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.
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?
I decided to take the first month of 2017 off from writing on this blog. As a voice teacher, performer, mom, and wife, my days are full and finding time for more things can be a challenge. With every new year comes new resolutions for many people. What types of things to I want to achieve this year? Better grades, a slimmer figure, a raise at work, more time for fun, and the list goes on. I want to focus on some great resolutions for singers and have compiled this list of five goals that are attainable.
1. To practice more. Find time to sing everyday: vocalises, repertoire, breath and foundational work. Even ten minutes a day is better than nothing (though to be honest 30 minutes is ideal for most of my voice students).
2. To seek out performance opportunities. Whether in a musical theatre production, a recital with your voice studio, or a solo with your school or church choir, find ways to sing in public.
3. To listen to music in multiple genres. If you primarily listen to pop music in the car, on your walk to work or school, and at home, then find time to listen to classical music or Broadway music. You can learn so much about different styles of music just by listening!
4. To take a workshop that will broaden your vocal skills. This workshop could be at your current voice studio, at another local arts organization, or at a top-notch conservatory.
5. To embrace your other interests and know that they make you a better singer and a better performer. What else do you love? Is it cooking, playing soccer or tennis, writing, traveling, or creating a new phone app? Whatever it is, it is important to spend time doing things that are not singing because that will make you a more well-rounded human being and a stronger performer.
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!
For my December playbill (and an ending to the 2016 holiday season), what better show choice than Elf? I saw the original cast on December 14, 2010 with my mom and it was a great addition to my yearly holiday festivities.
I was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at the time and my mom came for her annual holiday visit. She loved to visit each Christmas season to soak in the holiday spirit and check out all of the holiday markets. Over the years, I’ve been to every one in the city from Union Square to Grand Central to Bryant Park to Columbus Circle. It’s a fun tradition that we developed while I lived in NYC. We’ve returned twice since I moved to the DC area 4 years ago and always have a blast, shopping, seeing shows, trying new restaurants, and returning to our favorite places!
I was a tourist for the evening at this particular Broadway show. I got my tickets at the box office ahead of time, we both bought souvenir t-shirts from the show (pictured above), and wandered around Times Square before the evening performance.
I love New York City at Christmastime and always relish seeing Broadway shows that put me in the holiday spirit. I even purchase the cast recording after it’s released. I own the Elf recording as well as How The Grinch Stole Christmas, White Christmas, and A Christmas Carol.
Elf is a fun musical for the whole family. If you want to see this show in the local DMV area, Aldersgate Church Community Theatre is producing Elf Jr. (a one hour version with cast members ages 8 to 18) in January. Consider adding this cast recording to your festive music list; it will certainly put you in the “sparklejollytwinklejingley” mood!
This November I’m revisiting my experience seeing the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises with Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes. I chose this show because it has a great Thanksgiving Broadway number in it called “Turkey Lurkey Time”. It always puts me in the holiday spirit and makes me want to dance around my living room!
I saw this show on May 1, 2010. These tickets were TKTS scores. My in-laws were visiting us in Manhattan (we were living on the UWS) and we decided to make our way to Times Square for last minute tickets to a show. We chose Promises, Promises because it was a classic show that I had never seen. I had, however, heard numerous numbers from this show in films (the “Say A Little Prayer” scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding) and dance classes (the aforementioned “Turkey Lurkey Time”) and old records that were played in my house. Burt Bacharach and Hal David were contemporary songwriters in their day and heard on the radio!
When I was living in NYC, I always loved taking friends and family that visited to the theatre district for tickets to a Broadway show. Since I moved out of the city (over 4 years ago now?!), I still return for visits with the intent to catch a current Broadway show. Or two or three….
Here is Turkey Lurkey Time featuring the original 1969 cast for you to enjoy!