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!
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!
I had the absolute privilege to see Starlight Express at West Potomac High School this past Friday night. To be completely honest, it is a show that I knew very little about and have never seen before. Here’s what I knew coming into the theatre on Friday night: the title song (I think I heard this on a demo cassette tape when I was in elementary school), roller skating, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and that’s it.
Let me say right now that I do not write reviews and that is certainly not the purpose of my blog. I had an idea of what I would write about (vocal characteristics of Andrew Lloyd Webber and finding audition material) and have completely changed direction. On Friday night, I was blown away! I do not say this lightly. Starlight Express is a rarely performed show (at least in the United States) and is a story that is great for all ages. West Potomac High School’s production is visually stunning, full of energy, and moving in the best possible ways. If you auditioned and were cast in this show , it was an extraordinary opportunity for students to learn to roller skate. The skate choreography was exciting to watch and kept the audience fully engaged in the show!
I could certainly hear Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical stylings throughout Starlight Express. He has a way of using different styles of music (pop, opera, country, even hip hop) to tell a story through music alone. The ensemble cast showcases their vocal abilities through strong harmonies in the group showstoppers. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about that sound resonating throughout the theatre.
The overriding theme of this post: seize your opportunities! If you can learn to roller skate, sing with some twang in your voice, travel to another country, work with a director or teacher that is passionate about their work, see a new show, hike to the top of mountain, DO IT. It will make you a better actor, a better performer, a better human being. And if you’re in the DC Metro area, RUN to West Potomac High School’s production of Starlight Express. It is not to be missed!
Our local middle school, George Washington Middle School, recently performed their spring musical, Hairspray Jr! I went to opening night of this show and the music transports me to a different world every time. All of a sudden, I’m bouncing in my seat to the tunes and laughing out loud. I saw Hairspray on Broadway three times during its’ almost 7 year run and I even auditioned for the national tour twice (sadly, even after a callback, no contract was offered).
Middle school is a vocally tough transition time. Students this age rarely understand their break, how to switch seamlessly between registers (what’s a register?), and how to extend certain vowels without getting too nasal, too heavy, or too bright. I always suggest a good warm-up that includes both head and chest resonation. Opening up the upper register will help with the pop mix sound that is needed throughout Hairspray.
Breath is also a huge factor in a high energy show like Hairspray. “You Can’t Stop the Beat” requires excellent breath support for singing through the phrases, catching a quick (but still full!) breath where appropriate, and dancing at the same time in this fast tempo.
PRACTICE RECOMMENDATION: Run & Sing! You might not make it through the first time without panting, but ultimately, I’ve found that physical activity while singing (running, jumping jacks, even planks) can help to improve stamina, endurance, and diaphragmatic breath support.