Expectations of Musical Theatre Singers


Singing in Musical Theatre Today

As one of the growing numbers of young artists who dream of doing professional musical theatre, I'm sure you’ve listened to cast albums, seen as many shows in New York and regionally as you can, watched DVDs and spent hours on YouTube. Watching and listening is the best way to learn and get inspired. But perhaps it has also left you a bit confused or even frustrated. You might wonder, “How could I ever sing as beautifully as he does?” or "Will I ever be able to belt as high as she can?” You might even wonder how some actors landed the role in the first place. I will attempt to address these questions.

You may have wondered about the expectations in professional Musical Theatre today? If you’ve listened to cast albums from the past, you must have observed that there were some outstanding singers and then some singers who, let’s face it, were not great. Does that mean that anything goes and that you just have to be in the right place at the right moment? Please know that the performance standards and expectations of the past were dramatically different than they are today. Today, expectations of range, flexibility, stamina and vocal variety are exceedingly high. But do not fret. I want to help you identify the skills to be aware of as you work toward your career goals. No one expects you to be able to do everything when you start.

Forty or fifty years ago, the magical ideal of the so-called Triple-Threat did not exist as it does today in people like Sutton Foster and Gavin Creel. Performers from earlier generations were often actors who could sing (Alfred Drake, Mary Martin, Angela Lansbury) or singers with acting skills (Barbara Cook and Julie Andrews) or dancers who could sing (Ray Bolger and Gwen Verdon). They might also be people with big, star-making personalities who could also sing (Ethyl Merman and Carol Channing). But in the last 20 years, the art of musical theatre has changed. In most cases, you will be expected to sing, dance and act with great skill. The expectations especially for singers has risen dramatically in our lifetimes because music, and especially vocal music, has inundated the public's consciousness. American Idol and Broadway smashes like Wicked and The Book Of Mormon have changed the landscape. The rapid growth of university Musical Theatre training means there are more singers ready to work. Musical Theatre as an art form isn’t something that people studied 25 years ago, but universities and conservatories are graduating large numbers of well trained young professionals who are ready to work.

What are the expectations for younger artists entering the business today? How can I integrate my talent, curiosity and passion. I advise starting with knowing your art form. This would include knowing the most important shows, possessing a deep knowledge of the literature and a familiarity with the singing actors who are working today and in the last twenty years (or more.) Become a student of their recordings and live performances by dissecting their performances and applying it to your work. You will want to devote a considerable percent of your energies toward being a better singer, actor and dancer. This is a daily discipline. Take voice lessons, get into an acting class, take as many dance classes as you can. Then you must go out there and do it. Take a role in a small production. Go to auditions. Join an improv group. Know that failure at each step along the way is part of the process. Embrace it and keep a positive attitude.

Now let’s break down the industry expectations so you can know what to work toward.

The Necessary Musical Skills

Strong musicianship
In order to work and work consistently, you will need a solid understanding of the mechanics of music and have the ability to translate notation into a performance. In the past, there were any number of working professionals who didn't read music. But now, with the rising costs of mounting a production and the speed at which shows are rehearsed, things are different. You are not expected to sight read music flawlessly, but you are expected to read music, understand all the symbols and terminology and to be able to learn music independently. If you cannot do this, you are expected to hire a coach. There simply isn't enough time for a musical director to teach you every note. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to learn a new song, not memorized necessarily, in two days or less. If you can't, you will frustrate yourself and the folks who hire you. 

Pitch accuracy and intonation 
Musical Theatre is a live art form. In the last 20 or 30 years, the quality and accuracy of singing has risen to a very high level. Audiences, raised on television and the internet are sophisticated and demanding. Work on this skill in voice lessons or with a vocal coach. Becoming obsessive about it can work to your disadvantage, but you will want to improve in this area if you aren't naturally skilled.

Vocal Range and Style

The dividing line between soprano, mezzo, tenor and baritone we all grew up with is blurred in modern practice. But please don't misunderstand me. People are sopranos, mezzos, tenors or baritones but everyone is expected to be able to sing nearly anything within reason. To be marketable, you will need a very strong classical technique that allows the voice to move freely with resonance and vibrancy. Work to expand your range. Practice singing with vibrancy and without. Practice transitioning from a non-vibrant sound to full vibrancy. Practice singing at different volumes. You will want a vocal technique that can easily access a wide variety of vocal colors in response to your acting choices.

Sopranos should be able to sing comfortably from G3 (below middle C) to C6 or D6 (above the staff) in Bel Canto style. Bel Canto is a style of singing characterized by beauty of tone. Legato and evenness across the registers are its trademarks. Sopranos should also have a strong mix able to carry the chest voice up moderately high with volume and minimum vibrancy but without pushing. If you are able to move over into belt, that's great but a very strong, powerful mix that can sound like belt is the bread and butter for the modern soprano. 

Mezzos should be able to sing comfortably from E3 (below middle C) to A6 or B6 (at the top of the staff) in Bel Canto. They should also have a very strong mix able to carry the chest voice up moderately high with volume and minimum vibrancy but without pushing. Belt is expected with true mezzos but avoid unnecessary strain on the voice at all costs. 

Tenors should be able to sing comfortably from G2 to C5 or D5 in Bel Canto. The challenge for tenors is always singing above the staff. Work to be able to produce a variety of sounds in the upper range that includes a lyrical sound, a soft/tender sound (approaching falsetto without being too flute-y) and a powerful high range, sometimes called male-belt. Fairly or not, the quality at the top of the range is how tenors are evaluated. 

Baritones should be able to sing comfortably from E2 to Bb5 in Bel Canto. Okay young baritones, are you sitting down? This might seem like bad news, but it doesn't have to be. Traditionally, the baritone is usually associated with older character types like the Antihero (Billy in Carousel, Sweeney in Sweeney Todd or Paul in Carnival), Leading Man (Curley in OKLAHOMA!, Emile in South Pacific or Coalhouse in Ragtime) or the buffo (Trevor Greydon in Thoroughly Modern Millie or Ivan in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). These roles usually go to men in their 40s or older. But there are many working younger baritones who have found a new, more youthful approach that is closer to what we generally think of from tenors. Sometimes this range is referred to as the Baritenor. The Baritenor is one of the most frequent ranges in modern theatre. It combines the best qualities of each—strong singing in the lower range mixed with the ability to sing beautifully above the staff. If you are a true baritone, don't try to be a tenor but, unless you are singing one of these older roles, lighten up as you go higher. 

For many modern shows, the ensemble is required to have an extensive range. For ensemble singing in recent shows like Wicked, In the Heights and Jersey Boys, vocal arrangers are asking the ensemble to sing much higher than in the past. Sopranos will need an easy C or D, tenors are kept above the staff much of the time and baritones are treated like second tenors.

Part Singing

All singers should to be able to sing parts and hold down their part securely. Men should be able to sing both tenor and bass depending on the needs of the ensemble and women need to be able to sing soprano and alto. Creating a balanced ensemble can be challenging for musical directors since casts aren't assembled with an eye toward equal forces on each part. You won't be asked to sing outside your range but you will be expected to be flexible.

Rock Styles

In most cases now, singers are expected to be able to sing in Rock styles and be able to riff. You might think that people are simply gifted with the Rock sound but this is a singing style, like others, that can be learned. I would encouraged you to pick up Sherry Saunder’s book, Rock the Audition, for more information about Rock singing.

Vocal Colors
Vocal colors is a term I like to use when describing the virtually infinite ways the voice can produce sound. Changes in dynamics, vibrancy, resonance and host of other things create dramatically different sounds. In dramatic singing, vocal colors are an incredibly powerful tool in communicating meaning and subtext. In a later chapter, I discuss Vocal Colors in detail.

In classical singing, traditionally there is a focus on unity across registers with a similar color throughout that is fully vibrant and resonant. The best opera and art song singers are aware of the power of allowing colors to change for the sake of communication, such as varying the rate of vibrato, brilliance, the prominence of consonants and others ways. But, by and large, the Bel Canto style values beauty at all costs. But for the musical theatre singer, character, text and story-telling are more important than pure sound. Beauty of sound is valued if the moment calls for it. But more than anything, the singer must sing in a manner that is consistent with their character's truth in that moment. If the character is fearful, the voice can and should reflect it. If you are joyful, the voice wants to sound joyful too.

Skills Needed for a Professional Career

  1. You will need to possess a knowledge of the Musical Theatre literature that includes Musical Theatre composers and the most significant musicals.

  2. You will need a process for preparing a song for theatrical performance. 

  3. You will need to know how to prepare a role.

  4. You will need to be able to sing in all, or at least many, of Musical Theatre styles: Legit musical theatre, Musical Comedy style, Rock and Pop, Contemporary musical theatre and Post-Millennium).

  5. You will need to be able to riff. Strictly speaking, the skill won't be required of absolutely everyone in the market today, but it will put you a step ahead of your competition if you can do it.

  6. You will need to be a dancer, or at least a mover, and be able to combine movement with singing. You will need this skill to be a good ensemble member. You can only acquire this skill by disciplined dance class attendance and doing productions.

  7. You will need strong audition skills as well as an understanding of the business of theatre. A well crafted book of songs you love to sing which highlight your particular brand and skill set is perhaps your best asset.

  8. You will need to know who you are as an artist and what makes you unique and special.

  9. You will need an understanding of music theory and posses strong musicianship. If you went to school for Musical Theatre, you took Theory and Musicianship classes. If you didn't, you will need to work on this skill on your own. It's really not as hard as you might think. 

Who Are You?

How am I to discover what makes me unique and special and how can I use that information in my career? Self-awareness can be difficult and some people have it more naturally than others. You can begin by taking stock of your best attributes--both your skills and your best personal attributes. Engage your friends and family to help by comparing your list of  your best qualities to how they see you. Include attributes like your sense of humor, how you engage with the world and how you handle conflict. What are the things you are not good at? Now let's ask some tougher questions. Are you a person of faith? What is your sexual identity? What are you most passionate about?

These are precisely the kinds of things you would never share with a stranger and you might not even share it with some friends. But these are precisely the things that make us who we are. I strongly believe you are a complex, talented, beautiful, and sometimes messy person every time you walk into an audition room. You can celebrate your integrated humanity with a stranger in an audition but only if you have taken the time to know and accept yourself, completely. I invite you to do engage in auditioning with the knowledge that you are an interesting and worthwhile person. Be yourself, completely.  

Casting agents want to see interesting and unique people. Don't try to be like everyone else. This is good news and bad news. It's hard to be open and vulnerable at an audition. You're being judged after all. But do it. Be open and be yourself. 

Hallmarks of Professionalism

A professional in the performing arts... 

  1. has an endless curiosity about the world around them and the people with whom they share the planet.  

  2. has empathy for others. 

  3. is passionate about their work without becoming obsessive and self-destructive. 

  4. has the ability to work when tired, angry, frustrated or distracted.

  5. is capable of dealing with adversity in their career and relationships.

  6. has strong opinions but is able to see another side of things without losing their own point of view. 

  7. seeks to find the positive in every experience.  

  8. has strong character—the complex of mental and ethical traits marking quality and resilience.

  9. is disciplined, even when they don't see immediate results.  

  10. is responsible and carries through on agreed tasks.