Welcome to Stage Door Shrink, a regular column aimed at helping performers chortle their way to a #win.
Before I interviewed Guy Simpson, I sat down and thought about what I’ve learned about audition material over the years.
To choose good audition material, you have to be brutally self-aware. Know your strengths (for me whistling and contortionism), and weaknesses (clothing coordination and anything that requires upper body strength). This knowledge will help you select audition material that showcases your strengths and hides weaknesses. Unfortunately, this means I have to check every audition outfit with at least 2 other people as my taste is questionable at best- Chris Scalzo has called it ‘young mum taking her kids to WetnWild.’
My year 12 music teacher, Mrs Carter, counselled me against singing songs largely famous for one rendition. That didn’t stop me from singing Nessun Dorma by Puccini for my HSC exam – I fell in love with it after hearing it on a Qantas commercial in the late 90s. The fact that I did not sing Opera, did not know Italian and was not a tenor were all irrelevant. It complimented Journey to The Past perfectly. The problem is, unless I sang Nessun Dorma better than Pavarotti, which let’s be honest, I may have, the panel are so familiar with Pav’s version that it is impossible not to compare us. And I probably came off as second best. Probably.
I often get lost searching for that elusive, perfect audition song. You know the one: the panel hasn’t heard it 32 times, belts to an E, sopranos to a C, has a few good jokes and probably cut from a massively successful show. That challenge is like watching Sex and the City 2 and not being revolted in every way – an impossible task. Auditions are all about not giving the panel a reason to raise an eyebrow in concern. If you can belt an F#, but sometimes crack- do not risk it! If you have the luxury (read: paralysing anxiety) of selecting your own material, use that gift wisely and choose well!
Choose safe. Choose familiar. Choose early. I personally choose short – keep them wanting more.
According to Guy Simpson
Guy Simpson may as well be the Billy Elliot of musical direction. Born in the north of England to a non-musical family, he moved to Australia at age 12, where at his sports high school, you did not play music! After falling in love with the piano, he studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. In the final year of his degree, Richard Gill recommended him for a role as Musical Director (MD) at the Marian Street Theatre in Sydney, to which Guy replied, “What’s an MD?’
After playing Ravel at the audition and admitting his limited knowledge about musicals, he didn’t get the job. Years later Guy accepted a role Assisting Peter Casey (MD) on Cats, before becoming MD for the Melbourne season in 1987. After having 2 children while on tour, Guy accepted an Assistant MD role on The Phantom of the Opera. Two years later he became MD.
Guy went on to MD Miss Saigon, Chicago, We Will Rock You, Cabaret, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Zorba, Love Never Dies, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Musical Supervisor), Passion and countless others for The Production Company. He is currently the Musical Supervisor for The Phantom of the Opera in this part of the world, having opened 20 productions. Guy has recently turned his hand to writing and is currently working on an exciting new project adapting a famous book to stage.
Needless to say, Guy has sat on plenty of audition panels. Here are his top 10 tips for selecting good audition material.
1. Know the show you are auditioning for
Remember that to some extent, you are judged on your song choice. What you sing shows the panel how much research you have done. Specifically, that you know the requirements of the show or the character you are being considered for. For example, if you are going in for Christine in The Phantom, you should know she has to sing a top E, and your audition song should reflect that.
2. Create an audition portfolio and bring in several options
Have a folder with 5-6 different songs in it, that show off different aspects of yourself as a performer. Come into the room with a good idea of what you’d like to sing first. Often we want to hear something else, or a different vocal quality. Don’t say you only brought one song. If you get asked to sing something else, that is a very good sign.
3. Visit a repertoire coach
Performers should be investing in their career and visiting a repertoire coach each fortnight or month, to keep on top of new material and to add to your audition portfolio. A Repertoire Coach will have a greater breadth of repertoire knowledge than you and will help you find interesting material that is suitable for your voice. This also ensures that you have sung your audition songs through with an accompanist who will be able to mark any cuts for you.
4. Familiarise yourself with the score before you audition
As early as possible, start listening to the cast recording. That way when you’re given material to learn in 3 days for a callback, you already know it. If the panel do give you material to learn, then be off book. Don’t hold the music. Stay up all night and learn it if you have to. You will impress the panel. On that note, if you are given music to prepare, make sure you learn the dots on the page, not what someone sings on the cast recording. This is very important and the panel will notice the difference.
5. Cut your music clearly
If necessary, get someone else to write the cuts in i.e a repertoire coach or singing teacher. Along with this, always treat the accompanist well. You are a team in the audition. Almost everyone is polite to the panel, but some performers treat the accompanist like a servant. Such behaviour is telling.
6. Choose songs that are easy to sightread
Lots of music coming from contemporary American theatre composers is too tricky for even the best accompanist to sight read on the spot. If the accompanist makes a mistake, do not shoot them a dirty look. Believe me, we are not blaming them for the mistake, we are blaming you for bringing music too complicated. Be kind, considerate and decent to the accompanist. Part of that is choosing music easy to sight read.
7. Sing material you know well and are comfortable with
You will sing it better, there will be less chance of forgetting the words and you will perform confidently. Be confident without being cocky. An MD can tell if you can sing by the end of the first phrase. After that, they look for connection with the lyric, control, how you work with the pianist etc… If you relax, they will relax. The panel do not assume that what you audition with is all you can do. I.e. if you belt, I do not immediately assume you cannot sing Soprano. There are very few songs that show everything – and they are generally overdone. If I want to hear another quality of your voice, I will ask to hear another song (another good reason to have a 6 song portfolio). Some MDs prefer to sing scales, I like to hear another song. If you are asked for another song, you should immediately know the most impressive part of that song- normally we will not ask for a whole second song. You should have it already marked/cut and tell the pianist where to go from. Do not ask us which part we would like to hear.
8. Sing something that suits you and suits the show
If those two things are not the same, you probably won’t be cast anyway. Confident performers know this distinction. If you are the world’s best and shiniest red delicious apple, but we are looking for an orange, unfortunately it does not matter how crunchy you are – you are just not right.
9. Sing something in the correct key for you
Accompanists are not on the spot transposers (even if a few are exceptionally gifted and can do it). With websites such as musicnotes.com, there is no excuse to get this wrong. You can try a song in every key before you buy it.
10. Learn to read music
If you can learn basic French in a 10 week course to get by overseas, you can do the same for reading music. Not only will you learn music faster, pick up harmonies more quickly, learn specifics better, but when it comes time to give notes, we will be speaking the same language. Take a course in musicianship. Sometimes there is an attitude amongst singers that they do not need to read music. That being said there are some exceptional singers who do not read music but it will make your life and my life easier. Can you imagine a pianist who could not read music? Your voice is your instrument, and reading music should be part of your craft. This will also make everything easier when you select audition music because you will quickly be able to ascertain if songs are in a good key and within your range.
If you liked this advice column, why not check out Rachel Cole’s previous Stage Door Shrink article How To Deal With Knock Backs