pages and candy wrappers popping out of every nook and cranny. What I love to see are dividers between songs, a clearly marked table of contents and extra resumes and headshots in the front pocket of the binder so I can learn more about you while you’re doing your monologue or talking to the people behind the table.
Once your sheet music and binder are at their best, and you’ve gotten up early and dreamed your musical theatre dreams, it’s time to get to the audition and talk to the accompanist.
First off, the pianist wants you to be good. The pianist is your friend. The pianist wants you to be the person they are looking for. The pianist wants you to be a fantastic singer that is a joy to collaborate with. The pianist wants to dance with you on the opening night party of your big hit show. Okay, some pianists don’t care either way, but there will always be one jaded person lurking in the corner with their thumb in a pie. Your job is to be kind to them anyway because this business is small and theatre people talk!
The goal of your conversation with the pianist is to convey the necessary information in a pleasant, succinct, and efficient way. Say hello, introduce yourself, put your binder on the piano and open your binder to the page you’re singing from.
Now it’s time to give a tempo. Here are terrible ways to give the tempo and annoy your new musical collaborator: clap, snap, hit the piano, hit the wall, or hit anything within reach. Even if you are a conductor, don’t conduct at the pianist. First off, you’re too close in proximity and it’s uncomfortable and not the most efficient way to win here. Simply sing a line or two of your song. If the pianist has questions, they will ask. Remember, unless it’s brand new or a secret the accompanist probably knows the song. Even then, we might know it because most of us are nerds who can’t help ourselves.
If there’s anything unusual in your cut, i.e., huge stops in the music, rubato sections, etc., make sure to explain that to your pianist before you sing. Then take the room, slate, and nod to your pianist when you’re ready for him or her to start playing. Sing your song, be brilliant, say “thank you” to the room, and thank the pianist and leave. Seriously. Even if your pianist had pie plate hands and played your song like a drunken baby, you need to politely say thank you before leaving.
Finally, here’s the number one mistake I see in the room: You forget your binder! Please remember to get your binder from the piano. It looks bad when you get halfway out the door and then say, “Oh crap, I forgot my binder…why do I ruin everything OMG!?” Especially after you’ve had a lovely audition and everyone in the room is considering where they can put you in their season.