Seeing the pre-Broadway tryout of Beetlejuice The Musical at the National Theatre in Washington, DC on Friday night was an exciting and fun experience. I remember watching the movie over and over with my brother and the musical brought to life specific scenes and characters from the movie in an inventive and hilarious way. Of course, the musical’s (same as the movie’s) closing number had me dancing in my seat!
The vocal style in this show is without question contemporary musical theatre with pop and rock influences. There’s the boy band number, the Hamilton-esque rap duet, the teen pop ballad, and the hard rock character pieces. Vocally, we can hear the singers implementing the growl, the rock scream, the really high mix/forward placed sound, the low, soulful tone, and the nasal character voice. While these are all different, it is possible for one singer to produce a multitude of sounds and styles even within one two hour show. Things that can help singers in this feat are having a flexible soft palate, a good breath support system, and a general understanding of how your individual voice feels and resonates on your body.
I’m certain that the teen girl singers in my studio will be clamoring to learn Lydia’s music (and I might encourage them to also look at the Girl Scout’s number that opens Act II). If you’re thinking of attending an EPA for the Broadway production of Beetlejuice, either look for a pop/rock song that encompasses character (for Lydia, I might recommend a high mix Avril Lavigne or Pink or Alanis Morrisette) or a contemporary musical song with this sound (Off-Broadway and not as widely popular as Heathers preferred).
Based on the Kevin Kline movie of the same name, this new musical is having its premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, DC this summer! The contemporary musical theatre score has notes of pop, classical, and jazz. The singing in this show ranges from soulful chest voice to pop falsetto and musical theatre high mix to operatic ‘Queen of the Night’ notes in the highly comedic and memorable National Anthem scene. I’m very familiar with Tom Kitt’s shows (I think I’ve seen almost everything he’s written) and could hear his voice throughout Dave.
Things to practice when building your versatility as a vocalist:
Warm-up your whole instrument: top to bottom, head to mix to chest, and going between the different registers. Yodeling on vowels or words and Mary Saunders Barton’s Yahoo calls can be helpful. For men, work on having quick access to your falsetto (without a breath) and then seamlessly switching to a falsetto mix. For women (and men too!), focus on creating chest and mix sound that is light and effortless. I talk about this in my studio all the time; a lot of young singers associate belt with a heavy, strong, pounded out sound and that is the exact opposite of what I actually want.
Find a great art song! Even if you have zero interest in classical music, learning a classical art song can further develop your technique for musical theatre.
Listen! A part of practice in my studio is listening to other performers. This can help with hearing different sounds, understanding specific vocal stylings that are associated with the individual singer, and expanding your repertoire knowledge.
Switch up your song choices. Sing that classical art song and then immediately after sing a soulful pop song and then after that a Disney song. Can you switch between these different genres quickly and easily OR does it take you a few minutes to get into the next style?
Dave is playing at Arena Stage through August 19th. Click here for tickets!
I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to see the current production of Candide at the Kennedy Center Opera House. My good friend has season tickets for opening night at the opera and invited me to join her for this show. I will admit upfront that I am not very familiar with Candide except for the soprano solo, “Glitter and Be Gay”, and knowing that it is a Leonard Bernstein piece. I do know that Candide has been done at opera houses around the world as well as with musical theatre or light opera companies. The Kennedy Center’s casting reflected this with both renowned opera and Broadway performers.
The two main vocal components I want students to focus on are:
Diction: There are a lot of fast moving lyrics throughout the score for Candide and it’s of utmost importance that I can understand the storyline. The Washington National Opera uses the screen for most songs so you can read along the lyrics (as they do with all operas especially those not in English), but musical theatre companies will not have this so I believe that crisp and clear diction is paramount. We sometimes have vowel modifications based on vocal range and resonance, but these modifications should not change the word in a way that the listener cannot understand you. Practice speaking the lyric clearly and fast then sing the lyrics with special attention that you’re not getting sloppy with your diction.
Tone Quality: There is no doubt that a legit sound is used throughout Candide. I might emphasize open vowels, a relaxed throat, and low, open breath throughout the score. Sopranos will be head-dominant whereas all male roles have a classical chest-dominant sound. There are great pieces in this score that are reminiscent of classical musical theatre including Bernstein’s other works, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Lerner & Loewe. It’s certainly advantageous for musical theatre performers to have a diverse skill set and study pieces from more classically based productions.
Think about what other shows might bridge the opera and musical theatre worlds. Perhaps The Merry Widow or Pirates of Penzance (both light operas). Find a song to sing from this genre and see how it challenges you vocally!
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.