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The Musical Theatre Audition Book, Part Two: The Actor’s Portfolio

While anyone you talk to about how to set up your audition book will offer different advice, I’ll bet most people would agree that it should be clean, organized, and purposeful. 

Consider what’s happening when you walk into an audition: You and the accompanist are collaborating for less than a minute on a short, impromptu performance. You’re working with a brand new collaborator to present an excerpt of your creative output for a guaranteed audience that is actively looking to hire performers.

This should go without saying, but it’s always worth the reminder: be gracious and considerate to the accompanist. What they do is remarkable. They sight-read countless songs in a given day from all kinds of sheet music that may or may not be marked up or easy to follow; they have to work with a bevy of performers who they’ve probably never met before, adjusting in the moment to a wide range of performing tendencies, senses of musicality, and awareness of the piano accompaniment; while they’re following the performer, they are applying their own artistry and musicality to a score they’ve never seen before (even if they’ve played the song a million times, they’ve probably never read it out of your book). They are your artistic collaborator in the room. It’s also possible that the accompanist is the show’s musical director, so while they’re accompanying you, they’re gauging whether or not you might be a fit for the production. What they’re doing is incredible. Be good to accompanists. They are extraordinary artists.

One way to make the accompanist’s job easier is to come in with a professional-looking audition book. After all, the accompanist is the only person who has to read from it. You walk in, bring the book to the piano, and it typically stays there until you’ve been dismissed by the creative team. Maybe you’ll flip through to find a second selection if you’re asked for one, and in that instance wouldn’t you want your book to be neatly organized so you can sift through it easily? If your book looks professional, you’ll feel like a professional.

So, what might a professional-looking audition book look like? 

Three-ring Binder:

  • A 1″ or 1 ½” spine is a good size. Smaller than that is probably too flimsy. Larger than that is unnecessary and bulky. 
  • It should have a rigid cover rather than a flexible cover. You don’t want the accompanist contending with an unstable binder. 
  • Consider using a binder with pockets. I like having inside pockets to keep headshots, resumes, sides, or whatever else I want easy access to during the audition. Clearview binders (the ones with full-size transparent pockets on the outside) are nice because they allow you to keep headshots or perhaps a table of contents in the outside pockets, but that’s a matter of taste. 
  • Binders wear down and the edges can start to split over time, at which point they should be replaced. 

Sheet Music: The goal is to make the accompanist’s job as easy as possible. There are many different opinions on how sheet music should be prepared. I’ll offer mine. Feel free to disregard it.

  • Full musical notation, with the vocal line and full piano staff. No cut off bass lines. No lead sheets. Avoid charts with chords and slash marks. Provide as much specificity as possible for what you want the accompanist to play. 

  • Avoid handwritten scores if you can. These can be hard to read. It’s worth having them transcribed with music notation software. 

  • Plastic sleeves or no? If you prefer them, make sure they are glare-free. My personal preference is no. However, having a little thickness makes it easier to grab and turn pages (If the audition cut is more than two pages long). I suggest printing out each page of music on a individual sheet, then taping the sheets back to back down the long edge of the page. Then, three-hole punch the pages and put them in your binder. 

  • Set the music up to have as few page turns as possible. Whenever you can lay out the pages to be a two-page spread, do so. Avoid page turns in the middle of busy piano passages.

  • Mark the “START” and “END” points of your audition selection. If they’re at the beginning or end of the actual sheet music, mark them anyway. Use pen, not pencil. Perhaps highlight the bar line of the beginning and end of the cut. If you have different length audition cuts marked on the same piece of music, make sure it’s not too messy and cluttered to read.

  • Circle or highlight significant dynamic and tempo markings. That being said, a professional pianist will be used to honoring these as they play, so too many markings may be more distracting than helpful. This is a good question to ask your coach and pianist friends.

  • Mark any internal cuts. Black Sharpie is good for this. Use a ruler to draw neat, straight lines (I like drawing “X”s for this). Mark the bar line at the beginning and end of the internal cut. Another good use for a highlighter. You might also ask your pianist friends how to clearly indicate this. 

    • However, perhaps better than marking any internal cuts is to have the music typed up with the cuts excised. It makes the accompanist’s job that much easier. 

    • I recommend against cutting up and pasting your sheet music to get the selection you want, even if you plan to make a photocopy so it lays flat. More often than not, the result will look uneven.

  • Don’t keep more of the song in your book than necessary. If a song has seven verses, you’re unlikely to sing more than one or two of them in an audition setting. In the time you’ll sing those seven verses, you could be demonstrating your versatility in a couple different short pieces. There might be a couple songs that you want in your book in their entirety, but aim to keep your selections as succinct as possible. 

  • Make sure the music is pianist-friendly. Sometimes, published vocal scores are reductions of the show’s full orchestration. They’re not meant to be played by a single pianist, and the pianist has to figure out how to arrange it in the moment (another astounding skill of professional pianists). Consult your pianist friends on your accompaniments. Once again, it’s worthwhile to have your music transcribed to ensure a pianist-friendly arrangement.

Your sheet music should be clearly notated, marked, and easy to handle. Be sure to point out any markings to the accompanist when you first show them the music.


  • Tabs. The plastic sticky tabs that you can write on are great for this. Write the song’s title (or part of it) so that it’s easy to find in the moment. Lay them out along the long edge of the pages so you can quickly find the song you need. You might play with different color tabs to indicate different kinds of songs.

  • Table of Contents. It’s a quick way to remind yourself what you have in your book since you might get a bit disoriented during the audition experience. Also, the accompanist might be able to offer suggestions from your list based on what the creative team has been asking for. A bullet point list of the titles is all you need.

Bonus Points:

  • Personal Style. Binders, tabs, highlighters, etc. come in many different colors and styles. Why not take the time to use ones you love? This is your professional portfolio that you take into your job interviews. Allow it to reflect who you are just as much as your audition clothes, headshot, and song selections.

  • Plastic Sleeves and Sheet Protectors. While I don’t recommend plastic sleeves for sheet music, they’re great for storing other materials in your binder. Use one to store headshots and resumes. Use another for copies of your monologues. Perhaps one sleeve for contemporary monologues and another for classical monologues. You won’t read your monologue off the paper during an audition, but keep copies of them on hand in the spirit of having a comprehensive, organized portfolio.

  • Other Lists. Just as you might include a table of contents of your songs, you might keep a list of your audition monologues. As an actor-musician, I keep a list of songs I know I can accompany myself on (too often, I forget that I know a particular song that would be perfect). 

The thought is that having a nice-looking audition book – one you’ve given thought and consideration into constructing – will give you a boost of confidence when you walk into the audition room. Having everything laid out ahead of time will leave you with fewer balls to mentally juggle. Trust me, you’ll have plenty to deal with in the room. Also, it’ll help your impromptu pianist collaborator get on the same page as you, and make their job easier. The more you can attend to ahead of time, the less you’ll have to worry about, and the more available you’ll be to the present moment. 

Now that you have a nice looking binder, let’s put some songs in it. 

Part Three: Choosing Content

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