I’ve observed the Milwaukee Generals for the better part of twenty years now. The one aspect I’ve never opined on is the musical theatre auditions. I’m not of that world and don’t pretend to be. That having been said, I’ve noted some good, bad, and curious along the way, and wanted to add to some of the dos and don’ts of auditioning. But as I’ve already expressed, I’m not of that world, so I thought I’d ask some folks to weigh in who are of that world. Please note that while this article is about musical theatre auditions in general, it is also specific to the Milwaukee Generals. And as we have four different folk coming at these questions from different angles, there are bound to be some differences of opinion.

 

And for those unfamiliar with the process, the Milwaukee Generals are a day of auditioning set up and run by the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. It is a chance for actors to be seen by over twenty theatre companies, in which the auditionee is given a four-minute slot to perform two contrasting pieces.

 

Here are the folks weighing in on this article.

 

Diane Lane

Diane is always at the top of the list when folks are looking for some vocal training. A gifted singer and comedian, she’s always the most watchable actor on stage. Diane has a BM in Music Education and an MM in Vocal Performance (classical singing). She also graduated from a Feldenkrais Method training (movement education). During and right after grad school, Diane was an apprentice and then a resident artist with several opera companies — this led to future gigs. Singing has always been her favorite thing.

 

Jill Anna Ponasik

Jill Anna is a force in every production she directs. Inventive, enthusiastic, and driven, her shows are a delight to behold. Though she was a super-shy, arts-infatuated kid, Jill Anna was fascinated by the process of art-making, be it visual or performing arts.  When she had to pick a major, she chose music, receiving degrees in music performance, but in both undergrad and grad school she would get reprimanded by her teachers for spending too much time outside of the department doing theatre and dance.  Jill Anna never thought she would work as an administrator, but when she moved back to Milwaukee in 2009, an opportunity at Milwaukee Opera Theatre appeared, and by giving it a try, she discovered that it was a much better fit for her than performing.

 

David Bonofiglio

I’ve watched David accompany the Milwaukee Generals over the last several years. A consummate professional, I’ve seen him bend over backwards to get it right for the auditionee. In the rare case where things go sideways, he’s unflappable, calmly halting the process, and doing his best to get the audition back on track. David received his undergraduate degree in piano performance from Cardinal Stritch University. He started working professionally as a pianist and music director in 2005, and has worked steadily in Milwaukee since then for most of the companies in town.

 

Paul Helm

Paul is a charming performer and accompanist with a million-dollar smile. He started playing piano when he was four – first by ear, then he took lessons. Paul kept training up until his junior year of high school, when schedules were consumed with numerous school groups and activities, yet he never stopped playing (a huge part of why he’s still doing it today). Paul caught the theatre “bug,” during that junior year, when he decided to audition for his high school production of Bye Bye Birdie. From there, he got involved with community theatres throughout southeastern Wisconsin, minored in Theatre in college (but majored in Mass Communication), and landed his first professional theatrical job performing in the chorus of the Florentine Opera in 1999. After graduating from UW-Milwaukee in 2002, he worked in Public Affairs at a medical college for about two years until he decided to pursue a “starving artist” life full-time in May 2004. Ever since, he’s led a successful career as an Equity actor, director, music director and pianist, both nationally and internationally. After calling Wisconsin home for thirty-eight years, he made the move to New York City in 2017 to further his career as an actor and musician.

 

 

Fletcher: How do you approach an audition where you are the accompanist? Or rather is the Milwaukee Generals a different beast? You don’t know what’s coming at you, so how do you prepare for such a thing, and how is it different than an audition for a specific show?

 

Paul: In general, I try to stay as knowledgeable and “current” as I can with the musical theatre scene. While I’ve educated myself extensively with the musicals of years past, I also try to stay up to date with the musicals of today. I’m a glutton for shows of the old-fashioned caliber, but nowadays, the Broadway scene is more contemporary, and I think it’s important to embrace that genre, especially when so many auditions I play for implore that kind of style and sound. It’s crucial that I continue to brush-up on my sight-reading skills, and the more informed I can be of the musical theatre world, both past and present, the more I will feel prepared with whatever piece comes my way.  When I’m playing auditions for a specific show, auditionees tend to bring in selections in the style of the show or by the same composer, and sometimes, even from the specific show itself. Again, I prepare myself as much as possible to be as familiar with the show, its musical style, the composer’s history, etc. before even entering the room. When it’s an audition like the Milwaukee Generals, the song spectrum will be much broader, so again, keeping my musical theatre knowledge as extensive as possible is imperative.

 

Fletcher: Diane, how do you approach an audition? Do you choose a number from the show you are auditioning for, or a number from another show that has similar characteristics?

 

Diane: I try not to audition! <Wink!> When I recently have, it’s been for a particular show, and I was asked to sing certain sections of the score. (Most Milwaukee music theater auditioners seem to request “32 bars of a song in the style of the show.”)

 

Fletcher: You say you try not to audition. Do you mean you don’t like to audition? I certainly don’t, and would always rather be called in to read for a specific part, or better yet, just be cast, but I don’t want to speak for you.

 

Diane: Because I’m not as hungry to perform as I was when younger, I tend to audition only when invited to sing/read for a particular role in a show — I haven’t done a general audition in years. (However, when I was starting out, I auditioned regularly and loved doing so.)

 

Fletcher: Jill Anna, what would you rather see? A song for this particular production or something else?

 

Jill Anna: If they want to sing a piece from the show, great! In a way, that makes my job easier. But there is value in offering variety as well. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong here.

 

Fletcher: Paul, how about you? When folks are auditioning for a specific show, do you think it’s better for them to sing something from that show, or choose a song with a similar flair from another production?

 

Paul: This has always been a constant debate, and I, too, go back and forth with my thoughts on this. First and foremost, I’m a big believer in an actor singing what they sing well. It is sometimes discouraged for an actor to sing a song from the show they’re auditioning for, often for fear of typecasting. However, if you rock at singing a song from the show, then by all means, you should sing it! For any audition, you only have the one chance to shine and promote yourself, so sing what will show you off. Unless the audition listing specifically says to not sing a song from the show, I would never be opposed to it. Still, I also believe singing a song in the style of the show can be a tremendous benefit.  Knowing that many others will sing a song from the show (often the same song repeatedly throughout the day), the actor singing a different song in the style of the show will stand out from the others. It also demonstrates that the actor is someone who prepares, which ultimately goes a lot further in the long run (i.e. professional, hirable, educated, etc.). But in the end, no matter what, the right choice in song is to sing what you sing best.

 

Fletcher: Jill Anna, you told me that you hate auditions and prefer other ways to get to know an artist, but when push comes to shove, how do you set it up in a typical audition process?

 

Jill Anna: Over time, it has occurred to me that the traditional audition process may not be the best way to build the cast for a production. So, when push comes to shove, we still don’t hold auditions at MOT. If we need to hear someone sing something, we’re usually able to get that done using Voice Lab. I only participate in auditions when I am part of a project for another organization or attending something like a general audition.

 

Fletcher: David, what’s your opinion on the selection for an auditionee?

 

David: Sing what is requested. If the creative team wants to hear the show, then sing the show. There are often specific qualities or abilities that we are looking for (the end of Chip’s Lament in Putnam, for example). If they ask for a similar style or composer, sing that.

 

If nothing is specified, sing something that shows your voice and its strengths. E.g. If you’re reading for Bobby in Company, then by all means sing a verse of “Being Alive” if you have it prepared. We’re going to hear you sing it eventually.

 

Fletcher: How important is the “acting” of the audition piece as opposed to a recital of the piece?

 

Jill Anna: I think it’s vital. Otherwise you’re not performing the piece, you’re just singing a song.

 

Diane: It depends on the auditioning company’s artistic values and the repertoire we’re singing, but, to me, investing deeply in the scene of a song almost always enhances the singing of it (and certainly betters the resulting performance). Short Answer: Seriously Important.

 

Paul: Extremely. In audition workshops, I constantly remind actors that a singing audition is a monologue set to music. While yes, we need to see the level of your musical abilities, it is just as important to see how you tell the story through singing, which honestly is often harder than a straight monologue. I believe that if you can convincingly act your song to the extent that I forget it’s a performance, that’s the kind of actor I want to work with.

 

David: In a general audition for a season or the Milwaukee Generals, fully staging the scene as if you are in performance isn’t helpful. What I want to see is if a singer knows what they are singing and what the progress of thought is for the character. What does the character begin the song and where do they end up? Don’t run around the room or gesticulate madly. Just show me with your voice, face and a few well-placed gestures that you know the internal movement the character makes during the song. I’m interested in your internal process and how you externalize it, not your ability to execute blocking.

 

Fletcher: Would you rather work with a singer that can’t act, or a non-singer that can carry a tune, but can act up a storm?

 

David: This is role dependent. Bea Arthur could barely sing, but she was a hell of a Yente. Some actors don’t draw an audience in with text work, but I’ll ignore that because they sound so great.  Casting is the dark art that compares the ratios of many factors until you find a ratio you think will tell the story best.

 

Jill Anna: Well, a fully integrated artist who can dance gracefully between the demands of singing and the demands of acting is ideal.  That said, I love working with casts who have a varied array of skills. Some may be expert at singing, others may be movers, some may be learning music by ear, but have a spectacular gift with spoken text.  The important thing is that we form a rehearsal group where we’re all using our individual skills to elevate the collective whole. So, to answer your question, I have no preference, as long as the artist is interested in expanding those capacities.

 

Paul: Tough question. Because music has been such a large part of my life, you would think I would prefer a singer that can sort of act. But going back to my answer to the previous question, what good is a song if there’s no story or meaning behind it? Sure, it may sound beautiful, or catchy, or become an earworm that you can’t get out of your head. But ultimately, if I’m pulled in by solid storytelling, I often don’t even notice that a note or two are pitchy, or any indication that the actor is not a trained or experienced singer. So, if I had to pick, it’s the non-singer that can carry a tune, but acts up a storm, that would be my go-to. In theatre, good storytelling is key. I can often work on better vocal habits with a non-singer than I can develop strong acting chops with a non-actor.

 

Diane: The latter, the latter, the latter. Even if we’re performing a traditional-opera stand-and-sing duet. (Let’s open our songholes to say something.)

 

Fletcher: Songholes! I love it! You train singers. How quickly can one really learn a new song?

 

Diane: It sure depends on the song, and how musically-knowledgeable and -experienced the singer is but a, say, Tin Pan Alley ditty, can be “learned” in maybe 15 to 20 minutes. (I think memorization involves returning to the piece several times a day [for a few days?] to keep finding out what we haven’t yet learned until the piece is completely remembered.)

 

Fletcher: Jill Anna, how important is the accompanist in an audition? What do you need or expect from them?

 

Jill Anna: In the types of pieces I do, the pianist is very important.  In fact, the pianist is sometimes the music director, so they’re experiencing what it’s like to work with that artist during their audition.  The top-notch audition pianists are ready for anything, and laser focused on supporting the singer-actor.

 

Fletcher: Diane, when auditioning, how specific are you with the accompanist? In the brief time you are given, and it really does seem brief, what specifics do you focus on?

 

Diane: I think Less Is More (I wouldn’t overload a pianist with information). Do let them know exactly how you’d like them to begin your song (sustain starting pitch? sustain opening chord? two-bar intro?) I think tempi guidance is everything. (I wish every singer determined/wrote a metronome marking at the top of their songs and, moreover, that every audition accompanist had a metronome on their piano. [I think it’s almost impossible for a singer to verbally convey their tempo to a pianist.]) Do make internal cuts 100% true and clear. PS: Please remove those plastic sheet protectors from your book. Highlighting any key changes and sudden/dramatic shifts wouldn’t be bad.

 

Fletcher: Have you ever gone off track due to you and the accompanist not being on the same page, and if so, do you know what went wrong?

 

Diane: These days, when an audition pianist and I aren’t in sync, it’s usually because I didn’t make my tempi clear to them. (Again, I dream of metronomes being part of audition rooms.)

 

Fletcher: As an accompanist in an audition, what kind of pressure do you feel to get it right? And what can auditionees do to help you out? I know there’s not a lot of time to confer, but what do pros get right that newbies could learn from?

 

Paul: I certainly feel the pressure, as I want to play my best for the auditionee so they can perform their best. However, it’s not always that easy. Some auditionees will bring in a song that they kick ass at vocally, but the accompaniment is much more complicated. And if I butcher that, it can certainly affect the auditionee’s overall performance. That’s not fair to them.  o to avoid that, I always recommend actors to bring in sheet music that is 1) clearly marked (a start, an end, and tempo or time signature changes throughout), 2) easy to access (put in a three-ring binder, or taped together to minimalize any page turns, if at all), and 3) includes chord symbols (the “cheat sheet” for any accompanist who may not be familiar with the song). If I need to sort of cheat my way through a piece that I’ m not as familiar with, at least I can keep the tempo and piece going with the added benefit of chord symbols. While it’s never required, be aware that it can only help the auditionee. If the accompanist is given these necessary elements in order to perform at his or her best, then the auditionee will be able to perform at his or her best. It’s a win-win. I also encourage auditionees to politely indicate tempo while chatting with the accompanist (i.e. tap the beats on your hand, sing a little of the piece to establish tempo, never snap the tempo, etc.) and to be courteous. Remember that the accompanist is there to help you and may be seeing the piece for the first time. And while there still could be a mistake or two from the pianist (certainly never intentional), don’t ever show your disapproval. Hence, it’s always important to rehearse your song with an accompanist before you audition, just so you’re not thrown any “surprises.” The accompaniment doesn’t always sound like it does on the cast recording.

 

David: I feel enormous pressure to help the auditionee get it right. I wish I could run through everyone’s cut with them, but there simply isn’t time. Also, the folks behind the table want you to be awesome so they can know they have a role cast.

 

To help your pianist, realize there IS some time to confer. It might feel like an eternity, but if your tune is the slightest bit unfamiliar to the pianist, take the time to walk through it. The most important information you can give is the tempo and style. Practice giving the tempo and feel of the INTRO, not your vocal line. When the pianist asks for your tempo, please do not say “The usual one.” You must know this information, especially with contemporary repertoire that not everyone knows.

 

Contemporary music theatre is very groove oriented and if I’ve never heard your tune, I’ll need help establishing what you want. I’m a piano, not a drum set and guitar, so things don’t always translate easily on the first pass. Say something like “This is in a moderate four (then tap or snap the tempo softly but accurately). The intro is Da, da DAADAA (approximate the groove by speaking it) and then I come in.” Where you stretch or change tempi is less important to mention. I’ll probably figure it out when we get there. If we don’t start well, we probably won’t end well.

 

When choosing rep, don’t choose cuts with multiple abrupt tempo changes. These are very difficult to make happen on the first pass.

 

Auditions are job interviews, not recitals. Find repertoire that best shows your voice and character ability. Don’t sing a song just because you love it on the cast album. Directors don’t want to hear the most obscure Pasek and Paul trunk song you can find. We want to hear something we can use to evaluate your storytelling ability for a particular production.

 

“If I Loved You” from Carousel continues to be one of the best choices you can make for an audition (male and female). I hear your range, acting ability and vocal quality. I’ve heard countless people sing it and it still shows me everything I need to know about someone’s musical theatre voice.

 

“Common” is not necessarily “bad”.

 

Fletcher: I’ve always been told that one is not supposed to sing a song acapella. Can you explain why?

 

Paul: Singing a song acapella won’t tell me how well the actor works with music. It’s easy to sing flat or sharp without an accompaniment. So, when this happens, I have to wonder if that’s because the actor is not a musician at all (accompaniment or not), or is it just because they don’t have music behind them to guide them? It’s also easy to go off tempo without accompaniment. When an actor sings freely acapella, I will have no idea what the actual tempo is and if they can stick to it. In short, an actor singing with accompaniment allows me to see the extent of their musicality, which can be difficult to decipher from an audition without.

 

Jill Anna: I have heard successful a cappella auditions. They are certainly possible. But if a pianist is available, that resource should be used. Working with the pianist demonstrates that you are familiar and comfortable with the song as a whole, not just your vocal line.

 

Diane: I don’t know why. I think that if you can start your song in its key (if this is important to the piece/audition), and maintain the piece’s key while you perform it, why not sing unaccompanied? (Flip Side: Singing a song a-cappella is not what’s actually gonna happen when you perform that song in its show. And all the auditions being accompanied, levels the playing field. Also, I think some companies feel requesting No A-cappella Auditions might discourage less-skilled performers from auditioning.)

 

David: I need to know if you can sing with an orchestra or band. It also generally indicates a lack of direct-able musicality.

 

Fletcher: I recently saw an auditionee accompany themselves on guitar. Related to my previous question, is this a bad idea?

 

Diane: If you’re doing a general audition for a company, and they’re planning on producing a show like Once or Pump Boys in the near future, accompanying yourself on guitar during one of your audition cuts can be a useful choice. But, ordinarily, I would not do this (playing an instrument while singing limits our acting choices).

 

Paul: It doesn’t bother me, to be honest. It shows their strong musicianship and skill level, and if the song has a folksy or rock style, it only can add to their performance. And it gives the accompanist a break! However, I don’t usually recommend accompanying yourself unless the audition specifically asks for it.

 

David: At a general multi-company call, I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all to show instrumental chops, if you are competent and aren’t weird about it. There are a lot of jukebox shows that call for actors that play instruments, especially if you are auditioning for companies that produce in tourist areas. If it’s at an audition for Sweeney Todd, it’s a terrible idea.

 

Jill Anna: That’s an unusual choice, and therefore risky, but if someone came in and played and sang well, and it made sense for them to be accompanying themselves on guitar…I would eat that up!

 

Fletcher: Is it better to go for that one really big note that you might not make, or to play it safe?

 

Diane: Show them what you can do really well versus what you’re still learning how to do.

 

Jill Anna:  Artists are aspirational.  Trying to do things we haven’t done before is part of what gets of us out of bed in the morning.  So I think aiming for that high note is serious and important business.  But an audition may not be the best environment to test one’s limits.  A strong audition song is something you can sing anytime in any circumstance.

 

Fletcher: I’ve seen any number of folk with perfectly fine voices (at least to my untrained ear) miss the high note and it’s always curious to me. Surely, they must know they can’t quite get there, so why pick that song? Or maybe they don’t know, and it’s nerves or something else that gets in the way. Any thoughts on that?

 

David: It’s best to select something that you can reliably execute so you don’t have to make the compromise in the first place. Everyone has an off day (weather, allergies, illness, bad luck) but you should have an audition book of a 4-6 tunes that you can sing perfectly at the drop of a hat, with minimal warmup. If a money note is only happening for you 75% of the time, don’t audition with that tune until its closer to 98%. Try different keys (this is cheap to do using Musicnotes). Sometimes a half step makes all the difference.

 

In an audition, I’m usually not against giving someone another run at a missed note if it sounds like it’s in there somewhere, but as a music director, I don’t want to cast someone who may or may not be able to execute a role reliably every night.

 

Sometimes it’s obvious that people have never recorded and listened to their audition cuts. Hope can be a dangerous thing.

 

Paul: Certainly happens more than I would like to think. I like to assume that it most often comes down to nerves, or perhaps they’re not fully warmed up, or they may be feeling ill. We’re all only human after all. Still, if those notes are not in your capabilities, whether it’s because they’re just not in your range, or your voice is not up to par for the day, don’t sing that piece. Again, you have that one chance to impress the auditioners, and if those high notes are going to come off as second-rate, especially with so many others also auditioning, what good will that do for your chances of getting cast? Truth be told, most auditioners can tell when a singer has “got it,” but is just under the weather. As much as I want to go in and knock it out of the park, if I’m not feeling those high notes today, I’m going to play is safe and sing a piece that’s solid and impressive. I’ll say it again: sing what you sing best. High, belty notes are not required. If you can do them to their full extent, go for it! If it’s not in the cards for you, don’t feel pressured to attempt it.

 

Fletcher: For a newbie, what’s the one thing you wish they knew that you’ve learned during the course of your career?

 

Jill Anna: That whether or not you are cast in a particular production has nothing to do with your worth as an artist.  In the moment, it may feel like the sky is falling, or you may think that you have “made it,” but it’s the small decisions, made day after day, for years at a time that build a career. Resilience is one of the most valuable skills you can hone, and you will use it often.

 

Paul: Be yourself. No question. In my early days, I thought I had to do what everyone else was doing, sound like everyone else, be just like everyone else. So fantastically untrue. What sets you apart from all the other auditionees is to just be you. What you consider your “quirks” may not be a bad thing in their eyes – it might be just what they’re looking for. The auditioners want to cast you, they want to witness your specialness. They are not there to see you fail; they want you to succeed. All the reason to just be you. While they certainly need to see the extent of your abilities, they also want to see what makes you unique. You are just as awesome as anyone else who enters that room, never forget that.

 

Diane: Since this blog post’s about auditioning, “Don’t Audition. Perform.”

 

Fletcher: Can you elaborate on that thought? Do you mean, don’t audition, do it through your work, or don’t look on an audition like an audition, approach it like you are in a performance?

 

Diane: I used to like to think of a general audition as a short, spontaneous concert event with a small, exclusive audience and a scrappy pianist and silly lighting, but I get to choose my repertoire, direction, costume/makeup. (Auditions don’t have to be completely awful abstractions of performing.)

 

Fletcher: Are there certain songs or shows that people should stay away from? I’ve seen certain monologues beaten to death, and I inwardly groan when they are introduced. I love me some Christopher Durang, but I never want to see a monologue from Laughing Wild again. Are there musical numbers that are just plain tired, or numbers that are generally reviled by the musical theatre community, or something along those lines?

 

Diane: There are scads of “Do Not Sing” lists of music theater songs on the Internet (but most of them also advise that if a song fits you like a glove, and you love performing it, you go audition with that tired song!)

 

Paul: You know, back in the day, when contemporary musicals were just starting out and on the rise, I heard my fair share of songs from Wicked, Rent and Avenue Q.  However, again, going back to singing what you sing best – if “Defying Gravity” is your money song, then I say sing it. Even if it’s a song that’s sung frequently, show the auditioners why you are singing that song. I’ll never be opposed to a song I hear constantly but sung magnificently. The one thing I will encourage auditionees to stay away from is songs that are negative (not to be confused with “dark”) or involve a fair share of profanity. Sure, if you’re auditioning for Sweeney in Sweeney Todd, I wouldn’t choose “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning,” unless the auditionee gave it a more menacing tone. Still, I always recommend leaning toward more positive pieces. Not in every case, and again, strive for that song that will set you apart from the other auditionees. If you’re auditioning for Chicago, chances are many of the other auditionees will sing “All That Jazz.” Not a bad choice, but unless that’s your money song, sing a song that the auditioners will remember you by.

 

Jill Anna: Oh gosh, not that I can think of.  Terrifically long, or wildly ambitious pieces may qualify for exclusion here, but I would encourage artists to choose freely from the resources that are available.  Don’t worry about whether or not the folks at the table will “like” the piece.

 

Other Thoughts

 

David Bonofiglio: Take the time to COACH your repertoire with someone besides your lesson teacher. They are important, but you need another set of ears that have casting in mind to listen.

 

Milwaukee is a difficult market to audition in. There aren’t many auditions for much of the year because companies aim to book their seasons in spring, so local actors don’t get to keep their audition chops up. Chicago and New York have dozens of auditions every day of the week, so it’s easier to remember that auditioning is just part of the business and the stakes often feel lower since another opportunity is just around the corner (being called in for your dream role notwithstanding).

 

I wish we could build a stronger culture of constant improvement. Dance classes, voice lessons, song coaching, text and voice work, true cabaret work, and on-camera classes all help keep chops up when you aren’t booked on a show. What seems to happen right now is that we make our own opportunities and put on a show somewhere, which is great entrepreneurism, but it doesn’t always help people with less experience to work with directors who will help them grow.