Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s score has a contemporary musical theatre sound with a strong conversational component, pop music elements, and lyrics that inform the melodic line. The production of If/Then that I watched last night at The Theatre Lab (pictured above) was not my first experience with this show. I know the music well and saw Idina Menzel in the starring role twice, first in the pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre in Washington, DC and then on Broadway in the fall of 2013.
Quick Vocal Tips for Singing If/Then
There is a conversational component to almost every song. Whether a solo, duet, or group number, each song is really dialogue or monologues that could be spoken without pitch so we want to hear specific inflection on pitch and extension of your speech on pitch. Please leave vibrato and sustained notes for another show! Exception to this is the high mix and belt notes for both mezzos and tenors that usually end a song: these are meant to have power, be sustained, and wow the audience. Practicing speaking on pitch and getting used to your natural speaking voice while on specific pitches, both high and low, is a great way to get comfortable with this style.
Tension is the singer’s (and actor’s) worst enemy. Releasing tension is something I work on with students in all genres of music. With a contemporary musical theatre score, it’s important to find a way to tell the story without clenching the muscles in your neck (or jaw, shoulders, back, hands) and straining. How to practice with music from If/Then (or any another contemporary show): sing the song while literally rolling your head like a rag doll, swaying (not in time), and/or with your arms outstretched and open. A lot of times tension is a result of body/voice awareness that takes you away from the character and out of the moment. Being open and receptive to what’s going on around you and just breathing that in can be helpful. It’s also useful to be aware if there are specific notes that are either just beyond your comfortable range or on your break that cause you to tighten your muscles either in preparation for the big note or in order to sustain the big note. Prioritize warming up your voice with vocalises that emphasize vowels that are helpful to YOU on your big note(s)!
While If/Then is not my favorite Kitt and Yorkey musical (Next to Normal takes this for many reasons), it has awesome ensemble characters and music that reflects everyday speech. I love that the show takes place in NYC and that we get a glimpse into the many different people that live and work in the city. I’m a type A, over thinker so the “what if” question that is constantly asked throughout the show is interesting to me.
Special shout out to my student, Carla Crawford, who was excellent in the role of Kate and made strong singing and acting choices throughout the show! The Theatre Lab’s performances ran through last night (I saw the closing show!), but be on the look out for their next production since they tend to choose interesting material for singers and actors to learn and explore!
From Signature Theatre’s (Arlington, VA) production last spring to the NBC Live Broadcast on Easter Sunday to our local high school’s production this month, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1971 hit has been popular this past year. Jesus Christ Superstar is very on point with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s material (sometimes classified as “poperetta”) with hits from the show being widely popular radio songs as well. Vocals are at the forefront as this is an entirely sung-through show and a wide vocal range and ability to sing in a plethora of styles is simply present throughout the entire score.
Rock Opera Vocal Technique
Warm-ups for this type of show are key! I work with all of my singers to make sure they have a balanced instrument so even if they’re in a hard rock with edge place for an entire show, I always incorporate light humming and lip trills into our warm-up. I think it’s a great idea to go down a scale (sol-fa-mi-re-do) on a bub or mum and allow yourself access to a vocal fry sound, work through pentatonic scales, and make some ugly sounds with your tongue all the way out (yeah or nyeah or weah) in a higher belt/mix register. With men, a falsetto warm-up that leads itself toward a falsetto mix is awesome for this show; getting this sound without strain is essential. I cannot stress enough that if it feels painful to sing, you are doing something wrong. Even if your character is physically in pain, your voice should not be.
Beware of gratuitous riffing, growling, and stereotypical rock trends. While Jesus Christ Superstar absolutely utilized rock (not Broadway) singers in the original production and we want that type of sound, it’s important to understand how to implement your own voice into the style without mimicry or what I like to say is “pretending you’re on American Idol” when you’re in fact still in a musical with a cohesive storyline. There are moments in the Jesus Chris Superstar score that are marked ad lib so knowing how to riff (especially in the characters of Jesus and Judas) and going there both dramatically and vocally is what makes it so powerful.
Vocal Health: drink lots of water, get enough sleep, don’t abuse your voice, be careful of too much singing or speaking on show days are all things we’ve heard time and again. If you feel tired after a show, that’s normal and okay; you’ve just taken us on an enormous journey and may need to rest. I just always want my students to understand the difference between feeling tired and feeling like you’ve completely blown out or demolished your vocal chords. It’s easy to push or strain when you’re working on a high rock belt sound. It’s much harder to create a nuanced performance with vocal choices that are stylistically correct and healthy.
Jesus Christ Superstar is playing at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, VA through April 28th. Special shout-out to the freshman playing Jesus, Brevan Collins, who I have been teaching for over four years and who continually puts in the work when prepping for roles, auditions, and building his technique.
Driving to the local high school theatre at 6:58 PM (for a 7 PM show), I’m realizing I may be a few minutes late to see my students. My mom joined me for the show and just in case she missed the opening number, I was happy to give a full rendition in the car. “Oh, oh, oh woke up today, feeling the way I always do. Oh, oh, oh hungry for something that I can’t eat then I hear the beat.”
Hairspray is a high energy, contemporary musical with a score that is reminiscent of 1960’s pop music. The two stand-out vocal technique elements to the show (for me!) are stamina and vocal placement.
Stamina: practice your music while running, while jumping, while dancing around your bedroom: with fast paced lyrics and no clear rests for breath, you need the energy and muscle strength to get through the music in character. “You Can’t Stop the Beat” is a prime example of this: we don’t want to skip a word just to get a breath, you have to practice going through the phrasing in that song as much as possible to do just this!
Placement: there is no doubt that this a contemporary musical theatre show with the roles all embracing a strong belt and high mix registration. I talk to my singers about seamlessly switching registers and making sure they are placing correcting during breath (not after!) all the time. There are moments when young singers may crack a note or abruptly cut off or have breathy quality simply due to not knowing how to place a particular phrase on their voice. In Mama I’m A Big Girl Now, I want a forward sound with a lifted soft palate and relaxed forward tongue; I also want to hear the difference in sound between the mothers and their teenage daughters. In I Know Where I’ve Been, I want a soulful, gospel like quality with a grounded chest voice. Knowing your character and vocal placement go hand in hand. It is important to always think about your character’s journey and the lyrics when making specific technique choices!
Hairspray is running at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria this weekend and next weekend (April 20 to 28th, 2018)! Several of my voice students are involved with the production including Aidan White (Edna) and Grace Steenstra (Prudy Pingleton). It’s an awesome opportunity to support local students that are diving into these great characters and truly making them their own!
Last weekend, I saw a local community theatre production of Pippin at The Arlington Players. My student, Carla Crawford, was featured in this production as Fastrada and was wonderful! I’ve been familiar with the songs from Pippin for a long time and remember singing the opening number, “Magic To Do”, with my middle school chorus.
Written in 1972, this was Stephen Schwartz’s second Broadway show. He started working on it in college, but none of the original numbers actually made it into the Broadway production. Stephen Schwartz is most known to my students for Wicked and I think it is so important to discover and learn about earlier works by our current composers. In addition to Pippin and Wicked, Schwartz has also written Godspell, The Magic Show (has some great and not-as-well-known songs!), The Baker’s Wife, and Children of Eden. There is great repertoire in all of these shows (and even more musicals and movies that Schwartz contributed songs to and/or wrote) that are worth listening to and exploring as a musical theatre singer!
I was able to catch the Broadway revival of Pippin in September 2014. The two productions, while telling the same story, are vastly different in terms of concept, production (set, lighting, etc), and even casting. The revival cast an African American female as the leading player (which I loved!) and utilized circus acts, bringing in professional circus artists for high balancing acts, fire elements, and gymnast choreography. The Arlington Players’ production was grounded in the original 1972 concept with emphasis on simplistic storytelling and utilized simple musical instruments played by the “players” on stage. On a side note, I just realized that I have seen this musical twice and both times was in my third trimester of pregnancy (too funny)!
In addition to my awesome student, Carla Crawford, I really enjoyed the two men that played The Leading Player and Pippin at The Arlington Players. They are both theatre educators (and seeing some of their students in the lobby after the show warmed my heart and made me smile!) and the opening number to the second act, “On The Right Track”, was a highlight to the show.
There are shows at The Arlington Players tonight and tomorrow (October 20 and 21) at 8PM so you still have time to catch it! Click here for more information and tickets.
The fall audition season has arrived and I have been preparing students all summer for auditions at professional theatres, community theatres, local youth theatres, and school productions. Here are 5 basic tips to keep in mind as you get ready for your next audition:
1. Be familiar with the show that you’re auditioning for so that you can select appropriate material. What style of music? What decade/year is the show set? What characters are you right for?
2. Have your sheet music prepared for the accompanist in the right key and marked for the specific cut (usually 16 or 32 bars). Have this music memorized and ready for performance; the same goes if you are asked to prepare a monologue (1 to 2 minutes), memorized and ready to go.
3. Dress appropriately! Again, think about the character and the show, but DO NOT go in a costume. If you look and feel uncomfortable, then this will affect your performance. You want to look presentable and relatable.
4. Warm-up your voice ahead of time and take ten minutes to focus. I tell my students all the time that they don’t need a piano to warm-up. Breathing exercises, lip trills, and slides are easy on-the-go warm-ups, while free pitch pipe or piano apps on your phone can give you a starting pitch for arpeggios, scales, or even your song.
5. Be confident and have fun in the audition! You’ve done the hard work to prepare and now you get to perform your audition material for new people. Isn’t that what we performers love to do?
For those of you in the Northern Virginia area, I’m posting to promote my students’ current work around town and emphasize how proud I am of their achievements. This is a huge weekend for school musicals and I have several students that are performing lead, supporting, and ensemble roles.
Beauty & the Beast Jr. with Saint Mary’s School is playing at Bishop Ireton High School on both Saturday and Sunday afternoon at 2 PM. Aimee Bee student highlights: Viana Schlapp is starring as Belle, Addison Parker is Silly Girl, and Elizabeth Cheney is in many scenes as a featured ensemble member.
Billy Elliot is opening tonight at West Potomac High School and plays through May 6th. More information and tickets are available here. Featured Aimee Bee students are Willa Denton, Kendall Grady, Max Marshall, and David McFarland.
Oklahoma is also opening tonight at West Springfield High School and playing through Sunday afternoon. My student, Connor Brunson, is a freshman and singing tenor in the ensemble!
Chess at The Theatre Lab in Washington, DC opens tonight and plays through May 6th. Carla Crawford has a leading role as the Arbitor in this rock musical! More information and tickets are here.
Finally, The Lion King Kids is playing on Wednesday, May 3rd, at 7 PM at Maury Elementary School. Aimee Bee students (studying with my awesome teaching artists Moriah and Jess!) Fiona Hendrickson and Eliza Gwin are in this show!
Check out these awesome shows and support our local musical theatre students!!
I finally tuned into the NBC annual live musical for 2016, Hairspray. I was teaching on the night of the actual broadcast (December 7th), but managed to DVR it and watch it on the eve of Christmas Eve. I will first say that I’ve seen Hairspray on Broadway three times as well as watched the original (non-musical) movie and the 2007 musical movie. I love the show for so many reasons: the amazing score and orchestrations, the pertinent social and historical themes, the high energy dancing! In any form, I always want to jump out of my seat to sing and dance along, which you can easily do in your living room wearing pajamas and slippers.
One notable thing about this live broadcast was their casting decision for Tracy Turnblad. Maddie Baillio was discovered at an open casting call in New York City that was attended by over 1,000 hopeful musical theatre performers.”You gotta think big to be big” is Wilbur’s line in Hairspray, but it is a testament to all Broadway hopefuls that get up at the crack of dawn, grab their audition book and heels, and head to midtown to audition for their next show. Maddie was joined by already established Broadway and film actors as well as pop stars and Disney sensations.
One huge shout out to Jennifer Hudson who was brilliant (as always) and owned the role of Motormouth Maybelle. Darren Criss served as a host for the event and I thought having this element was unnecessary and interrupted the storyline.
NBC’s live musicals are getting stronger every year and I always await the announcement of their next one (Bye Bye Birdie with Jennifer Lopez has been reported as the December 2017 show). It all started with The Sound of Music starring Carrie Underwood then Peter Pan then The Wiz and now Hairspray. Fox also jumped on the bandwagon with Grease last January. As a musical theatre performer and teacher, this is awesome news! I love making all of these musicals accessible to people across the globe and to have my students watch and learn from these performances (did they notice any diction issues? stamina? breath? tone quality?).
If you haven’t seen this broadcast, find it on demand or buy the DVD and watch it. It’s certainly a fun night at home and you might learn a little something to help in your own musical theatre training!