Joy Dewing offered audition tips during our February, 2005 interview with her in New York City, when she was an actress/singer/dancer. She is now a New York casting director.
Carol de Giere: Many readers wonder how to find audition songs suited to their voice. What do you do? Do you choose by voice type?
Joy Dewing: Voice type is only part of what I look for. The casting people can tell within seconds if you can sing or not, and if your voice is right for the part they’re casting. I look for songs that showcase not only my voice, but also my personality and my acting skills. Good singers are a dime a dozen. You have to be able to communicate a story and a character in order to stand out.
There is so much conflicting information out there about what songs you should and should not do for auditions. But there’s one requirement that I have for a song that is non-negotiable: it must be a song that I enjoy performing.
I think one of the best thing you can do to find songs that work for you is to listen to and learn as many shows as you can and find characters that are your type. I’m a character actress, not an ingénue, so I’d do research and find out which actresses are similar to me in physicality and voice type, then look up the roles they’ve played and familiarize myself with them.
I think one of the best thing you can do to find songs that work for you is to listen to and learn as many shows as you can and find characters that are your type.
So learn shows and roles that you know you could be cast in, and then find songs that that character does in that show. Then you are doing something that is really right and also fits your personality. When I found out who Mary Testa was, I went and Googled her and looked up everything she’d been in, because she’s a great character actress and we’re similar types. She was in the revival of On the Town, and William Finn’s A New Brain, among others.
Another way I find songs is through recommendations from friends and colleagues. Because we’re always telling each other, “Oh, do you know this song, it would be perfect for you.” So you should definitely keep an ear out for that. You can ask people, “Do know any songs that I should do, I’m looking for [for example] an uptempo comedy song from before 1960.” Of course, your best resource for song recommendations is probably going to be your vocal coach. You should hire someone with an extensive repertoire and knowledge in every era of musical theatre.
Another great tool for finding songs, which I have recently discovered, is the Showtunes channel in Music Choice on digital cable. (In my area it’s channel 637 on Time Warner.) I listen to it when I’m just puttering around the house; you never know when they’re going to play a cool showtune you’ve never heard before!
There are certain categories of songs that you need to have in your book, regardless of your voice type:
- Contemporary ballad and uptempo
- Classic musical theatre ballad and uptempo (pre-1960, such as Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Frank Loesser)
- 1920s/30s ballad and uptempo (Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Gershwin), and comedy song
- 1950s/60s song or two for those Grease and Hairspray calls.
- If you can sing rock and/or pop, you need a ballad and an uptempo rock/pop
- If you can sing opera, you should have an aria or an operetta song
- If you can sing country and you’re going to be auditioning for country shows like Big River, Always, Patsy Cline or Robber Bridegroom, you need to have a country song
And it’s best if you do stuff that not everybody’s doing, because they will get tired of hearing ‘If I Loved You’ sixty-six times a day.”
There are lots of rules about what you should and shouldn’t do, but I’ve seen people break the rules and get callbacks, so I guess rules are meant to be broken. One rule of thumb is you can do an overdone song if you do it better than anyone else. Unfortunately, most people in this business think that they can do it better than anyone else. If your coach is worth the money you’re paying him or her, though, they’ll tell you the truth.
CD: [Joy showed me her list of songs that she keeps in a sheet music book. She brings the book with her to auditions.]
Do you hand this list to the person in charge?
JD: No. I decide what I’m going to sing before I go in the room, based on the show or shows I’m auditioning for, and if it goes well and I happen to be what they’re looking for they might ask me to sing something else. I have this list in the front of my book, so if they ask me for something else I’ll be able to scan it quickly and flip right to that page. Often the pianist will look at it and say “Oh, why don’t you do this?” I love it when that happens because he’s been there all day, maybe he’s even the musical director and he knows what they’re looking for.
The list is especially helpful because when you’re in that room and you’re nervous, you’re not always thinking clearly. And if they say “Do you have a ballad, something belty?” I can just go down the list and I don’t have to really process the information. I have it categorized by voice type (belt, mix, legit), genre (rock, pop, theatre, comedy), and song type (ballad, uptempo), and it’s all in my book alphabetically. This minimizes mistakes and prevents me from looking like an idiot rummaging through all my papers. It just looks more professional.
I try to stay away from material that’s pretty well known. I feel like they pay more attention if I’m doing something that they haven’t heard a lot, or that they’ve never heard and they’re like, “Oh, what’s that?”
I pay attention to what other people are singing so I know what’s overdone. I keep a list, whenever I hear songs at an audition, I write them down so I can keep abreast of what’s going on and what to stay away from. I rotate songs because I get sick of songs really fast. After I’ve sung them 10 times I’m bored.
CD: You really have to know a lot of shows, and obscure shows.
JD: That’s really the key. You just have to do your homework, know your repertoire. You have to know as many shows, as many composers as possible. Go to Tower Records and take advantage of the listening stations. Borrow cast recordings from friends. Browse through scores at the library.
CD: Do you sit around and watch the old black and white film musicals?
JD: Yes, and surprisingly there are quite a few obscure musicals on video. But sometimes those are obscure for a reason.
Another idea (that can sometimes backfire) is taking a known song and twisting it to make it totally different. Faith Prince, when she was auditioning for Guys and Dolls, came in with “Something Wonderful.” Of course she is a character actor, auditioning for a character role (Adelaide) so she is not going to go in there with a big sweeping dramatic ballad. She went in with “Something Wonderful”, which is a dramatic ballad from The King and I, but she sang it like Adelaide would sing it, and made it really funny and poignant at the same time. So by making a conscious choice to put a new spin on an old favorite, she got their attention. Really a brilliant idea if you take a look at the lyrics:
“He will not always say
What you would have him say
But now and then he’ll say something wonderful.
The thoughtless things he’ll do
Will hurt and worry you
Then all at once he’ll do something wonderful”
It’s so fitting for the Nathan and Adelaide relationship. And as we know, she got the part and the Tony award for it. Now that’s a good example of a twist, but sometimes it can backfire, if you’re not careful and if you don’t use good taste. Always run it by someone first and get some feedback.
CD: Do you attend a lot of shows? Is that important?
JD: Yes, especially off-Broadway shows and readings. If a show’s on Broadway, you shouldn’t be doing something from it unless it’s something specific that you know you’re going to be asked for.
If it’s currently on Broadway, stay away because it will be too well known. It’s going to be out there. Everybody’s going to be doing it; everyone is going to be sick of it. Right now everyone is suffering from overexposure to Wicked, because it’s so fun to sing and so popular (Pop-u-OO-lar!); but if you take “Defying Gravity” or “The Wizard and I” into an audition right now, eyes will roll. They might even ask you if you have something else you can sing. “Gimme Gimme” from Thoroughly Modern Millie is another one right now that has been hammered into the ground over the last couple years. “A Quiet Thing”. “On the Street Where You Live”. “All I Need is the Girl”. And so on. If you ask any casting director or audition accompanist, they’ll be able to give you a much more comprehensive list, but those are a few that I hear at auditions frequently.
CD: How do you find out about readings?
JD: I find out by hearing about them from friends, and because I know composers. You can find them if you do enough poking around on the internet, and if you find out what theatres do new musicals and readings, like Wings theatre – they do a lot of new musicals, and the Fringe Festival and the New York Musicals Festival. That’s a cheap way to get to see shows. If you audition for a local reading or show and don’t get the part, go see it and take a look at the person who did get the part. You might learn something. Or you might not: don’t forget that so much of casting involves factors you can’t control or never would have thought of, such as prior relationships, height, what the director had for breakfast that day, or the fact that you look like his ex-girlfriend. You never know.
CD: We want to talk about staying in shape while you’re working through auditions.
JD: It’s obviously very important to stay on top of your work vocally, just as dancers do when they’re not performing. They work out, they stretch, they go to class to stay in shape. You have to do the same thing for your voice. I discovered when I was out of town for a few months doing a show and then came back, I was so out of shape. When you get a job, you tend to let your guard down because, hey, you already have a job. But don’t forget that that job is not going to last forever and you really have to keep your audition skills sharp. It’s really important to practice all the songs in your book. I try to run through them once a week, that way I know if something is not working and maybe needs to be replaced.
CD: Do you ever use karaoke?
JD: No. Because that’s not going to help me in an audition. When I go in to audition, I’ll have a piano player. It’s very different. Most people get their coach to put their piano accompaniment on tape or CD, and you have to have that. Ideally every week you should be running through all the songs in your book, and just tune up, make sure it still works. Because the worst thing is to get into an audition and they look in your book and they say, “Oh, sing this” and all of a sudden you realize you haven’t sung that in a year. That actually happened to me recently and I got through it with flying colors, thank goodness, but I’m sure I flubbed some of the words. Luckily I don’t think they noticed, and I was so busy acting that it didn’t show (I hope)!
CD: Do you have to have the lyrics memorized?
JD: Oh yeah. Everything has to be memorized. AND I should mention here, for anyone who doesn’t know, you should never bring a lead sheet or a chart into an audition. You need to have sheet music with full piano accompaniment written out, not just chords; and it must be in the correct key for you. Audition pianists will not transpose for you, and frankly they shouldn’t have to. You must be prepared and have done your homework ahead of time. Your sheet music should either be in sheet protectors in a three-ring binder, or taped together like an accordion so the pianist has the whole thing laid out in front of him or her and the pages don’t fly around everywhere. Using the three-ring binder method works the best, but in a pinch, you can tape the pages together so they’re side by side and unfold into one continuous song so that no pages have to be turned.
CD: What are the top five songs that show off a wide range?
JD: I’ll name some Stephen Schwartz songs that show range, but I want it to be clear that I’m not necessarily recommending them for audition songs. Some of these are way overdone and some are just not actable enough, or too long, for auditions.
When you have a song that you’re always comfortable with it and it always works for you, and you get good feedback or callbacks with it, use it. If you find a song that’s overdone and you do it better than anyone else, then you can do it. But be absolutely sure that you act it and sing it better than anyone else.
CD: Stephen just writes musically what he wants.
JD: The reason I love Stephen Schwartz is because he writes songs that you can just wail on. You can just open up and sing at the top of your lungs. You just get up on those notes and you stay up there forever. It’s great fun. And there’s so much that’s actable.
CD: Talk about selecting songs that make you act.
JD: Back in the Rodgers and Hammerstein days, they weren’t trying to show off, they were telling a story. Every song in the show had to move the plot forward and there was no place for frivolity. Every Rodgers and Hammerstein song is part of a story. So that’s the thing to focus on when you’re doing a song: What’s the story that you’re trying to tell? Even in 16 bars – even in 8 bars – you can tell a story.
Starting in the 80s with the British Invasion, it was all about singing huge notes and intervals and showing off your amazing instrument. That’s great if you want to make a CD, but it’s not good enough for auditions. That’s why actors stay away from most Lloyd Webber and Frank Wildhorn and Boublil/Schönberg. Take “Meadowlark,” that’s a whole movie right there. “Meadowlark” is almost the entire story of The Baker’s Wife condensed, with “Where is the Warmth” finishing it off. You don’t get that kind of acting experience with “All I Ask of You” from Phantom of the Opera.
The strongest type of song is one in which you make a choice. For example, in “Meadowlark” Genevieve is torn between two important choices, and she kind of weighs the options and realizes that she’ll just waste away if she makes the wrong choice; so she chooses the beautiful young man. All this happens during the song. A song in which you turn a corner, you discover something and make a choice: those are really strong acting songs. It’s tough to squeeze that into 16 bars, but it can be done.
CD: Can you think of any others?
JD: Another Schwartz example: In “Defying Gravity”, Elphaba has been operating from a certain base of knowledge. She’s been driving along on one path, but then she receives a new piece of information, and she goes off on a completely different path. “Defying Gravity” is the point at which the two paths diverge and that’s a really strong moment.
CD: Rose’s turn?
JD: That’s definitely a divergent moment – an aha moment in a character’s life. She’s taking the stage for herself.
Another one from She Loves Me: “Vanilla Ice Cream”, where Amalia realizes that Georg isn’t who she thought he was.
CD: Can you ever use duets and do the whole thing?
JD: You almost never do a whole song in auditions. For Equity Principal Auditions, you get to do a short song of about 32 bars, but 99% of the time you only get to do 16 bars. Except when they’re running late and you only get to do 8 bars. So yes, you can do part of a duet. People often do the one from Closer than Ever, “It’s Never That Easy/I’ve Been Here Before”, which is two women singing separate songs in counterpoint. I’ve heard both of them done at auditions.
CD: Would these points apply to doing cabaret? Show off your range, things that not everybody does
JB: No, the same rules do not apply. Essentially, there are no rules in cabaret. Usually you’ve got some kind of theme or through-line going on. Some people do autobiographical shows, some do an evening of a certain composer, some have a story or a common theme, like maybe subway songs for example. Some people just pick the songs they sound best on, and use that as a way to showcase their talent, and then they invite agents or casting directors. That’s kind of a long shot, though; unless you have a name, you’re probably not going to get many agents or cds to attend your show.
CD: To prepare for musical theatre auditions in New York City, do you recommend summer stock?
JD: Absolutely, there really is no better professional training ground. Summer stock is ground zero for actors who are just starting out. They don’t pay much. They pay you, if you’re lucky, $300/week. But it’s an experience you can’t beat, because you do 8 million shows and you put them up with 5 days of rehearsal. And then you do a show for about two weeks. Sometimes they rotate them in repertory. It really is an essential place to start and to gain experience, to get shows and roles under your belt. There’s so much intensity, and you often get to work with people who have more experience than you, so you watch them and learn how to behave – or, in some cases, how NOT to behave.
When I did summer stock they had three or four Equity contracts for every show, so I had the opportunity to work with Equity actors and really learn from these people, some of whom had worked on Broadway and tours, and they also jobbed out some of the roles so it was both Equity and non-Equity people who were out there working and sweating together.
If I had my way, every actor would have to do at least two years of summer stock and two years of touring, one year in the ensemble and one year in a role, as well as two readings, one children’s theatre show and one dinner theatre show before they could get their Equity card. Of course that’s unrealistic, but each of those experiences offers unique lessons that are so important to shaping a well-rounded actor.
Every experience contributes to your auditioning skills. The best advice I can give to anyone is GO TO AUDITIONS. Go to as many as you can get to, don’t even think about whether or not you’re getting cast. Keep a log of all the auditions you go to, what you sang, who was in the room, and any feedback you got. Keep your skills sharp and do some housecleaning on your audition book every couple of months. Constantly improve your repertoire and your performance with a professional coach. Do songs that show you at your best. And always be courteous, kind, and professional to everyone: You never know who is going to be behind that table when you walk in the room. Before you walk in, take a breath, let it out, and walk in with a smile on your face. Remember, you’re the one who has the easy job. All you have to do is sing a song. If you’re prepared and you do the best job you can, you’ve made their job so much easier. And they’ll love you for it.
Joy Dewing is a New York City casting director. She has been involved in theatre and cabaret on many sides of the business, mostly as a performer, but also as a director, producer, and stage manager. She was trained at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia and moved to New York after a brief stint in the Phoenix, AZ and Washington, D.C. theatre scenes. She’s worked professionally in regional theatre, summer stock, and national tours, in such perennial favorites as Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph…, My Fair Lady, and Sound of Music. Her New York City work includes producing and starring in her own one-woman show, Finding Joy, and Katz, a trunk song show for her husband, songwriter Noel Katz.