What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Michael Dansicker
By Jonathan Frank
For almost three decades, Michael Dansicker has worked as arranger, composer, musical director or pianist on over one hundred productions on and off Broadway (or on their way to either locale via workshops and readings). His credits include composing original music for the Jessica Tandy revival of The Glass Menagerie, acting as music supervisor for the transfer of the Royal Shakespeare Company productions of Piaf and Les Liasons Dangereuses, writing dance arrangements for Dance of the Vampires, and acting as vocal consultant for films such as Elf, Analyze That, and Meet the Parents.
His work as vocal coach and audition pianist has given him a rare insight into the audition process, which has resulted in the creation of a series of audition books broken down by voice type recently published by Hal Leonard called The 16-Bar Theatre Audition: 100 Songs Excerpted for Successful Auditions. Recently, Michael took the time to talk to Talkin' Broadway about the books, as well as imparting some advice on excelling in the audition process.
Jonathan: What was the impetus for The 16-Bar Theatre Audition Books?
Michael: While auditioning performers for the Columbia Artists' tour of Strike Up the Band, Martin Charnin and I found the time to write four comic songs geared specifically for theater singers. Hal Leonard Corporation published these songs in a folio titled The Audition Suite. Richard Walters, Vice President of Vocal and Classical Productions at Hal Leonard, was intrigued with my accounts of open calls in New York City, in particular the problem that many young actors have in selecting an appropriate piece and cutting it for an audition. Together we conceived of the idea of creating a series of books containing one hundred audition pieces, each of which would be sixteen bars in length. Richard was very supportive of the idea and the project would never have happened without his belief in it!
JF: This begs the question of why audition pieces have evolved, or rather devolved, into a sixteen bar length.
MD: It's due to the number of people attending auditions nowadays. Basically, in the last twelve years, Musical Theater programs have popped up at colleges and universities all over the country. There are, I think, over 200 institutions that offer a degree in Musical Theater and as a result, when the graduating classes move to town, New York City becomes glutted with actors between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-six. If they don't get an agent or representation, they join the throngs that go to open calls, and there is not enough time to hear each person do a full song.
JF: What are auditioners looking for when someone presents sixteen bars?
MD: Your sixteen bar song is essentially an introduction to the audition panel. They are seeing you for the first time and you have to communicate to them who you are and what are your strengths. No one is going to hire you on the spot after you sing sixteen bars. What it can do is bring you to stage two, where you will get to sing a complete song, probably from the show you are auditioning for. So what you want to do is choose the best sixteen bars you can do versus presenting a general sixteen bar cutting. It doesn't have to include great high notes or great virtuosity. The important thing is to show that you have a handle on what you are singing, that the song means something to you, and that you connect with it in some way. Essentially, it needs to be treated like a monologue. Auditioners can tell within a few notes whether or not a person can sing; that's a given. However, while being able to handle the music is essential, whether or not the person can act the song and make specific choices with it plays a much more important part.
JF: How strict are auditioners in terms of length? Are they really counting to make sure you are doing sixteen bars? Can one fudge and do eighteen?
MD: The rule of thumb is that it has to be within a certain amount of time, basically between twenty and thirty seconds. If you are performing a number played in a fast 2/4, for instance, it would be acceptable to do thirty-two bars: if you are going to sing "Tonight at Eight" you can sing thirty-two bars because every two bars would be one bar if it were notated in 4/4. However, you have to use common sense in your selection. If you can accomplish the same effect in eight or ten bars, do so. And always shorten the introduction. A lot of people will include a full four bar introduction, so basically one quarter of the audition is going to be taken up by the pianist butchering the intro. I like using a simple belltone as the start of the piece, but you then have to be able to instantly get into the mood of the music.
JF: Should one perform the song as written or is it permissible to change keys?
MD: I am a strong believer in changing the key up or down so that it best fits the singer's voice and dramatic sense. However, you should not arbitrarily change the key simply to show off range or a high note, and you need to be careful to find a key that fits you and your voice. I think it's best for singers to work with a coach or musical director to discover what key works best for them.
JF: Are the keys in your books true to what was originally written?
MD: No, I've altered a number of them, particularly for the tenor book. I have set them in what I feel are more 'on the money' keys. The voice types have changed over the years. In the past, the top note for a baritone would have been an F. Today, it is expected that baritones have a solid G, as it makes them much more useful for the ensemble. And tenors are expected to have B flats and Bs without question. The same goes for female belters. It used to be that C was considered to be the top note for their belt voice, but now it is not unusual to expect them to belt an E flat, which is pushing the envelope in my opinion. And sopranos need to go as high as possible. In Beauty and the Beast, for instance, there's an ensemble part that sings a high D.
JF: How important is it for a soprano or tenor to display their high notes in an audition?
MD: They should only show off a high note if they have tremendous control and can present it in a way that connects to the song dramatically. And you have to be really careful about your song choices. For example, "Glitter and Be Gay" is a very bad audition piece to use in an excerpted form. However "If I Loved You," "I Could Have Danced All Night," and "On the Street Where You Live" are numbers that work beautifully. They contain a dramatic thrust, are saying something highly specific, and are written to show off one's voice. A lot of girls like to audition with "Vanilla Ice Cream," which rarely works as well as numerous other choices they could have made. First of all, it is a tricky audition piece in the best of circumstances. As an entire song, it really is quite wonderful. but as an excerpt all it has is a fakey high B. As a result I rarely see anybody who auditions with it get called back. But in the case of "I Could Have Danced All Night," if you sing it from the bridge to the ending, you are really showing a workable, usable tessitura to the casting people.
JF: The problem is that one hates going in to an audition being the 8,000th person the auditioners have heard sing "On the Street Where You Live."
MD: It really doesn't matter; you simply have to be able to do it well. There's always going to be duplication since there are just too many people auditioning and not enough songs to go around. If you sing "On The Street Where You Live" from the bridge to the end and do it well, the auditioners will know that you can act, that you can sing, and that you can sustain phrases. And from that they can make a decision as to whether or not they want to hear more from you.
JF: One question that gets asked all the time online is what to do when someone is going to audition for a show that is written in a very specific musical style but one has nothing in his or her repertoire that fits that style. Is it better to try and whip something up or to go in with something that is familiar and comfortable?
MD: It depends on the show. Rent, for instance, is such a specific show, musically, that you better do something that matches the show or you are essentially insulting the casting people. If, however, you are auditioning for a contemporary musical theater piece by, say, Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Bill Finn or Michael John LaChiusa and you only have songs from the traditional musical theater canon, I don't think you have to worry as long as you can sing and act it well. If they are interested in you, they will give you something specific from their show for you to learn.
JF: What's the biggest mistake people make when they go in for an audition?
MD: One of the biggest is that people don't go into auditions with the music properly marked so that the accompanist will know exactly what you are going to do. Any surprise key or tempo changes, cuts, ritards, etc. have to be clearly marked and you be able to explain the tempo you are going to be taking in a nice, civilized manner.
The biggest mistake people make, though, is that they just sing and don't act. There has to as much specificity when you sing a song as there would be when you would perform a monologue. If you are going to sing "Vanilla Ice Cream" we have to know where you are, what you are feeling, what happened five minutes ago ... all those great acting choices that make the difference between getting a callback versus a 'thank you.'
It's easier to say than execute, but you really have to know what you want to show to the people behind the table. Your audition piece can't simply be musical notes and lyrics: it has to be specific to you. If you sing "Til There Was You" well and the intention behind the acting is correct, it's a spectacular audition piece. The song has great line, it shows off a voice beautifully, and can be very listenable as a result. However, if you sing it badly, it's easy for the auditioners to think "I can't wait for this song to be over."
Also, performers need to keep in mind the differences between the organizations that they are auditioning for. There is a big difference between auditioning for a Broadway musical and the Disney Cruise Line, and auditioning for Paper Mill is not the same as auditioning for The Public Theatre. Plus, you should know for whom you are auditioning and what the project is. When I played for Jerome Robbins' Broadway, a large number of people came in to audition who clearly had no idea who he was or what he had done since they picked songs that were totally wrong for the project. I played at an EPA for Urinetown recently and I saw close to 300 people, 80% of whom made the same mistake: they didn't know how to pick material that displayed the quirky sense of humor that is essential to be cast in Urinetown. If you are going in to audition for Jerry Zaks, you should know who he is, as well as who he has hired in the past. Certain casting directors gravitate towards a certain type of performer, so know what they tend to hire.
Also, be very careful about considering contemporary songs for audition material. The songs are much longer and it is very hard to extract sixteen bars from them. Plus, a lot of them sit in a non-vocal place: they are long and extended without really going anywhere. I've worked with many casting directors on both coasts and they really do take offense when someone comes in for, say, The Boyfriend, and sings something from The Wild Party. You're just shooting yourself in the foot. First of all, nine out of ten of the auditioners probably don't know either version of The Wild Party, and secondly if you are auditioning for The Boyfriend you should do something that is old-fashioned musical theater in style. But a lot of people want to use the same piece at every audition, which only shows that you haven't done your homework.
JF: Do you see sixteen bars as being the ongoing standard or is it going to be shortened even further?
MD: I've heard that auditions are already being cut down to eight bars in places. If you are going in for an eight bar audition, you should focus more on showing off your voice because they are basically only going to be listening for voice types. But regardless of what you do ... 16 bars, 8 bars, 4 bars, you have to remember that the result will only be an invitation to be asked to sing more at a later time. It's not an end product; nobody is going to hire you from a sixteen bar audition unless it's a small stock company having to cast something in a hurry. Usually they will want to see how well you move, if you can talk, and a million other things. It's step one in what can be, for a Broadway show, a six or seven step process.
Auditioning takes careful thought ... there are no easy answers. Unfortunately, as I already said, the market from twenty-two to twenty-six is a glutted one, so in order to get noticed you have to be very centered and prepared. The 'presentational' audition is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The grounded, acting-centered audition is where things are today. Casting directors are eager to find new, talented people. However, many actors do not make it easy for casting people to do their work. All too often, people don't take the audition process seriously. It's a job interview and should be treated as such. There is such a lack of joy and commitment to the material being displayed at auditions that I often wonder why so many people have chosen the musical theatre as their ultimate dream. Your love for musical theatre and performing has to be imparted to the panel whenever you have the opportunity to audition.
16-Bar Theatre Audition Book Series
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