I have a theory: You can get through an audition season with only ten songs in your book.

I’m sure this thought isn’t unique or extraordinary. Some people might argue that ten is too many. I imagine you could get away with eight. I’m sure you’d be amply covered with fifteen. I’m quite certain you don’t need twenty-five.

I’m not talking from the point of view of a casting director. I’m talking as an actor who has felt overly anxious in too many auditions because of an unkempt audition binder. My primary goal in setting a limit is to encourage specificity in choosing repertoire and to make it easier to decide what to sing at an audition. If you’re auditioning for The Music Man and you only have two Classic Musical Theatre songs in your book, it’ll be a pretty obvious choice. 

Let me reiterate that the set of styles represented in your book should be particular to you. It’ll depend on what projects you pursue and how you choose to market yourself. If you have a distinctly pop/rock voice and wouldn’t want to touch Rodgers and Hammerstein with a ten foot pole, you might not need Classic Musical Theatre pieces in your book at all.

But let’s assume for the moment we’re putting together a well-balanced, all-purpose musical theatre audition book with only ten songs.

Meet Mr. Barrymore. Mr. Barrymore is your average musical theatre performer. He’s well-trained and looking to be considered for as wide a range of musicals as possible. He only gets to have ten songs in his book:

Mr. Barrymore’s Audition Book:

  1. (TBD)
  2. (TBD)
  3. (TBD
  4. (TBD)
  5. (TBD)
  6. (TBD)
  7. (TBD)
  8. (TBD)
  9. (TBD)
  10. (TBD)

Let’s fill the first four slots the same way that most actors would put together a set of audition monologues: Classical Dramatic, Classical Comedic, Contemporary Dramatic, and Contemporary Comedic.

For the sake of argument, let’s rephrase “Dramatic”/”Comedic” as “Ballad”/“Uptempo.” 

Mr. Barrymore’s Audition Book (Round One):

  1. Classic Musical Theatre Ballad
  2. Classic Musical Theatre Uptempo
  3. Contemporary Musical Theatre Ballad
  4. Contemporary Musical Theatre Uptempo
  5. (TBD)
  6. (TBD)
  7. (TBD)
  8. (TBD)
  9. (TBD)
  10. (TBD)

Here’s the thing: Ballads aren’t necessarily Dramatic and Uptempos aren’t necessarily Comedic.

Ballad vs. Uptempo is a way of talking about the pulse of a song. If a song’s pulse is akin to your heartbeat or the speed with which the world around you is spinning, having Ballads and Uptempo gives you the opportunity to showcase your versatility. What happens when your heart crackles like fire or overflows like water? Can you play in heavy, light, energized, trying circumstances?

Dramatic vs. Comedic refers to the circumstances of the moment. Both require heavy stakes and call upon your sense of play to move through them. In Dramatic material, the weight of the circumstance and the pulse of the world are aligned. The pulse of the world creates the space for the weight of the circumstance to sink into the ground, and this gravity begets the power and conviction of a Dramatic moment. That’s why many musicals have an “I Want” Ballad near the beginning of the show and an “Eleven o’Clock” Ballad at its climax. At these critical dramatic points, the protagonist is energetically aligned with the world.

In Comedic material, the weight and the pulse are misaligned. One of the reasons Comedic songs tend to be Uptempo is because the weight of the circumstance is juxtaposed with a world moving at a contrasting pulse. The circumstance is heavy, but the pulse of the music forces us to keep moving, while making faster decisions and discoveries. The imbalance often results in falling on our faces. There’s no time to consider our options or filter our impulses. Everything is shared as it’s being discovered, and the audience’s laughter comes from the recognition of our shared humanity. Similarly, if a circumstance with less weight is juxtaposed with a slower pulse, you might get a “comedic ballad.”

But I digress. The point is that having Ballads and Uptempos in your book gives you the opportunity to play in a variety of circumstances.

To complete the musical theatre portion of his book, let’s have Mr. Barrymore include a song from the other three musical theatre categories I mentioned in the previous article:

Mr. Barrymore’s Audition Book (Round Two):

  1. Classic Musical Theatre Ballad
  2. Classic Musical Theatre Uptempo
  3. Contemporary Musical Theatre Ballad
  4. Contemporary Musical Theatre Uptempo
  5. Sondheim
  6. Mega-Musical
  7. New Musical Theatre
  8. (TBD)
  9. (TBD)
  10. (TBD)

Let’s keep the Sondheim song in its own category, though depending on the piece, it could double as a Classic or Contemporary Musical Theatre song. It’s more likely that a Mega-Musical or New Musical Theatre song can double as one of the go-to Contemporary Musical Theatre selections. For example, a Ballad from Ragtime might work for both Mega-Musical and Contemporary Musical Theatre auditions if part of your brand is the size and scope of your voice. Therefore, let’s combine Mega-Musical and New Musical Theatre into one slot, figuring that one of the Contemporary Musical Theatre songs will satisfy the other. 

Mr. Barrymore’s Audition Book (Round Three):

  1. Classic Musical Theatre Ballad
  2. Classic Musical Theatre Uptempo
  3. Contemporary Musical Theatre Ballad
  4. Contemporary Musical Theatre Uptempo
  5. Sondheim
  6. Mega-Musical/New Musical Theatre
  7. (TBD)
  8. (TBD)
  9. (TBD)
  10. (TBD)

Four slots left to fill. Time to move into Popular Music. Let’s start by assuming that it’ll be important to have a go-to Popular Music Ballad and Uptempo:

Mr. Barrymore’s Audition Book (Round Four):

  1. Classic Musical Theatre Ballad
  2. Classic Musical Theatre Uptempo
  3. Contemporary Musical Theatre Ballad
  4. Contemporary Musical Theatre Uptempo
  5. Sondheim
  6. Mega-Musical/New Musical Theatre
  7. Popular Music Ballad
  8. Popular Music Uptempo
  9. (TBD)
  10. (TBD)

Two slots left. Because there are so many Popular Music styles, your go-to songs can’t possibly cover them all. You’ll probably need a selection demonstrating another Pop/Rock style. If your go-to Uptempo is an Aerosmith song, and your go-to Ballad is an Adele song, then you might want an Elvis song for certain auditions. Let’s call it your Complementary Pop/Rock song. 

We haven’t even touched the possibility of including a Non-Musical Theatre song that isn’t Pop/Rock. You might want Country, Classical, Rap, Jazz Standard, or any other style that’s important to your package. So the final slot is your Non-Musical Theatre Wildcard song. 

Mr. Barrymore’s Audition Book (Final Results):

  1. Classic Musical Theatre Ballad
  2. Classic Musical Theatre Uptempo
  3. Contemporary Musical Theatre Ballad
  4. Contemporary Musical Theatre Uptempo
  5. Sondheim
  6. Mega-Musical/New Musical Theatre
  7. Popular Music Ballad
  8. Popular Music Uptempo
  9. Complementary Pop/Rock
  10. Non-Musical Theatre Wildcard

If I were helping someone build their audition book, this is where I would start. 

Of course, your particular specialties and artistic tastes may shift these slots around. If Ms. Crosby is building her book with little interest in auditioning for Contemporary Musicals, her book might look like this:

Ms. Crosby’s Audition Book:

  1. Classic Musical Theatre Ballad
  2. Classic Musical Theatre Uptempo
  3. Contemporary Musical Theatre Ballad/Mega-Musical
  4. Contemporary Musical Theatre Uptempo
  5. Sondheim
  6. Jazz Standard
  7. Popular Music Ballad
  8. Popular Music Uptempo
  9. Complementary Classic Musical Theatre
  10. Classical Aria

If Mr. Morgan is more suited for and interested in Contemporary Musicals, especially jukebox musicals, his book might look like this:

Mr. Morgan’s Audition Book:

  1. Classic Musical Theatre Ballad/Sondheim
  2. Classic Musical Theatre Uptempo
  3. Contemporary Musical Theatre Ballad/Mega-Musical
  4. Contemporary Musical Theatre Uptempo
  5. Country
  6. New Musical Theatre
  7. Popular Music Ballad
  8. Popular Music Uptempo
  9. Complementary Pop/Rock
  10. Motown

Generally speaking, a Ballad and Uptempo each for Classic Musical Theatre, Contemporary Musical Theatre, and Popular Music will serve you at most auditions. The other four slots are chances to reveal your additional colors and personality. 

These won’t be the only ten songs you ever sing at auditions. Your audition book will be a fluid composition. I recommend keeping a separate binder of other potential audition songs: Songs you might swap in for particular auditions (notice I said “swap” rather than “add”), songs you’re working on but aren’t audition-ready yet, or new songs you fall in love with that will eventually be swapped into your book. The encouragement is to commit to a package of ten specifically selected songs. Once you’ve chosen your songs, try auditioning with only those options for one month. Again, your audition is not about your song choice. It’s about you. 

And that, my friends, is my Ten Song Theory.

Final Thoughts:

When picking audition songs, especially if you commit to having a limited number, remember the purpose of an initial audition. It’s an introduction. Some people talk about the first audition as a first date. You’re testing the waters to see if there’s a connection. I’ve talked in some of my other posts about the impossibility of appealing to every creative person you meet since creativity is subjective. Naturally, we all have different sides of ourselves. That’s why we have an audition book: to showcase our range of proficiency and passions. But the selections in our book will never show off everything we’re capable of. We are always expanding and discovering new sides of ourselves, and someone on the other side of the table might be interested in you for something you never imagined you could do. If they want to find out, they’ll call you back and ask you to prepare particular material. 

Don’t worry if a song is overdone. Some people talk about finding parallel songs. It’s a worthwhile search because it will increase your repertoire knowledge and you might indeed find a hidden gem that you fall in love with. But if a song deeply resonates with you, don’t be afraid to use it.

Similarly, it’s up to you how much you concern yourself with “type.” If that information empowers you, fantastic. If not, don’t let it trip you up. If it doesn’t resonate, it’s possible you haven’t identified your “type.” Perhaps you don’t need to be the one to identify it. I was once told, “Let the world cast you where it casts you.” (Thank you, Michael Ricciardone) Don’t pigeonhole yourself. Your charge is to honor your authentic self, and your idiosyncrasies and paradoxes are what make you compelling. 

The best thing you can do in a general audition is to introduce the creative team to your authentic self. It’s tempting to believe that because we all feel pain and yearning, you should sing emotional ballads in order to connect with the people behind the table. I challenge that belief. Authenticity is what resonates, and our authenticity emerges through specificity, playfulness, and joy. Any good piece of storytelling will be built on problems, wants, goals, and discoveries. With only a short amount of time to take on a dramatic circumstance, let the pulse of the world be faster and you’ll be able to reveal more of how you engage with the world. That’s my argument for favoring uptempo selections. But what really matters is to fill your book with songs you love. Songs you connect to. Songs that live in you.

That being said, loving a song doesn’t always make it a good audition piece. Some songs may be better for your solo cabaret show than your audition book. Look for pieces (whether they’re short songs or excerpts of songs) that encompass a full journey – establish-develop-resolve – so the audience behind the table gets to take that journey with you, starting from square one.

As you grow and change, so will the best song choices for your book. For years, I used “Real Live Girl” from Little Me as my go-to song. About a year ago, I sang it at an audition and it didn’t sit right in me. I still love the song, and I don’t plan to take it out of my book quite yet, but I realized it was no longer the story I wanted to introduce myself with.

Empower yourself as a professional creative by building a professional-looking audition book that reflects who you are. Since most of us spend our lives figuring out who we are, start with what you love and go from there.

Break a leg.

A Post-Script: My Own Book

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